In early 2013, Extended Stay America, a national hotel chain, was coming back from the brink of bankruptcy. Staff were afraid to stick their necks out, make decisions or disrupt the status quo in any way, irrespective of the eventual cost to the business - whether it was being afraid to give an unhappy guest a free night’s accommodation or make decisions about a property. Why? Because they were fully aware of financial pressures and potential layoffs and, as a result, they were too nervous to show any of their own bravery. Despite being part of a bigger team, individually they felt alone.
Jim Donald, the CEO, decided that spending too much time looking in the rearview mirror wasn't going to solve anything. He knew the answers were in front of him, that his team were capable of playing an integral part in the turnaround – if he could only encourage them to be that little bit braver. They simply had to start looking forward, trusting themselves and the network of people around them, engaging, initiating ideas and taking action to build a different future.
So he created a 'safety net' in the form of miniature ‘Get out of jail for free’ cards, which he gave to each of his 9,000 employees. In return for making a risk on behalf of the company, all they had to do was hand the cards in — no questions asked. And the cards were used. According to reports, one manager in New Jersey cold-called a movie-production company when she heard it would be filming in the area. The film crew ended up booking $250,000 in accommodation at the hotel.
Of course there was a risk. Or was there?
You see the company had already been in the worst possible position, and employees were stagnating. Bravery in decision-making was called for, and it got results. Jim Donald acted with honesty, acknowledging that failure is a part of progress and of course reviewing the past to find the learnings for the future. But he also chose to collaborate with his known and close network, his staff, ensuring that support, feedback, insight and trust would find a way forward.
What has this got to do with networking you may ask?
The thing is we can so often get wrapped up in the ‘NETWORK OF ME’ and the ‘NETWORK FOR ME’ - those core relationships we invest in and build, those interesting or influential people that are helping us step closer to our bigger goals – that we forget that we are also part of a bigger and networked eco-system that equally needs attention right now.
We also need to build relationships that matter with the network at the end of our fingertips - our immediate teams, other business units, suppliers and clients. Think about it - are you connecting, sharing insight and creating opportunities to innovate and collaborate with these groups of people or are you simply swapping information to get the job done or the deal sealed?
What we do know from reading stories of amazing entrepreneurs, CEOs and thought leaders is that the one thing that separates them from the masses — the tipping point that takes them from zero to 100 miles per hour in five seconds flat — is the ability and willingness to have courageous conversations and to take action; it’s about being brave enough to reach out and connect with a network of trusted people and to sometimes (even all the time) ask for help.
Easier said than done for many of us. I get it!
We can spend too much time looking in that rearview mirror and slowly but surely the fear kicks it. It can be debilitating, even crippling as we saw at Extended Stay America. It can stop you achieving dreams, challenging the status quo, using your voice, from trying something new. It can be a lonely journey – but it doesn't have to be.
Quit looking backward and start looking forward.
What do you need to let go of? What isn’t working? What do you need to do to stop gazing in the rearview mirror and instead ensure your eyes well and truly locked on the prize in front of you? Who do you need to engage with to decide the right action to move you forward.
As Jim Donald requested of his network, his team, at the time – what would you do and whom would you reach out to if you had a ‘Get Out Of Jail For Free Card’?