Leading with love in times of war and peace
Jordan Raynor sits down with Joel Manby, Former CEO of SeaWorld, to talk about the brilliant 2X2 matrix Joel used to measure goals and values in tandem, how Christians can “lead with love” during times of crisis, and the steep price Joel paid for losing sight of the gospel at work.
[0:00:05.3] JR: Hey there, welcome to the Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do their most exceptional work, for the glory of God and the good of others. Every week, I’m bringing you a conversation with a Christ follower who is pursuing world class mastery of their craft. We’re talking about their path to mastery, their daily habits and how their faith influences their work.
Today, you guys are in for a fantastic episode with my new friend, Joel Manby. Joel is a crazy, impressive leader. By the time he was 35 Joel was the CEO of the division of General Motors, and then he was the CEO of SAAB, after that, he moved to the entertainment industry and spent 13 years as a CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, the largest family owned theme park and entertainment company in the United States which includes the management of parks such as Dollywood and Stone Mountain which I’m sure you’ve heard of. Back in 2015, Joel was recruited to be the CEO of SeaWorld during the darkest time in that company’s history.
Of course back in 2013, the documentary Blackfish came out, basically accusing SeaWorld of abusing the park’s killer whales. Joel published a book called Love Works. That was originally released in 2012. I recently read it and was blown away, it’s one of the best books on leadership and management I’ve ever read. And it just happens to be from a gospel point of view and so Joel and I recently sat down, we talked about the brilliant two by two matrix Joel shares in the book to measure goals and values in tandem.
We talked about how Christians can lead with love during times of crisis and we talked about the steep price thatJoel paid for losing sight of the gospel at work and the lessons he wants us all to take away from h is painful experience. You guys are going to get a ton of value out of this conversation with my friend, Joel Manby.
[0:02:22.1] JR: Hey Joel, thank you so much for taking the time to hang out with me today, I appreciate it.
[0:02:26.2] JM: Great to be here Jordan, I appreciate you having me.
[0:02:28.9] JR: I want to lead off with a question that I seriously doubt anybody has ever asked you in an interview. Maybe you could correct me here but you’re a Sara Bareilles fan, is that right?
[0:02:40.5] JM: Yes, how’d you know that?
[0:02:43.0] JR: I read Love Works from cover to cover, I loved the book and you mentioned, at some point, your life that you woke up to her cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road every morning. I love that. I’m a huge Sara Bareilles fan. Have you seen her live?
[0:02:56.9] JM: yes, well, you know, where I saw her live was doing The Waitress in New York because she also wrote that musical. I’m not sure you’re aware of that.
[0:03:04.6] JR: Yeah, I did. I’ve never seen it.
[0:03:05.2] JM: It’s tremendous and she played the lead, it’s a little bit more geared towards a woman audience but I’ll tell you, it’s fantastic, great relationship building in the musical. She is so talented and that version, she does, when you’re reading the book, I was listening to her version of yellow brick road and Elton John said it’s one of the best interpretations of any of his song he’s ever heard. For Elton John to say that about her is just a great compliment. I think she’s underrated. She’s such a great writer, such an amazing singer, I just think she’s fantastic.
[0:03:38.9] JR: She’s way underrated. I’m always blown away by that. Talk about a master of her craft. She’s an incredible songwriter and surprisingly, a good entertainer live. I was actually surprised to find that she was really good in-person. All right, speaking of mastery, let’s talk about your story and I want to start with a question related to one of your earlier experiences in your career. You were an executive at Saturn which first off, I was born at '86, I had no idea that Saturn was such a big deal, such a big startup success story. You guys went from zero to five billion revenue in just a couple of years.
What stood out to me though was this story of these 25,000 Saturn owners, driving to the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Basically just to hang out with other Saturn owners. It’s one of the best pictures of superfans I’ve ever heard of. My question is, what did you learn from your experience at Saturn about how to create raving fan of a brand?
[0:04:36.6] JM: This is going to sound cliché but it’s we truly focused on loving our customers, the analogy we used is, think of the customer as your mother and most of us have great relationships, we want to please our mothers and treat them with dignity and respect. You know the, car buying experience should be one of the greatest experiences of our lives but unfortunately, in many dealerships it’s like getting a root canal.
