In Fear of Change

. . . by Jeff Haltrecht

Jeff Haltrecht is a principal Leadership Coach at the Polaris Learning Academy and the Facilitator of the Polaris Alumni; he is a regular contributor to Polaris Digest

The air was crisp, dew covered the grass, and the trees were brilliant in all their fall glory.  It was 7am on this mid-October Saturday morning and Mark was on his cottage deck, drinking a coffee and thinking about kicking off the next 4 days of work.

A 52 year old, MBA-educated, son of a self-taught pastry chef, Mark was the owner and President of Mid-Town Desserts, a second-generation family business that hit its stride in the last 15 years under his ownership. 

Founded in 1955 by his father, Bill, and Bill’s sister, Carla, Mid-Town got its start by making award-winning desserts for mid-level restaurants in Eastern Canada.

Bill was the creative mind, focusing his energy on the combination of taste, appearance, and aroma for each dessert in their product line.  Carla was the business mind, with a keen eye for cost-effective production.  Under her guidance, they perfected the ability to freeze the uncooked desserts individually, allowing the restaurants to cook and serve on site.

Mark worked in the family business for five years starting in his late teens.  He left to complete an MBA and followed that by working in London, England in investment banking.

In 1995, he returned from Europe and rejoined Mid-Town as VP Business Development.  Over the next five years he slowly bought out his father, Bill, and his Aunt Carla.

During the ten years that followed, Mid-Town grew from $5 million to $25 million in revenue by following three strategies:

  1. New pastry desserts that focused on reduced calorie intake without reducing the taste, appearance, or aroma
  2. Increased distribution from a successful expansion into the U.S. States of Michigan, New York, New England, Vermont, and Maine
  3. Further investment in capital that partially baked the desserts at Mid-Town, allowing the restaurants to reduce the cooking/preparation time by 67%.

Weighing on his mind for the past year was how to continue the stellar growth, for he knew in his gut he could no longer push things through.  For starters, he was running out of fresh ideas himself, coupled with the inability to stay abreast of all the details on a daily basis.

Fear had gripped him in the early summer; he stopped making decisions, and was asking his employees for painstaking additional information.  As opposed to stepping back, un-known to Mark, he was wading in further.

In late July, Joyce, the Vice-President of Sales, confronted Mark with a very simple conversation that surrounded her statement "Its time you helped us lead, Mark.”  It was then he realized the only way Mid-Town was going to continue growing at the current pace was if he redefined his role.

No longer could he tell others what to do, he had to figure out how to help his people make decisions for themselves and how to include the right ones in generating new ideas.

It was time for Mark and his leadership team to change – they wanted to lead and he had been standing in their way by carrying the load himself.  He decided his new mandate was to help them grow and to share the responsibility.

As Mark finished his coffee and took in the fresh air, he mused to himself how being an investment banker with a degree doesn’t automatically make you great at leading others.  He now saw, and appreciated, a different part of his father, Bill, that he was oblivious to before – how he was great at helping people be their best.

Starting that afternoon at the cottage, and continuing for the next four days, Mark and six key employees (including Joyce) were going to craft the future vision and strategy for the organization – together!  For the first time since Mid-Town was founded, non-family members were going to decide what the company will look like, and how it is going to get there, over the coming 15-years time.

Mark felt absolutely great about that.  Not because the business would continue to grow, but because the very people who put their time and effort into the company would be better enriched from the experience.