Tag Archives: management

Is There Something Foul at Buffalo Wild Wings?

from “If You’re Not Making History, You Are History” by Bob MacDonald


The generally accepted norm is that success is difficult to achieve. And indeed it is, but the reality is that retaining success is far more difficult than attaining it. There is a tendency to believe that success is the end of the road, when it is really just a confirmation that you are on the right road. It may seem counter-intuitive, but surviving success is almost always more difficult than surviving failure. Fail and that is the end of it, you can move on, but success demands more and more, and that can lead to what some have called the “agony of success.”

Many prepare to achieve success, but surprisingly few prepare to deal with the way success has a way of weakening the behavior that spawned it. I have seen many individuals and businesses who made yeoman efforts to be successful, only to fall prey to the “agony of success,” once it was achieved.  All too often when an individual or company achieves success, it leads to what may be an unconscious lessening of the passion, commitment and effort that led to success. Without the threat of imminent failure present, the fear of failure dissipates and is often replaced by the curse of complacency.

The only antidote to this malady is to make it your goal to always get better at what you do, if so, you will never fall prey to the feeling that you have made it, because for you, success will be defined by how good you can be, not how good you have been. Continued success means always making history and if you’re not making history, you are history.

Buffalo Wild Wings can be a learning lesson when it comes to dealing with success

Few companies in any industry have enjoyed the growth and success of Buffalo Wild Wings. From a single store opened in 1982, just off the campus of Ohio State, BWW expanded to operate stores in every state and is now an international presence. I joined BWW as a director, just prior to its initial public offering in 2003 and served on the board for over a decade.

It was a heady time of growth. More important, it was profitable growth. During my time on the board over 1,000 new stores were opened and the initial foray into the international market was initiated. Each year increases in sales, revenues and profits were at the top of the “casual dining” segment of the restaurant industry; only outperformed by the steady increase in stock value.

From my perspective as a board member, the entirety of the credit for the success of Buffalo Wild Wings belonged to CEO Sally Smith and the outstanding management team she led. Over a long business career, seldom had I seen a management team as dedicated, hard-working and as creative as was this team.  

But as time went on, I began to be concerned about a mentality of inevitability and entitlement that had crept into the psyche of management and the board. It was not any one thing, but there was an almost imperceptible shift from the feeling that continued success was something to be earned, to something that was preordained. Management and the board began to, even if subconsciously, feel entitled to the benefits of success achieved to date. Those concerns when raised were masked by a steep increase in stock value and continued growth (although the growth had begun to slow) and were, for the most part, ignored.

The company began a steady evolution from an entrepreneurial to a corporate culture. Some evidence of this includes:

  • Senior management began (a fully disclosed and legal) systematic sale of their stock. Management was (and still is) taking its earned reward for past success, but this is the action of a manager, not an entrepreneur who believes there is even greater success in the future. It sends a subtle message to employees and others that management believes best is in the past and, “I am going to take what I can, while the taking is good.”
  • The company began to hire from the outside, rather than making a commitment to identify and develop talent from within. Successful companies maintain success by recognizing the talent of those who are committed to the company and by creating a path to advancement for them. It sends the wrong message to employees, and is a sign of a lazy management, not to commit to developing internal talent.
  • Independent members of the board of directors (only two of whom I respected) began to be more concerned with process and procedure (making sure meetings started and ended on time) and their own personal compensation, rather than challenging management to seek out creative growth options. (It should be noted that all but the two outside directors I felt were qualified have been replaced.)
  • Management and the board seemed to be satisfied with what worked in the past, rather than trying to identify new ways that would work better in the future.

Individually, these and other changes that were taking place, would not impact the success of Buffalo Wild Wings, but taken together, they started a process of deteriorating success that continues today. They may not even recognize it, but the reaction of management in this type of situation is to shift focus from seeking success yet to be achieved, to protecting past success. In short, management becomes defensive rather than aggressive. This mentality rarely works and in reality puts the very future of the company at risk.