Saturn’s whole goal was to be honest, trustworthy, upfront with customers, the price on the car was the price you’re going to pay, the trade-in was what you’re going to get. One interest rate based on your credit rating and none of the rip-offs that normally go on at a car dealership. Fans responded to that in spades.
The car itself was probably average. But the experience was exceptional and it jumped to number one in guest satisfaction in the entire industry. Even better than at the time. One of the greatest regrets in my life I think is because general motors parent company, went out of business and went bankrupt because of the unfunded pension liabilities, Saturn had to go as part of that but boy, that was a great brand that they let go.
[0:05:48.2] JR: Yeah, I spent my career as a tech entrepreneur and we talk a lot about the whole product, the product is not just the technology, the interface with. It’s your interaction with the sales team, it’s your interaction with customer support, right? It’s that whole product experience that really creates raving fans.
But you mentioned in the book, actually, I want to read the direct quote. You said, quote, "The enthusiasm of customers can never rise any higher than the enthusiasm of your employees," right? In order to create superfan customers, you really got to create super fans of your team and your leadership philosophy. What you call leading with love, is kind of the core to how you’ve done that. Can you give us an overview of what you mean by leading with love?
[0:06:31.5] JM: Sure, I’m impressed that you picked up that quote because I would say that’s one of the key quotes of the book and so hard to pull off. The enthusiasm the guest experience can’t rise any higher than the enthusiasm of your own employee. That gets really difficult in let’s say a franchise operation where you’re actually working through the owners of that small businesses and that’s why Saturn was so amazing to me. Let’s say Chick-fil-A that does it in the fastfood world, that’s at a tough job to do.
Back to your question, the principle is simply taking I Corinthians 13, right out of that the famous love verse that Paul wrote, "Love is patient, love is kind." And we paraphrase it into seven words and we made those seven words what we call our 'be goals'. What do leaders want to be? How are they going to behave? And that was measured and reinforced just as importantly as the 'do goals'. Which I would define is what every entrepreneur has to have. You got to hit sales targets, margin, cash flow, customer satisfaction scores. I call all of those 'do goals' and that’s for 98% of the world focuses.
I think the mastery here for this call and this mastery we’re talking about is the 'be goal', that is how you get employees dedicated, highly engaged, motivated because they’re treated with respect and dignity and all the seven words of love. Which, I mean, I just hit them really quickly, it’s patience, kindness, trusting, truthful, being truthful with them, being unselfish, being forgiving and being dedicated. Which is the acronym for love never fails.
That’s the basic principle but the thing that I’ll just add is many companies have their values, their B goals listed, maybe 80% of the companies do. Only 10% have them really defined by process behind them, the words are defined, they are measured, they are reviewed with employees, they’re taught to employees, there’s top down and bottom up surveys. It’s a very robust process, which I get into within Love Works to some degree but it has to be followed up with a processor, it’s just going to be a plaque on the wall.
[0:08:43.2] JR: Yeah, in terms of 'do goals', I’m a big fan of Google's OKR framework, objectives and key results, I’m also a big fan of Jim Collin’s core values framework for 'be goals'. Your book and I thought, this was by far the most valuable thing in the book. Your book was the first time I ever saw those two things measured in a systematic way together.
I’ll tell you what, this little two by two chart that you have in the book is worth the price of admission and then some. You have this two by two grid, showing how you measure 'do goals' and 'be goals' in tandem. I know it could be hard to talk through a matrix on a podcast but can you give it a shot? Can you talk through what this grid looks like?
[0:09:25.0] JM: Everyone picture a two by two and the vertical axis is the 'do goals' and the horizontal would be the 'be goals' and if you score high on both, you hit all your revenue targets and your profit targets on the 'do goals' side and if you also behave and accomplish those do goals in a way they’re consistent with the 'be goals', you’ll get a top score on the 'be goals' and if you're top, top, you would be upper right hand corner, actually gave the best raises to the people who did well in both.
