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Businesses Don’t Fail, People Fail Businesses



Watching the reality TV shows Restaurant Impossible and Bar Rescue has become something of a ritual at my house. My 11 year old is a fan of both shows but slightly favors Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue. I’m not sure what originally hooked us into watching other people struggle through the challenges of owning and operating a small business. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we relate to the experiences of the small business owners or that the hosts of both shows employ a “no holds barred” approach that’s provocative and makes for good TV. Is there something to be learned by business leaders from watching shows like Restaurant Impossible, Bar Rescue, and the like? If you’ve been around awhile, perhaps not anything new but it does remind us of the importance of a fundamental truth in business: businesses don’t fail, people fail businesses.

Shows like these share a common plot line. The story begins with a once successful business that has fallen on hard times. The owner is generally in self-denial and blames outside forces for his bad luck and has accumulated a mountain of debt hoping that business will someday improve. Time passes but nothing changes for the better. Hopelessness then apathy set in. The business falls into disrepair, it can’t attract or retain competent staff, and the quality of its products and services fall well below acceptable. To add insult to injury, patrons who are active in social media have taken to merciless disparagement. In a final and desperate attempt to save the business, an expert is called in to rescue it from imminent demise.

The expert (Robert Irvine from Restaurant Impossible or Jon Taffer from Bar Rescue) shows up and quickly identifies the key issues. Working closely with the owner, they are able to turn things around in a matter of days. How are they able to turn around a business that has taken months if not years to decline to the point of imminent failure and turn it around in a matter of days? Where do they start? The team, of course. In a typical episode, the expert begins by convincing the owner that his business will never succeed if he continues to employ people who lack the necessary skills to perform their job, lack the necessary commitment to the business’ success, or both. Those that can’t or refuse to change their ways or who aren’t trainable are fired immediately (see Harpooning the Sharks for further insights). The rest are developed, i.e., assessed and trained where gaps are identified.

Frankly, once the issues related to the team are addressed, the rest: the new and improved menu, the makeover of the facility and brand, etc., would naturally follow. Of course, that  wouldn’t make for good television. The fact remains, it’s the team that makes or breaks a business. As business leaders we must continuously assess and develop our staff to meet the challenges of the present. And, we must anticipate coming changes and prepare our staff to meet future challenges.

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