Ray Kroc And The Parable Of The Dead Fly – (A Lesson Too Late For BP’s Tony Hayward To Now Learn)

Tony Hayward’s yacht, left, sailed in the J. P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race on Saturday. (photo from the NY Times: Chris Ison/Press Association, via Associated Press).

News item:
BP Chief Draws Outrage for Attending Yacht Race: BP officials on Saturday scrambled yet again to respond to another public relations challenge when their embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, spent the day off the coast of England watching his yacht compete in one of the world’s largest races.

I apologize – it’s been too many years, and too many books back.  So, I can’t tell you where I read this, but I have a vague memory it was in an early Tom Peters book.  I definitely could be wrong.

But I remember reading that Ray Kroc once found a dead fly on the floor in one McDonald’s location (I think I remember it was in Canada).  He immediately closed down the location, took away the franchise, and in one fell swoop, made it clear that there would be McDonald’s employees keeping every square inch of each and every McDonald’s clean from that day forward.

I thought of this as I read about Tony Hayward attending a yacht race over the weekend.  You know, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, who “will not rest until the situation is resolved.”

To put it simply:

What Tony Hayward said:
BP boss Tony Hayward said Thursday the British energy company “will not rest” until the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been cleaned up, vowing to learn the lessons of such a “terrible event.”

What Tony Hayward also said:
“I would like my life back.”

What Tony Hayward did:
Attended a yacht race.

History photo of Ray Kroc washing down the walk of the first store in Des Plaines, IL.

The leadership principle is this:  symbols matter, and symbols represent and communicate reality.  If you have a dead fly on the floor of your restaurant, your restaurant is not clean enough.  If you shut down a location with a dead fly, you make it clear to all involved – you will not tolerate restaurants that are not kept clean!

Thus, the opposite is also true.  If you fly across the ocean to attend a yacht race, then you are not focused on the 25,000 – 60,000 barrels of oil still spewing every single day, every 24 hours, (an Exxon Valdez size attack on the environment every 4-5 days).  Regardless of your claims that BP “will not rest” until the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been cleaned up.”

There are other such notable failures by “leaders” in the symbolic actions department.  Fairly recently, we remember this gigantic fail:  as Bear Stearns was disintegrating, James Cayne, its CEO, was playing in a bridge tournament:
During 10 critical days of this crisis — one of the worst in the securities firm’s 84-year history — Bear’s chief executive wasn’t near his Wall Street office. James Cayne was playing in a bridge tournament in Nashville, Tenn., without a cellphone or an email device. In one closely watched competition, his team placed in the top third.  As Bear’s fund meltdown was helping spark this year’s mortgage-market and credit convulsions, Mr. Cayne at times missed key events.

The principle is clear:  keep focused on the issue at hand.  And demonstrate that focus with actions that are actual actions, while making sure that your “symbolic actions” match your intended and stated focus.

And, whatever you do, do not allow some action/behavior (or is that “behaviour”) to demonstrate that you are not focused on the need of the hour.

If you are a leader, this is one you’d best learn.  Because, when you get this wrong, your reputation is set – and not in a good way.

History shot of Fred Turner and Ray Kroc at the 2500th store. Fred Turner is holding a mop and Ray Kroc is holding a broom.

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