Getting a lift from the elevator

Over the years I have had the pleasure to go to Chicago USA on several occasions. A great friend of mine and erstwhile business colleague there took me to the ‘Sears Tower’ and told me a story that I assume is true but have no evidence of. As I trust him however I’m going to pass it on to you as I was reminded of the story whilst listening to a very inspirational speaker at a King’s Fund Conference on leadership recently, where I too was asked to speak. The speaker was Maureen Bisognano. She is CEO of Healthcare Improvement based in Boston USA and a very intelligent person I could listen to all day and draw inspiration from.

Two quotes from Maureen:

“The ultimate inspires and accelerates …. Peer review improves!”

“The physical presence of seeing sparks innovation”

The story is about the Sear’s ‘special elevator’, the one that the members of the public never see. Apparently Sear’s Special elevator is a slow elevator and takes quite a time to reach its destination. Why, because on a regular basis Sear’s top executives in the field are called to the building to present them with awards, coveted awards. The crowds of executives arrive in eager anticipation of the day, knowing that the top achievers in a number of different fields are to be honoured, exemplified for their great achievements and used as role models to inspire and accelerate improvement. The elevator plays a significant part in the process. The executives are held so as to ensure they travel up the elevator, deliberately slowed for the day, together as peer groups. On the walls inside the elevator are the league tables. At eye level, those organisations who stand firmly at the foot of the performance ratings. Ascending up the wall are their superior performers, until at the very top, right at the point where the paper reaches the roof, is the performer in 4th place on each table. Places one, two and three are deliberately missing. Of course everyone can work out in the time available who they are, the elevator is going very slowly after all, but no one knows the number one slot, ‘The Top Achiever’, until it is announced to great applause.

The captured executives also have plenty of time to note those at the bottom of the league tables and as you might expect, time to cast a few comments about the lowest performers capability and offer advice on how to improve it. These comments are offered in line with the organisation’s values of course, which are also on the walls of the elevator, just in case.

Once out of the elevator two things happen. Firstly, the poorest performers are never mentioned again. The focus is completely on the top three and especially the top one. What they have done well and why they have achieved success is captured, celebrated and the learning disseminated for others to emulate and improve. The second thing that happens is the poorest performers leave. Armed with the humility of having been in the elevator for a long period of time with their peers reviewing their performance and their renewed connectivity with the best exemplars at the Award event, they leave sparked, motivated, their innovation juices switched on and their energy to make improvement high. The great outcome of this story is, apparently, no Sears organisation has ever appeared at the bottom of a league table for more than one trip up that elevator at a time and Sears continues to be one of the most success retailers in the world.

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