Sharks in the water

When a company loses its drive and direction it begins to flail about like a wounded fish in the ocean and that attracts sharks who move in for the kill. Unfortunately, that is the position BWW is in today. There are predator investment groups that prowl the business seas looking for successful but wounded companies. When the target is identified they sweep in, take a big chunk of the company, and then attempt to impose their will on the company. The only objective of these killer sharks is a quick meal of increased stock price and then they move on to the next target; leaving the prey wounded and struggling to survive, which rarely happens.

Unfortunately, this is the plight that Buffalo Wild Wings finds itself in today. Management and the board are spending most of their time attempting to fend off the sharks and this leaves little time to focus on making what was a great company great again. This did not have to happen, but it is a great example of what can result when the management of a company allows itself to fall prey to the “agony of success.”

Leading From Behind is Often the Best Way to Be Out Front

Many see “leading from behind” as a sign of leadership weakness, because they don’t understand that it can be the most effective way to build alliances, create consensus and motivate others to do what the leader wants to be done.

There is a general misconception about the type of aura a leader should exhibit in order to be successful. We have been raised and socialized on certain time-honored images of what leadership should look like. Sifted through eons of history, the standard-bearer of leadership is presented as one who is “out front” and visible. We are encouraged to believe that the best leadership is provided when the leader is in the limelight, the focus of rapt attraction by adoring employees. The theory seems to be: followers can’t follow the leader if the leader is not out there in front leading.

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Disappointment is the Residue of Misperceiving Management as Leadership

There are many outstanding managers but very few true leaders

Barack Obama has been president for almost six years and sadly, the most consistent and persistent criticism has sought to portray him as a feeble leader who is neither decisive nor effective.

Much of this perception arises from the coordinated, concerted effort of obstreperous Republicans. Lacking the President_Barack_Obamapower, creativity or willingness to offer anything constructive, they have adopted a strategy of belligerent hostility in an effort to thwart any Obama plan of action. The result is to further erode the opinion of his leadership skills.

At first blush it may seem incongruous to suggest that someone with the ability to twice be elected president of the United States lacks strong leadership skills. Nevertheless, the claim of Obama’s deficient leadership qualities would have fallen flat if there was not some truth in the charge.

Barack Obama is an extremely intelligent individual with exceptional talents, but a natural born leader he is not. On the other hand, Obama is one of the most effective managers ever to occupy the Oval Office.

The Record Speaks for Itself

Any objective review of Obama accomplishments, especially in the face of the ferocious, lock-step resistance from Republicans and right-wing wackos, is clear evidence of his effectiveness as a manager. But that does not qualify him as a true leader. In reality, any success that Obama has achieved is evidence of his exceptional ability as a pragmatic and practical manager—not his visionary leadership skill.

True leaders are, by nature, so passionate about the vision they seek to achieve and lead others to accept that they are rarely practical and pragmatic. When was the last time you recall a leader being accused of being “deliberative, detail oriented and anal?”

Conversely, the essence of management skill is to be practical and pragmatic, almost to a fault. Rarely will a manager – no matter how successful – be described as a “visionary leader.” And it is this misperception of the important elements of management as leadership that ultimately creates disappointment and is at the base of Obama’s low approval ratings.

A Proper Definition of Terms

The problem is that few concepts are more bandied about, misunderstood or misconstrued than leadership. (“Love” might be the only one that comes to mind.) And because the mantle of leadership is so exalted as to be something everyone should strive to achieve, the meaning of leadership has become adulterated and diluted.

Many mistakenly believe that leadership is bestowed by title or position of power. How many times have you seen companies identify the senior management group as “the leadership team”? But just calling someone with management responsibilities “a leader” does not make it so and this misperception can lead to confusion and disappointment, for both the manager and the followers.

One reason the concepts of management and leadership become hopelessly tangled is because success in any endeavor is dependent on the commingling of both. The vision of a leader requires management to make it become a reality. Management without a vision is no more than wayward bureaucracy.