If you were low on both, lower left hand corner of the matrix, you probably wouldn’t last very long and most of leadership’s time is spent in the other two boxes. Either you hit the do and not the be or you hit the be and not the do. That’ show we have to coach people to get to that upper right hand box. But that’s where leadership giftedness is. We don’t promote people, we don’t get people as a senior leader in an organization without them being in the upper right box.
To your listeners, it is a process that has to be put in place or it’s going to fail under its own weight and yes, it takes a little while to set up but it’s nothing more that surveys having your frontline basically evaluate their leaders, are they leading with love, is senior leadership top down rating the people that report to them so it’s bottom up and top down.
There’s some example that in the book but I will say, soon, they’ll be a website joelmanby.com but for now, if listeners are interested in just keeping in touch until that’s built out, there is a Facebook page, Love Works by Joel Manby or on LinkedIn. If they at least just connect with me then as I build out this information, I will be offering just the tools that were the detail that aren’t in the book. The book gives a great overview but there’s so much more just to keep it a readable book. I didn’t put all the processes in. But I will be offering those over time.
[0:11:23.5] JR: Yeah, this combination of 'do goals' and 'be goals' and actually, Peter Drucker said, what gets measured gets managed, this is a way of actually measuring and managing core values which I loved.
I’ll be honest Joel, when I was reading the introduction of the book and you’re talking about leading with love and talking about these terms that came from verse Corinthians 13. I was a little skeptical that this was going to be just a bunch of platitudes throughout the book. But you got hyper practical. I’m not just blowing smoke, it made it one of my favorite leadership books ever written by a Christ follower. I think it’s really tremendous.
Here’s another example of something you made really practical. You mentioned love always trusts, right? In the book, you talk about one of the ways we show our team that we trust them is by making decisions with them and not for them. But you make it even more practical by sharing how to do that, how to decide which people on the team should be brought in to help make those decisions? The framework you call RACI, can you share that framework with us?
[0:12:25.4] JM: Absolutely. Can I also go back to your really important point of your skepticism, because I’m sure a lot of your listeners, even Christ followers or even marginal on faith and just questioning things, they perceive love as soft and I was a cynic too.
My 20 years with General Motors, I learned a lot more about what not to do as a leader and it wasn’t until I went to Herschend Entertainment under the tutelage of Jack and Pete Herschend. That I really learned a different way. If any of your listers are skeptical, that’s okay, that’s natural and it’s a language issue that in short, it’s because the English language only has one word for love and we think of it as romantic and soft because that’s how we think of love in America.
The bible was written in Greek and there’s four different words of love in the Greek language and eros is the erotic one that we think of but the word agape is what Jesus use – well, he spoke Arabic but it was written in Greek and Paul used agape when he wrote the new testament in Greek. That is a verb, it’s a behavior, it’s not a feeling and I will tell you, I’ve led both ways, I’ve led strictly on do and strictly with the fear culture of General Motors which frankly, that’s an easier way to lead because if you don’t hit the numbers, you’re out. And there’s no real regard for the human being.
In this way, leading with love is actually a harder way to lead because it’s the complete person. I just wanted to hit on that really important point about the skepticism. Everybody feels that at first and my publisher actually didn’t want me to call it Love Works because of that and I said, "No, you know, once the people read it, it will get passed around." And I wanted to make a point. On the RACI chart with your point on if we trust people, we’re going to make sure they’re included in decisions that are important to them, what RACI stands for, R is who is responsible, A is who has to approve a decision. C is who has to be consulted and I, who has to be informed.
Yes, it takes a little time to set up major decisions as who is involved in what but once that happens, you always have the right people involved and they feel informed and they feel part of it. This principle is especially true right now because we’re talking during the coronavirus issue. When we’re doing all these Zoom calls and distant connection, if we don’t have the right people, it’s really easy for those not on the calls to feel left out and disconnected right now.
[0:14:55.1] JR: Yeah, I agree. You mentioned the coronavirus crisis that we’re all living through right now. Real quick, bringing our audience up to speed on your bio so you’re at General Motors. Eventually you go to Herschend Family Entertainment which runs Dollywood, a bunch of other great theme parks across the United States and then you make a move to SeaWorld.
