Stressing servitude

When I mentioned to Kim Schaefer how biblical her approach to leadership happens to be, she gave me a quizzical look, but she didn't really take issue with the observation. Schaefer, the CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, has achieved rock star status following her 2010 appearance on Undercover Boss, but for me, it's one piece of Great Wolf's management brand – servant leadership – that really rocks.

For those of you who are scripturally challenged (look who thinks he's the Rev. Billy Graham!), the term derives from any number of Bible verses that call on us to be servants first. In the 1990s, members of the Promise Keepers movement referenced the phrase to describe what married men are supposed to provide to their families. For my spiritual wife, the expression conveniently confirms that God expects husbands to help out with the housework. "Would you be a good servant leader, Joe, and fold the laundry?" It must be her cunning way of making me feel like I'm in charge, while giving me marching orders.

And they say it's a man's world!

Of course, the term also has business-leadership connotations. In the context of building a family entertainment brand like Great Wolf, servant leadership means that company leaders put their staffs in a position to serve guests so well that their experience results in future visits. Schaefer, who spoke at IB's recent Icons in Business series, cited one undercover example that led to a crucial process improvement.

Schaefer went undercover as the fictitious "Chris Miller" to listen and to learn, and what she learned was, if you'll pardon the religious pun, a revelation. A Great Wolf resort can have as many as 1,000 people check in on a given afternoon, but as Schaefer observed that experience, it was taking anywhere from eight to 10 to 12 minutes for families to check in. That's not considered optimal, especially with young children anxious to begin splashing about. "Those kids were antsy," she noted.

It's not that employees behind the counter weren't courteous or failing to do their jobs, but some streamlining was clearly in order. As part of the resort's leadership brand, steps already have been taken to upgrade this piece of the customer experience puzzle. "We didn't have someone involved in process improvement there," she stated. "We do now."

Other parts of her Undercover Boss experience provided prime-time relief, such as the lifeguards' timely response in recognizing and rescuing "drowning" mannequins. That test exercise occurred while the TV cameras were on, which for Schaefer removed one source of high anxiety.

It was definitely part of the risk-reward bargain made when the producers of the show contacted Schaefer, who jumped at the chance to highlight Great Wolf's business culture. I asked her whether she overheard any employee criticism of management that prompted her to take action. The answer was no, nor did she seek out criticism of resort management, but she was taken aback by one thing. "I was surprised," she acknowledged, "that somebody didn't come forward with concerns about the slow check-in."

All the more reason not to wait for process improvement needs to be identified. I would never suggest that other Madison business executives go undercover to look and learn, for that would require a clever disguise. But to be a good servant leader, you need to put your workforce in the best possible position to build your brand at every point of customer contact.

These haven't been easy days at Great Wolf, which recently shed some cost by selling Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan, but process improvement is important in any climate. "I haven't been out in the field with employees as much as I was as a chief operating officer, but it's important to do that," Schaefer opined. "These people make the company go."

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.