Yes Is the Answer. What Is the Question?: A book review by Bob Morris

Yes Is the Answer. What Is the Question?: How Faith in People and a Culture of Hospitality Built a Modern American Restaurant Company
Cameron Mitchell
Ideapress Publishing (November 2018)

How any company can became great by investing in its culture, its values, and its people

In Setting the Table, Danny Meyer observes, “hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy. Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. These two simple propositions – for and to – express it all.” According to Meyer, service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel about the transaction. This is precisely what Leonard Berry has in mind when explaining what he calls “the soul of service.” This is also what Maya Angelou has in mind when observing, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Cameron Mitchell emphatically agrees. His sixty restaurants employ about 5,000 people and generate more than $300-million in annual sales. What is the secret sauce? “While most other restaurants say their number one mission is to take care of their guests, we make our associates our top priority. We have learned that when our associates are respected and cared for, they give our guests great service and genuine hospitality. As a result, our guests become raving fans and return again and again.”

Years ago when Herb Kelleher was chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines, he was frequently asked why it was more profitable and had a greater cap value than its nine largest competitors COMBINED. “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and then our customers take great care of our shareholders.” Similarly, at Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, “all five thousand of us share the same role: to make raving fans of the five groups of people with whom we do business. These include our fellow associates, our guests, our purveyors, our partners, and the communities we serve.”

With only a few minor modifications, the CMR business philosophy would be one appropriate for almost all organizations, whatever their size and nature may be. The appeal of its core principle — making people feel appreciated — helps to explain why companies annually ranked among those most highly regarded and best to work for are also annually among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry sector. Mitchell comes across as an idealistic pragmatist: he dreams big dreams with high hopes and great expectations but also has enough street smarts to choke a pelican. He is an excellent example of what Robert Greenleaf characterizes as a “servant leader.”

As I read this book, I was reminded of a passage in Scott Belsky’s latest, The Messy Middle: “the dirty little secret that entrepreneurs hate to admit is just how fine the line is between their success and failure. The middle makes and breaks you, and ending up on the right side of this line depends on how you manage everything in between. It requires immense perseverance, self-awareness, craftsmanship, and strategy. It also requires luck, harvested whenever [and wherever] you encounter it.”

I commend Cameron Mitchell on the success he has achieved thus far, both despite and because of what he and his colleagues encountered when struggling through each of the “messy middles” during CMR’s first 25 years. Just as LEGO has succeeded one brick at a time, CMR has succeeded one human interaction at a time.


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