In simple terms, the leader has a vision of what should be done, while a manager has a plan to get it done. What makes a leader seem weak and a manager bureaucratic stems from the fact that very few visionaries are effective managers and even fewer managers are visionaries. That is the reason why, once a company has achieved a certain degree of success, the visionary founder is often replaced by those charged with managing the effort to retain the success. (Often with little success.)

Obama, in truth, is a much better manager than he is a leader. In most situations – especially in business – this would not be a significant problem. But Obama is President; Americans revere and expect leadership qualities in a president and discount their management ability—a skill even more important than vision.

Jimmy Carter was far more effective as a manager than Ronald Reagan ever was, but given the choice between the manager and the perceived visionary, the people rejected Carter and embraced Reagan. Today, Reagan is an icon and Carter is an afterthought. My guess is that if you asked the average person to list the five most effective U.S. presidents, the names of George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy would be most often mentioned. What these men all had in common was the aura of leadership and visionary thinking, not their effectiveness as managers.

The closest parallel to what Obama faces as a more effective manager than leader would be to compare the dynamics TeddyRooseveltof the temperament and style of Teddy Roosevelt (left) against his handpicked successor, William Taft. Roosevelt was clearly the type of hyperactive visionary leader that attracts a strong following. He had a vision for a “progressive” America in which the role of government was to protect the weak against the strong, as opposed to a government that empowered the strong to abuse the weak that existed when he became president. Roosevelt passionately and aggressively set about to “bust the trusts” and change the rules of government in an effort to create a level playing field for all.

Clearly this is the definition of a leader: One who seeks to change the system, rather than manage it. Roosevelt’s vision generated heated hatred from the powerful and loving adulation from the powerless. The truth is that Roosevelt set the vision, but he was unable to manage it to fruition and failed in most of his efforts to change the system. Constrained by an admittedly impertinent promise not to run for re-election, Roosevelt turned to his good friend and protégé William Taft to succeed him as president. Taft believed in the vision Roosevelt had created, but he was a methodical, consensus-seeking, pragmatic manager, not a visionary leader. History reports that Taft was able to use his management skills to pass more legislation, change more laws and bring about more of Roosevelt’s vision than Roosevelt himself. And yet, it is the visage of Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore, not that of Howard Taft.

You see, Americans love their leaders, but give short shrift to managers. And viewed with even more disdain are managers dressed in a leader’s clothing. President Obama shares in the blame for the electorate’s disappointment in his leadership abilities, because in his effort to be elected president, he positioned himself as a “transforming visionary leader.” His election as the first African-American was certainly a transforming event for the country, but when the “vision” failed to materialize and when Obama naturally fell back on his inclination as a manager, disappointment and disillusion in his leadership ability took hold.

In fairness to Obama, from the day he was inaugurated, he was faced with the most serious economic challenge since the Great Depression. It was a challenge that called for sober management – not inflammatory rhetoric – in order to prevent a “total meltdown” of the economy. Obama’s strength – managing the problem – was successful in preventing a debilitating depression and setting the stage for a fairly rapid economic recovery. On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt met the same type of economic challenge with visionary leadership but lacked the coolness of an effective manager and the Great Depression dragged on for a decade. And yet, it is Roosevelt – not Obama – who is revered as a great leader.

If you need even further proof of how leadership and management can be confused – and how hungry people are for real leadership – all one needs to do is return to the election of 2012. By any measurement the presidential election was Romney’s to lose – and he did. Break the 2012 presidential election down to one defining tipping point and it is this: Obama reiterated a promise of visionary leadership while Romney stressed his experience as a manager and promised more of it. Even though Obama had failed to deliver on the promise of visionary leadership, the people chose the hope for leadership over the promise of management.

It could be argued that what is needed in these complicated and confusing times is an effective manager, and, in truth, we probably did end up with the best manager, but for the wrong reasons. The only problem is that when management is misrepresented and misperceived as leadership, the residue is always disappointment—even if the manager is successful.