After this really long successful tenure as what we might call a peacetime CEO at Herschend, you decide to take the plunge into this very war time CEO situation at SeaWorld. I mean SeaWorld was in horrible shape, this is right after Blackfish came out and you were recruited to help right the ship. I think a lot of our listeners right now, whether they’re CEO’s or just leaders of divisions or managers, whatever it is, I think they’re having to make that transition from peacetime leader to war time leader as a result of this economic crisis. What advice do you have for them given this current moment?
[0:15:50.8] JM: I’ll refer back to some of the words of love and say, here’s how it works in a crisis. That might be the easiest way to frame it. Patience is the first word and we have to be really patient in I think how our people are feeling and understanding and we have to be empathetic to that, we have to be present with them and connect more than we want to connect, we’re going to feel sick of it, we’re sick of Zoom calls, we’re sick of trying to connect from a distance but we have to be patient and do that.
I’ll tell you one place we can’t be patient in a war time situation and all your listeners know this but cash is king and we just have to move extremely quickly on preserving cash and when tough decisions have to be made, I would just encourage people to still do it in a way that you can look yourself in the mirror the next day if there have to be layoffs, try to bridge them to unemployment, try to keep their benefits versus some companies are putting on furlough and not helping with benefits.
Little things like that make all the difference in the world. Sharing the pain, obviously senior leaders should take huge cuts before they lay people off, those kind of issues are so tough to work through. I would also add under the word forgiveness, we have to forgive ourselves too because it’s much easier to feel like a failure every day and this kind of environment and I think forgiving ourselves that maybe we’re not completely tech savvy like we need to be in all these situations for older folks like me but we’re thrown into it and we now have to thrive in it.
I think having a good forgiving nature is important and then the last one I’ll add, I mean, I could go on and on but I think truthfulness which is one of the words of love is so critical right here and we have to have brutal honesty with our employees. I think some of us entrepreneurs, we want to be positive, we want to be uplifting and we want to give certainty right now and I don’t think we can give certainty and we try to give certainty, we are discrediting ourselves. If we give, instead, clarity. Then, I think people will believe us and go with us. All we can do is tell them what we know today and what we’re doing about it which maybe doesn’t have a certain outcome but we’re clarifying them where we’re headed.
I heard a quote — I'll finish your question with this quote from a five-star general say. He said, "Your troops will forgive you if you are not the leader you should be in a crisis. But they won’t forgive you if you’re not the leader you claim to be." Authenticity is the most important thing and I think that comes from truthfulness.
[0:18:23.1] JR: Yeah, that’s really good. I serve as executive chairman of the board of the venture-backed tech startup that I ran for two and a half years as CEO and we’ve had to make some really tough calls in this season. I’ve just been very proud of my successor who is in the CEO role now of just being forthright with the team and just laying it all out there, laying out the facts and just being brutally truthful about where things are at. And I think that instills a greater level of trust and loyalty to him as the leader and to us as the leadership of the organization. That’s really good advice, Joel.
[0:18:59.0] JM: I remember when we hit the '07, '09 crisis with Herschend, our sales went down 35% in a month and we had just bought two companies, we had a lot of leverage, we were over levered, cashflow was tight and I just told our employees, we’ve negotiated the best we can with the bank, we have to cut this much in money to not have a covenant breached and they helped come up with a plan to do so and to save 350 jobs, all the senior executives took 20% pay cuts so they didn’t have to lay off people but I gave them the number that we needed to get to and they found a way to get there and it was an incredible show of leadership by allowing them to help me get to that number.
[0:19:38.1] JR: Yeah, I love that. Hey Joel, we talk a lot about routines and habits that make people productive here on the podcast. You’ve had a really long, storied career. I’m curious, what are the habits and routines that you’ve kept up for decades, right? Not the stuff you’re experimenting with but what have you been doing for 10, 20 years that you swear makes you the masterful leader you are?
