Getting People on Board for Where You Want to Go

by | Sep 21, 2023

I call it my Mystic Pizza summer. Except I was in Maine, not CT. I had no sordid love affairs. I did not drive a Vespa. 

It was the summer I worked in Camden, ME, slinging lobsters at The Lobster Shack, coming home nightly drenched in lobster juice and drawn butter. That summer I convinced a fellow Shack-er to put her sailboat in the water and when I wasn’t asking, “How many pounds and what sides would you like?”, I was at the helm of my friend’s boat cruising around Penobscot Bay. 

It was a magical summer. But, as summers do, it ended and summer led to fall and the impending close of the Shack. Which fueled my “real job” search and I landed a management gig at RiRa, an Irish pub and restaurant in Portland, ME. 

My initial interview described a pretty dismal scene I’d walk into. An Irish couple had opened and run the place a year and a half prior. The staff loved them! They loved the staff! They had Irish charm in spades. And zero ability to run a restaurant. 

After the initial honeymoon phase, the place fell off, hard. Few customers, and those that were there weren’t happy. Money was flowing out, none was flowing in. They were in over their heads. To make it worse, they had created a fiercely loyal staff that thought that they could do no wrong. The P&L proved otherwise. 

A new GM and I took over the place, and for the first few months I was in watch and observe mode. It didn’t take long to see there were no processes, no systems, no structure for anything. The staff had the run of the place and they were not running it well. I could go on and on, but the biggest indicator to me? The place was FILTHY. There was a half inch layer of dust on all of the knicknacks. The floors had a film of grease and dirt. The liquor bottles were sticky slimy. The place was NASTY. Dirt = zero care given. 

Three months in, it was time. I’d had enough time to observe. To have a chance to get to know the staff. Time for them to get to know me. I’d started to implement a few processes. I’d picked up a mop–they’d seen me scrub. I’d heard my final, “That’s now how Simon and Natalie did it!”


How they had been doing things was no longer working. Judging by the abysmal sales, the cranky customers, the layers of dirt and grime, and the arrogance of the staff – it was a fairly obvious – they needed a come to Jesus staff meeting. 

It was time to get them on board and head in a new direction of profits, good craic (the Irish way of saying a raging good time!), teamwork, and yes, general cleanliness. 

As if to show them, for real, that Simon and Natalie had left the building, I started the meeting by hanging up a poster-board sized cut out ship, dubbed the SS RiRa. (RiRa is located about the docks of the Portland Ferry Terminal. The theme was there for the taking!) 

On the table next to the ship, I laid out 34 paper doll cutouts, each with a smiling face and a team member’s name, one for each of them. 

I could FEEL the, “What the…” vibes permeating the room. 

I had my plan. 

I layed down the law in my inspiring, creative, yeah-no-this-ins’t-a-joke sort of way. I outlined the new systems and processes.. I explained the why behind the new ways–aka do it this way, more money for you. I’d acknowledged where they’d been. I gave the Irish couple the props they were due. #respect. I highlighted the good they’d done. Then, I made it clear where we needed to go, and it was their choice to come along or not. 

They could choose to board the ship. It was up to them. By putting their paper-person on the ship, they were agreeing to the new approach. They were committing, symbolically, to get on board and be part of the change. 

I smacked my paper person on the bow excitedly and asked, “Who’s next?!” 

If you’re rolling your eyes and slightly cringy, I hear ya! I’ll let you in on a little leadership secret–if you don’t have some people doing a little eye roll and cringing slightly at your cheese-level, you’re not trying hard enough. 

In my experience, those eye-rolls are an indicator. 

An indicator of what’s to come. Who is REALLY on board and who’s not. 

The paper-person placement was a realtime case study.

First, there were those on the team that were ITCHING for this to happen. They were done with the old regime before they had left the building and they were ready for change. They walked up, grabbed their paper dolls, and smacked it on the bow of the ship. Bon voyage! 

There were the eye-rollers-with-small-smirks-ers. The eye-roll said, “OMG am I in third grade and is this cheesy and do I really have to do this but you know what things are sort of annoying and it sounds like things could be better for me the way she described it so I’ll do it although I don’t want to seem to eager because the old-school people are going to hate it.” 

Then there were the eye-roller-mean-mugger-arms-crossed-foot-stompers. The last ones to go. The ones who HATED it and didn’t want to do it. The ones who tried to stick it out, but what were they going to do, NOT get on board? 

There were three of these holdouts. I sat. I waited. I can shut up and embrace awkward silence like nobody’s business. 

“FINE!” Marie said. She stomped up in her clogs, smacked her paper person up on the boat, turned around and said, “Are we done?!!?” and stomped out the front door. 

Her sidekick, Sarah, followed shortly. Except she sat back down in her chair, not AS righteous as the ringleader of the old-school-my-way-is-better-than-your-way club. 

Eventually, all the paper people were on the boat. I gave my final, “The horn has blasted! The lines have been cast! We are all on board and headed towards our new destination of profits! Craic! Excited and happy customers! Involved and team-like workers! Clean surfaces, for all that is good in the world!”

At this point they were with me– there was even some mild applause! Those begrudging people actually were chatting excitedly after I called a close to the meeting. You could hear talk of possibility. Of this just might work. Of maybe things WEREN’T as great as they thought they were, now that we’ve got this new vision. 

As I wrapped up my flipcharts and cleaned up after the meeting, I did a little internal over/under. They all put their people on the boat saying they were on board…but I knew some would jump ship. (If you’re thinking about your team now and who’s on the metaphorical ferry, you probably know who’s ready to bail, too.) 

The eye-roller-mean-mugger-foot-stompers-arms-crossers lasted 3 weeks. There were three of them that left. Which was JUST FINE with me.

They were stuck in the past. 

They were holding on to a fake memory of the good times. 

They were dragging people down with them. 

They were taking a fair share of my energy, because they were the ones who I had to re-explain the process. Check to see if they were following the system. Give feedback. Coach. 

They self-selected out. If they hadn’t, I was prepared to gently push them off the boat (while docked!) and tell them this journey wasn’t for them. 

I’d given them time.
I supplied a new vision. 

I gave them the support, tools, and resources to make it happen. 

I presented it in a way to say hey, we’re ALL heading in this new direction and you can choose. Come with us, instead of THIS IS HOW IT’S GOING TO BE!

In six months of SS RiRa leaving the port, we were not only profitable, but we’d doubled sales from what they were at opening. 

The staff was stoked!

The craic was mighty!

The place was clean!

As we shift into fall and this summer comes to a close, perhaps it’s time to take a look at your crew and ask: 

Have you set the standards and are you explicit with your expectations? People will self-select if so. 

If you’ve started a new role, or have new people on board, take some time to get the lay of the land. Get to know the players. Check the vibes. See the influencers. Check the layers of dust on the shelves. If you can feel it, you’re in cultural trouble. 


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