How many times has this happened to you?

You've been heading to a McDonald’s, excited about getting an ice cream cone. You get there, place your order in the Drive-Thru, and then discover that the machine is broken?

Now, not only are you not able to get the ice cream you wanted, but you're also stuck on the inside track of a two-lane Drive-Thru, unable to leave until what seems like the world's slowest line starts moving again.

If that's happened to you, you're not alone. But here's the deal – we ALL create “ice cream machine” experiences for our customers and partners from time-to-time. They come to us for that ONE THING, and we fail to deliver for them.

We leave our people unhappy and disillusioned because we didn't take care of them.

And when that's the case, it all comes down to leadership. Our leadership.

The problem (and the responsibility) is ours.

It's our responsibility to care enough about the people we serve that we make it a priority.

Leadership starts with us – whether you're at the top of an organization, in charge of one department or project, or just starting out on your journey as a leader-to-be…it all comes down to how much do you care about the people you serve?

It's not an easy leadership lesson, but it's one that we all need to learn. Because at some point in our careers (and sooner than you think), someone will come to us with a broken ice cream machine issue and if we're not ready for them then…well, they'll just be another person who leaves disappointed.

And when people are consistently disappointed over time, they may leave for good.

Consistent leadership failures will drive away partners and customers

A lot of people just don't even bother anymore. They go somewhere else instead because it seems so much more worth their time and money, given the frequency with which McDonald's breaks down.

Consistent leadership failures can bring ridicule.

When leadership fails to keep things running smoothly in an organization or business, people start making jokes and laughing at them – even if their service used to be great.

This has certainly affected McDonald's. Not only do other companies take cheap shots, there's even a website that will help you identify working and non-working ice cream machines in the USA.

Consistent leadership failures can break down morale.

Believe it or not, leadership failures are contagious. One leadership failure can lead to others, and over time, it can create a counter-culture in your organization where “bad” leadership becomes the norm.

If you're not careful, this could happen at your company:

  • Your team starts feeling like they don't have someone on their side to help them get through the day.
  • Your team starts feeling like leadership is more focused on what they can do for themselves, and that takes away from leadership's focus on keeping their people happy.

This can lead to a breakdown in morale, which could be:

  • leading to disengagement (where employees leave voluntarily). 
  • leading to your top performers leaving.
  • leading to a leadership crisis (where the organization fails).

 Of course, we're not trying to pretend that it's easy. It's not.

A working ice cream machine requires a LOT of things to go right.

 What might appear simple to customers could be very complex – even if it looks VERY simple to those you serve.

 Think for a moment about all the things that go into maintaining an ice cream machine.

  • It needs to be cleaned and sanitized regularly.
  • There's a preventative maintenance schedule.
  • It has to be kept full so that it doesn't freeze up.
  • It can't make ice cream faster than it can keep it frozen.

Oh, and in many cases, most of this is managed by teenagers. Often at the end of a long shift, late at night, with homework waiting to be done so that they can go to school the next day.

In other words, just because they're responsible teenagers doesn't mean that their priorities are completely aligned with the people who will come in tomorrow looking for that ice cream cone or strawberry shake.

 The same can often be said of our organizations. That's why it's so important for us as leaders to be open to the idea that what's most important to our customers and partners might not be what we think it is (or want it to be).

What’s a low priority for us might be a MUCH higher priority for those we serve.

 Every day, leadership teams are faced with tough decisions about what to focus on and what not to. We have limited resources, so we must be selective in our choices.

And it's in the details that things can get complex and messy.

In leadership, it’s easy to focus on the mission and strategy of our work while neglecting the tactics of day-to-day operations that are critical to achieving results. It requires intentional leadership attention to prioritize what really matters in the big picture.

It's also easy to let low-priority things pile up and become distractions that keep us from focusing on the important tasks at hand. It’s not uncommon for leadership teams to find themselves with a bunch of broken ice cream machines in their organizations.

What we might consider less urgent, or even trivial by our standards, is actually a much higher priority for those we serve.

As leaders, we MUST be as intentional about what we consider lower priority as what we consider higher priority. To do that well, we must understand where and when we must either adjust our priorities or manage their expectations.

We need to understand the nonnegotiables for our customers and partners.

It's important for leadership teams in organizations and businesses alike, to take note of when customers or partners have a higher priority on something than they do. That means understanding their nonnegotiables — what matters most — so that they can be aware of when their customers or partners may have a higher priority on something than the leadership team does.

To do that, leadership teams need to actually know them. They have to talk with them and listen — not just hear what they're saying but really listen to how it makes them feel.

Leadership teams also need to be willing to listen and humble enough to know they're not the only ones with broken ice cream machines.

You can’t always fix people problems by tweaking the system.

Sometimes the best way to fix things is by adjusting the system so that we're setting people up for success. This might require reallocating resources.

But if the problem really IS a people problem, we have to address it as that. Because even though we can shape behavior through rewards and punishment, we ALL give our best when we're bought in on the purpose and value of what we're doing.

What about you?

Does your organization have its own “ice cream machine” issue?

What are you going to do about it?

About Bryan Entzminger

Bryan Entzminger is a former McDonald’s manager, who now edits and produces podcasts. He previously hosted the Engaging Missions Show and now cohosts the Podcast Editors Mastermind. You can find him at Top Tier Audio.

About The Leadership Moment

Scott McClelland of Foundational Missions shares bite-sized insights into leadership, with a focus on the Bible, missions, and ministry. He pulls from a wide variety of sources and always has something to inspire and challenge us to greatness.

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