[0:19:59.0] JM: Let me start with this. The truth is, I’ve had seasons when I was exceptional. I’ve had seasons of tremendous darkness and we can come back to that but I would not want any listener to hear that wow, this is always the way I am. But when I’m on my game, when I’m at my best, I always start my days right off with a quiet time. It is usually just reading scripture, praying, reflecting, reflecting on yesterday and that is something Jack taught me. What can I learn from yesterday to better myself? Where did I fail and leading with love? But also where can I encourage people? And when he taught me to write notes of appreciation in the first 20 minutes of every day and it is a wonderful thing.
Because not only over the course of the year you have about a thousand notes you have written to people but to put you in a positive frame of mind by reinforcing others. So it is quiet time, it is reflecting on yesterday, writing notes, reading the Wall Street Journal to keep up the speed and doing some kind of exercise to keep the stress from building up. I found morning exercising the only way I can make it work, which means by the time I do all of that I am not one that gets in at 7:30.
I get in at about 9 because I have done about two hours’ worth of prep work and so forth beforehand and then the other routine when I am on my game is to end the day with something, even 20 minutes that I really enjoy like I love playing the piano just to relax or I go for walks. But when I am not on my game like at SeaWorld when I really got unhealthy, I did none of those things because I was getting phone calls from my activist investor, board member at four in the morning, 5:30 in the morning.
Emails at 2 in the morning and he expected responses and I would go 20 hours a day, literally seven days a week trying to turn that thing around and I became very unhealthy in a lot of ways that the books goes into and it was a horrible period. I love your show because you talk about what make people a master and I love it and I listen to it. I think you’re an exceptional leader and a smart guy but I also wanted to make sure people knew all of it.
Well, I shouldn’t speak for your listeners. But I really had a dark period because I got away from the great habits and I just hope your listeners don’t go through what I went through and there is more on it on the book but I just think the habits are really important and living with love and leading with love is a minute by minute, day by day, hour by hour thing. I mean we are all a shadow away from making a really poor decision whether it’s in business or life or personal lives. So I think those daily routines you talk about are just critical to keep us tied with what Jesus wants from us.
[0:22:50.3] JR: Yes, so let’s go there. Let us double down on this theme a little bit because I love it when leaders come here and are just vulnerable about periods of their career that didn’t work. I know I’ve had those as well. So you have recently published Love Works in 2012 but you just published this updated expanded edition a couple of months ago and towards the end of this new addition, I was so impressed with how raw and honest you got about faith and life and career and just how transparent you are about how your understanding of the gospel increased throughout your life and your career. Can you talk about that a little bit? Can you talk about how the source of your ambition and what you are working so hard for evolved over time?
[0:23:32.7] JM: If I can do it without getting emotional, when I read the book I actually, if you listen to it on Audible, I broke down trying to get through those chapters because if I could give one thing to your listeners, which I know sometimes you ask at the end of your podcast but I focused too much on my 'do goals' and even though I lead with love and I was so focused on trying to be a great 'be goal' leader to my team at SeaWorld, I got very unhealthy. Where it was so much about just surviving. It was definitely a war mentality and the book just details — if you read that chapter, what we are dealing with in the first eight months of my tenure is a career for most people as far as that stuff that was coming out of an –
[0:24:16.8] JR: It was un-order.
[0:24:18.2] JM: I can’t make it up to the SEC and DOJ investigations, half my teams in New York getting an interview so they don’t have to go to jail from some previous lawsuit before I got there all the way from PETA protesting at our gates to we had cops in our building because I would get death threats. It was just insanity and I got away from my purpose. I did drink too much to ease the pain and I just had a lot of internal pain and through that made some mistakes.
I yelled at the board because the activist investor is not a healthy person and I am not going to say his name but the two CEOs after me only lasted five and seven months respectively. I mean they came in, they couldn’t deal with the man and they have left and more is going to come out on that because the guy can’t keep the CEO. But for me personally, I made bad decisions. I couldn’t get along with the board because they weren’t treating me with respect. He was going around me to our suppliers. He was calling my directory ports and telling them different things.
It was just untenable and when the chairman wouldn’t support me, we just agreed to part ways but I had also gone through a horrific terrible divorce after a 30 year marriage within the same six-month period and I know if I had been healthy and I had not been medicating myself and doing some really unhealthy things and not letting business take over my life and letting the 'do goals' take over my life I would have never gotten that divorce.
