Understanding why some multi-unit managers perform better than others is, not surprisingly, a question that I hear asked a great deal. While keeping within the context of multi-unit management in retail and hospitality seems sensible at this point (otherwise this blog could be really long) it’s probably not unfair to say that the answers could easily apply to many other roles in a thousand other organisations and sectors.

In the UK, at least until recent years, there hasn’t been a great deal of academic study to unpick what makes a top-performing multi-unit manager. Leading the way in the UK is Professor Chris Edger and his colleagues at Birmingham Business School. They have developed two fantastic qualification programmes which are helping to professionalise the multi-unit role and enhance the capabilities of the programme participants.

From the perspective of my own business, the work being done by Prof Edger helps us to get under the skin of the role and begin to understand why certain behaviours and activities matter more than others.

MMU is very lucky to also have the involvement from the USA of Professor’s Chris Muller and Robin DiPietro. They have worked over the last decade and more to explore what are the key success factors of high-performing multi-unit managers and how organisations can help individuals successfully transition from single to multi-unit management roles over time.

For my part, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside some outstanding multi-unit managers and a chief operations officer, Bob Hetherington, who shared a wealth of operational experience from businesses such as Walmart, Kingfisher, Sainsbury’s and SSP.  My interactions with all these operational role models have added to my own experiences of becoming a district manager in the mid-nineties when the induction programme consisted of being given the keys to the company car, a laptop and a list of stores while being wished good luck by the ops director! (I’m not too sure how much has changed really when it comes to the induction of new multi-unit managers?!)

If only an enlightened ops director had thought to give me a copy of author, Jim Sullivan’s superb book on multi-unit leadership, I might have hit the ground running a little quicker than I did! Jim’s work is still by far one of the most accessible and influential books on the topic and I still recommend it to any multi-unit manager who needs development and some new ideas.

So, with all these valuable insights and expertise at hand, what do I think are the driving factors that lead to sustained, superior performance from some multi-unit managers? Simply put, I believe 100% that high performers value certain activities more than average or poor performers and by “value” I mean that they spend more of their time and energy on seeing these activities done well, over and over again.

Discipline and consistency are the hallmarks of world-class operators who, as Jim Sullivan succinctly puts it, “never tire of being brilliant at the basics”. Getting the foundations in place around operational practices and brand standards is by no means easy though. High performers can do so for several reasons, which for me again boils down to that disciplined approach to the core tasks and responsibilities of driving operational excellence and developing people capability.

For my money, any good multi-unit manager knows that to achieve the former (consistently) requires a good degree of focus on the latter; developing the management teams and their direct reports to enhance their capabilities to deliver for the long-term.

The activities that I believe matter to world-class performance are summarised in what we at MMU refer to as the Critical Impact Activities (CIAs). The clue is in the title and relates to those tasks and activities that are fundamentally important in making a difference in business performance. They’re not just important, they are the game-changing activities that will make all the difference to performance.

Of course, whittling these down to a few is again the challenge for most of us. In their book on execution, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling refer to the enormous amount of effort required just to “keep the doors open…to get the day job done”. They refer to this as the “whirlwind” and they warn how all-pervasive it can become if you let it!

As Chris McChesney says: “The real challenge is not to execute the goal but to execute the goal in the midst of the whirlwind.”

It’s no different for our multi-unit managers. They know more attention is needed on certain aspects of their role but the daily grind, the whirlwind, simply blows them off track. The urgent demands for their time and energy are trumping their desire to focus on the goals that will truly make the difference to their results.

The CIAs relate to the following tasks that I believe multi-unit managers need to focus on mastering for long-term success:

  • Analyse – analyse core business performance indicators (includes financial and other relevant KPIs)
  • Plan – develop business/team development action plans and priorities to focus on value-added activities
  • Communicate – communication of area/site goals, results and activities
  • Observe – conduct CIA unit visits
  • Develop – coaching and development of unit managers and their teams
  • Review – disciplined and consistent review of the operation and performance management of teams

Now, these might seem fairly pedestrian at first glance and you’d be forgiven for thinking “Is that it? Surely there’s something more complex, exciting, and radical than these?!”

Well, sorry to disappoint you, but no.

But what makes these activities hard isn’t their fundamental nature. It is the depth of focus, detail and reflection that a multi-unit manager places on them; the extent to which they create truly specific, accountable and measurable action plans to mitigate performance gaps and exploit opportunities. It’s the degree of attention they place on engaging and communicating with others to achieve a joint sense of purpose and direction.

All of this, of course, is dependent on a genuine desire to develop others (especially their direct reports) to be able to think and act along the same lines while having the confidence and competence to manage the performance of others consistently and fairly.

There’s that word again – consistency. World-class operators need to learn to love it and, of course, the other side of the equation, discipline. Whether you want to be a world-class operator or win medals at the Olympics the same behaviours of discipline and consistency are crucial.

They may not be sexy or as fun to discuss as topics such as “strategy” might be, but they are the keys to success in my book.

Over my upcoming blogs, we’ll explore each of the CIAs in turn, starting with analyse, and I’ll provide examples to show how the MMU approach has helped multi-unit managers to THINK differently and then to ACT differently.

(This is the important part because as vital as THINKING differently is to success, I don’t know anyone who has ever achieved a bonus payout based on what they THINK rather than what they do!)

Your journey to operational excellence has already begun…