Why is it that some people see the potential for extraordinary in others when everyone else sees only the ordinary? I reflected on that question when I included the story of Manhattan (a nightspot in Singapore, not the borough in New York) in my new book Team Relationship Management. When I wrote that story, it fit neatly into the outline and overall theme of the book, but I didn’t write about why the new manager, fresh off a plane from Berlin, saw the potential for greatness in his team and how he brought that potential to life. I put that task on my to-do list, intending to get back to it before year-end.
It’s now past mid-November, Thanksgiving is a few days away, and snow in the Wasatch is back in the forecast. Knowing how busy life can get between Thanksgiving and the New Year, I figured it’s time to pull a chair up close to the fireplace at my favorite mountain lodge, indulge in a mug of hot chocolate, and get back to the story behind the story.
The Alchemy of Extraordinary
When a team consistently delivers exceptional results, it is rarely a matter of luck, nor an accident of evolution—it’s usually a product of single-minded preparation and a steadfast determination to excel. Exceptional teams focus on developing habits that lead to excellence. They also become adept at dealing with and recovering from setbacks, combining adaptability and resilience. But if achieving excellence were as simple as following that prescription, there would be far more remarkable teams.
Seeing the potential for extraordinary in people and a team is one thing, delivering on that potential is another.
There is another, less tangible dimension of extraordinary teams – it’s the energy and chemistry that forms from a deeply shared purpose and mindset that leads to strong, trusting relationships. Those intangibles can be difficult to see when people first come together to form a team. They exist in a primordial soup of possibility until a spark – usually a leader who recognizes the opportunity for extraordinary – ignites them. A few years ago, I witnessed that genesis when a young leader and his team turned Manhattan – one of countless, upscale but unremarkable hotel bars in Singapore – into a ‘must visit’ destination nightspot.
The story begins in early 2015 on a sultry evening (which is every evening) at the Manhattan bar in Singapore. That evening I met the new General Manager, Philip Bischoff, who had recently arrived in Singapore. We chatted for a few minutes about his coming into Singapore’s hyper-competitive food and beverage (F&B) industry and I mentioned that I had heard that finding and retaining good people was a real challenge. His response surprised me as it was quite different from other F&B managers I knew in Singapore. Phillip didn’t talk about ‘people proofing’ the operations, putting in place processes that would endure a lot of turnover. Instead, he emphasized the importance of building relationships among people, everyone sharing the same goals, and his sense that the current staff had the potential to be amazing.
Philip’s primary focus was not on fixing processes or best practices, though there were plenty of areas for improvement (which he resolved over time). Instead, he focused on fostering the relationships between the bar and service team and developing a sense of common purpose. I found this fascinating because it echoed the findings from my research on extraordinary and often extreme teams like fighter pilots, ER teams, firefighters, and SEAL teams. Even more powerful was that the results at Manhattan were no less spectacular.
From Seeing to Delivering
Seeing the potential for extraordinary in people and a team is one thing, delivering on that potential is another and it doesn’t happen by itself. Over the course of a few months, I noticed that there were common themes emerging in the conversations I was having with the Manhattan staff. Whether it was Gab, Tim, or Cedric and the rest of the mixology team, or Katie and Jenny and their guest service team, they all talked in the same language about why they were excited about the “new Manhattan.” They were also excited about the opportunities to rotate through different positions, travel to industry events, or join competitions.
So, what was happening? Phillip was building on the trust that he sensed in the team by providing a clear, compelling purpose and, in parallel, establishing values by which the team could work together and hold one another accountable. This would prove to be critically important as the size of the team grew. Then, by taking the time to understand where each team member found meaning and purpose in their role, and investing in the development of their skills, he inspired and energized everyone. Very quickly, working at Manhattan became one of the most sought-after positions in the Singapore F&B industry.
When a team consistently delivers exceptional results, it is rarely a matter of luck, nor an accident of evolution—it’s usually a product of single-minded preparation and a steadfast determination to excel.
The chemistry and energy of the team was flowing over to guests, business was rapidly increasing, and the name Manhattan was beginning to catch the attention of industry watchers within Singapore and the Asia region. By the end of 2015 the Industry recognized Manhattan as one of the Top 50 Bars in Asia. In response, Philip doubled down on people development. The results were nothing short of amazing. In 2016 Manhattan took the number five spot in Asia. In both 2017 and 2018, the Industry recognized Manhattan as #1 in Asia, and in 2018 over 500 experts in 58 countries recognized Manhattan as the #3 bar in the world.
Phillip delivered both exceptional performance and enhanced the lives of everyone on his team because he first looked for the potential for extraordinary. He understood that his success as a leader depended less on his skills or brilliance and more on his humility and ability to see and inspire the best in people individually and collectively as a team. Once he saw the possibility of accomplishing something amazing with the people at Manhattan, he invested in them and that potential.
Seeing the potential for extraordinary begins with believing in the power of the human spirit and being mindful of the biases and behaviors that get in the way of clear vision. Focus on understanding where people find purpose in their work, make sure it aligns with the purpose of the team and organization, and ensure that people genuinely value strong, trusting relationships. That is the foundation upon which greatness is built. It isn’t easy but the rewards that come from what can be accomplished are too great not to try.