And it is just a shame that I let the 'be goals' suffer when I know that is the right thing to do. And I think in our society it is easy to get over-indexed on the 'do goals' and we are all driven and we want to be successful but in the end of the day, success is really being consistent with the 'be goals' and as a gray haired 60 year old now I can look back at life and if I had to do one thing over again, I would keep that balance of do and be.
[0:26:21.4] JR: I think that is spot on. I think what leads us to over-index on the 'do goals' is just a forgetfulness of the gospel in our ultimate sense of worth and being an heir with Christ, right? You said in the book that looking back in your life you were confused about who you were trying to please and why and I know I struggle with that. I know a lot of our listeners have resonated with that.
You talked about experience in this merit based love from your parents. Probably from other people in your life from bosses, whatever, today I am really curious for your kids, I am a father myself, how are you ensuring that your kids don’t make these same mistakes? How are you helping them understand that, “Hey, work is good. Work is a way to glorify the Lord and you should do it well. But at the end of the day, you are loved by your earthly father, by your heavenly father." Like how are you helping them grasp that?
[0:27:16.6] JM: I hope I am being successful here but every time I talk to them and every time I write them a note, almost every time I say, “I love you for who you are, not for what you’re doing. And I don’t care what you do for a living, I don’t care about anything but I love you because you are a loving person and you reflect the 'be goals' of love." And I’ve told them flat out how the divorce is my biggest regret in my life. If I could take that one thing back in my life it would be that we are still together.
I am saddened and sickened by it but I tell them that’s what really matters at the end of the day. It is relationships and the relationship with Jesus. If we really believe what he said, if love is really the number one commandment, then that is really all we should be worried about. My parents loved me, I know that now. But they were doing the best they can but my father never verbally told me that and my mother had a lot of depression and was very distant. I realize now through a lot of therapy that the only positive I ever got was when I did something extremely well. I got straight A’s or athletically and that is the only time I got anything out of them and at the time, I didn’t think twice about it. But I realize now that is what I was looking forward to reinforce and it is a life lesson. But that is how I am trying to teach my kids.
[0:28:42.6] JR: No, that’s good. You reminded me of something that my wife and I do every night with our kids. We have a five year old, a three year old and we just adopted a little baby girl, five months ago. Right before we put them to bed every night, I think I stole this from Tim Keller but we tell them, “Hey Alice and Kate and Emery, you know daddy and mommy loves you no matter how many good things you do, you know we love you no matter how many bad things you do, who else loves you like that?” “Jesus”.
And they always respond Jesus, I’m like I think we all need to hear that at work and outside of work. I think we all need to hear that the Father loves us regardless of what we accomplish and that gives us the ultimate freedom to go out and create and risk boldly. Because we are not trying to get something from work that work wasn’t designed to give us. We’re just working as a form of worship, right? Let’s go back to your days at Herschend Family Entertainment. That was your longest stint of your career, correct?
[0:29:36.4] JM: Yeah it is 13 years. The only reason I went to SeaWorld, I love turnarounds first of all. I’m just made that way. Everything I have done has kind of been a turnaround situation and I wanted to do Love Works at a public company.
[0:29:49.7] JR: Yeah the other thing too, so this podcast is all about how our faith influences our work. I am curious if there was an element to that in your decision to go to SeaWorld, right? Because Blackfish comes out, I am sure a lot of this is overblown, right? But it is basically portraying SeaWorld as abusing the animals at the end of the day. It is a pretty vivid picture of creation being broken, right? Was there something going around in your mind that’s like, “Oh this is a redemptive opportunity.”
There is something broken in creation here that me as a Christ follower knows it’s wrong and out of line with His will for the world and I have the skills to help fix it. Was that rolling around in your head?
[0:30:26.8] JM: Maybe not with those words. But what was rolling around is I thought it was a shock-umentary. I knew the CEO at the time, Jim Atchison of SeaWorld. He is a very fine man, I knew how well the treated the animals and I thought Blackfish was not truthful and so I wanted to go in and get the truth out to the public and also reposition the brand though to not be about animal entertainment but we had a campaign called Park to Planet.
If you come to the parks, we will use part of the resources to help save the planet and we had all kinds of initiatives that are too long to go into but they are all animal related, stop shark finning, stop the clubbing of seals in Alaska and things like that, just to try to be humane to animals as well. But it was craziness what went on and what have already gone into that but I did feel some redemptive quality there because Americans do like a redemption story. And SeaWorld is going to get there at some point but they need the right board, they need the right leaders to keep going what we had started there.
[0:31:29.3] JR: Yeah, so we have talked a lot about how your faith influences how you lead with love internally within SeaWorld, within Herschend, so from an operational standpoint. But I would love to hear you talk about how your faith influenced maybe you and the Herschend brothers that the product themselves, the theme parks that you guys ran, how did you guys see those products aligning with God’s purposes for humanity and for the world?
[0:31:56.2] JM: We really set out to love our guests so much that it created the best family experience that they would have all year. Our mission was to bring families closer together and we knew that a day at a theme park can either be kind of a hot mess if you are in Orlando and it is too hot and it is too crowded, not the friendliest place on earth but at Herschend, if you go to one of our parks it feels different. The employees are loving on the guest and we want to create the best day of the year.
And we design our parks so that families stay together not to name a competitor but most of the teen parks out there like let’s say a Six Flag, they are designed for teens not as much family-oriented so the families tend to split apart. At our parks, we designed the rides so most of them, the entire family can go on together or they are facing each other and yes, we still have some thrill rides that might be too thrilling for a mother or a risk-averse father. But most of the time, the family can stay together and that’s by design.
I have a lot of shows, the shows are all appropriate for the entire family and so it was all about family togetherness, family is important, we are very honoring to the entire family and to the military as well with very American values and you just feel it when you are at those parks and of course we are the partner with Dolly Parton and we manage her parks like Dollywood and she is just a wonderful person. What you see is what you get and she also wants to exude love and caring and so in the end of the day, it is Jesus' love manifested in a theme park and I think if you talk to people who go to one of Herschend’s parks they will reinforce that.
[0:33:43.4] JR: That is actually really practical. I think our audience is like wrapping their heads around that. It’s like, “Oh yeah, you have the power in designing a theme park to either bring people together or tore them apart from each other.”
[0:33:56.9] JM: There is a thousand decisions that the consumer doesn’t even see.
[0:34:00.1] JR: I love that. That is super practical. A super practical way to live out the gospel and create for the Kingdom in even a theme park business, that’s great.
[0:34:08.6] JM: For the employees, we had a foundation. We were way ahead of the game as far as high minimum wage or what I’d call a living wage, that if an employee stayed with us for three years, we basically had a living wage that if they had a family of two would be above the poverty level in that state and we made sure even if it was a minimum wage job they were making a lot more than minimum wage because we wanted them to stay with us.
And most public companies will just say, “Well, you can’t pay above market rate.” We want people to stay and at the end of the day, the difference in our costs were not all of that much compared to our competitors and we made up for it in other ways and had the best returns in the regional theme park business because we are very smart with capital. But I just want to make that point because it is a social model too that we want to make sure that everybody could stay with us and didn’t have to leave just because they weren’t making enough money for the family.
[0:35:03.8] JR: Have you read the book, The Good Jobs Strategy?
[0:35:07.4] JM: No I have not.
[0:35:08.3] JR: It’s excellent. I think you would really like it. I can’t remember the name of the author. She is a Harvard professor but it is basically about paying above minimum wage is actually a good strategy for increasing profits in businesses like yours where you have a lot of low wage workers. It’s terrific and I have no reason to believe that she is a believer but it is a really interesting take.
So speaking of books, I love to ask every guest, which books do you give away the most to others or recommend most frequently?
[0:35:34.3] JM: Well I give this book away called Love Works, a lot.
[0:35:38.6] JR: Me too as of recent, yeah.
[0:35:41.1] JM: No, you know I would actually say I know it is a little old but anything by Jim Collins especially How the Mighty Fall because How the Mighty Fall talks about most companies die of indigestion not of starvation. And I have found that to be very true. But I also give a lot of books away by Tony de Mello, who is actually a Catholic priest. Now well-known but he actually was born in India but incredibly brilliant writer and just have a reflection on love. How to Love, is my favorite book of his but Anthony de Mello, if people want something a little different that they haven’t heard of before, those are the two authors I’ve probably given the most away.
[0:36:21.4] JR: I love that. That is a good answer. I give away a lot of Collins. So of course, you guys can all find those books right now including Love Works, which is in my leadership collection at jordanraynor.com/bookshelf. Hey Joel, what one or multiple people would you most like to hear talk about how their faith influences the work they do every day?
[0:36:40.5] JM: I actually have always want to talk to Gordon MacDonald. Do you know who Gordon is?
[0:36:45.3] JR: No.
[0:36:45.9] JM: He is a pastor, when I went to Harvard Business School, he was my pastor in Lexington, Massachusetts. He wrote a number of books, he is probably in his 80s now but he had a moral failure that he worked through and came out the other side, whole and healthy and redeemed and back in the church. He left the church for a while and I love the redemption story and he handled it the right way and that is one person I always want to talk to. If you could get Jesus on the podcast, I would love to talk to him.
[0:37:16.3] JR: That would be amazing, one of my favorite answers to that question so far is somebody you know pretty well and you have already mentioned her, Dolly Parton.
[0:37:22.5] JM: Really? You know what? Dolly should have been on my list because –
[0:37:25.4] JR: Have you talked about these things with her?
[0:37:27.8] JM: Oh, absolutely and I’ve had five or six interactions with her a year when we were running her parks. She is probably if not number one, top two most generous celebrities out there. She gives so much money away. She really has helped the Sevierville area where she grew up and Gatlinburg area in Tennessee when they had the fires there.
She is so loving and so giving and so intuitive. You don’t go into a Dolly Parton meeting with a bunch of PowerPoint charts or spreadsheets. She can judge people really quickly, intuitively, whether she can trust them or not and then it is all about relationship and love and she is a wonderful human being.
[0:38:09.7] JR: I’ve heard she’s the real deal, like I’ve heard she’s a genuine follower of Christ. Here is a thing that I really appreciate about her from the outside though, she has been creating hit after hit after hit in multiple industries for how long, 40 years? 50 years? Like she’s unbelievable, like the longevity of Dolly Parton is incredible.
[0:38:31.5] JM: And in an industry where there is not long term especially for females, frankly. I mean it is even harder as a female I think to have longevity than males and she is an anomaly but it is because I think all she cares about is loving and doing the right thing. Yeah, she is getting all the accolades and wonderful support that she deserves and I have worked with her closely enough that I would know but I have nothing but positive things to say about Dolly Parton.
[0:38:59.7] JR: Yeah, I love that. And we always ask the last question, what single piece of advice do you want to leave people with? You have already answered it but quickly succinctly what do you want us to takeaway with regards to 'do' and 'be goals' and leading with love?
[0:39:11.1] JM: Just the 'be goals' are more important. At the end of the day on your death bed, we will look back, the number one commandment of Jesus is to love God and love others and that is a 'be goal'. It is how we behave and focus there more than the 'do goals'. I love the way you said, our work should just be a manifestation of the gospel message and don’t put the 'do goals' ahead of the 'be goals'.
[0:39:36.2] JR: Joel, I want to commend you for leading with love so well. Thank you for living out your faith in your work in such practical ways and serving your customers and employees and investors to the ministry of excellence. Guys, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s Love Works, you can find it anywhere where books are sold. You can also find it on my personal bookshelf at jordanraynor.com/bookshelf, in the leadership and management category.
Joel, thanks again for spending this time with us today.
[0:40:03.6] JM: Well thank you and keep doing what you’re doing. You’re a wonderful interviewer and you have a great, great podcast, so keep it up.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:40:10.4] JR: Man, I hope you guys enjoyed that conversation with Joel. I have a feeling that is not the last time you’re going to be hearing from him. Thank you guys so much for tuning in to this week’s episode at Call to Mastery. I’ll see you next time.