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Leadership lesson at the mall: he thinks with his heart

Leadership lessons sometimes come from the most unlikely places.  Here’s one I learned from the local watch repair shop in the mall.  First, some background.

I used to travel to Asia quite a bit for work.  On one of my first trips to Hong Kong, a colleague introduced me to the Lady’s Market.  This market is a barter market filled with literally hundreds of kiosks selling thousands of high-quality and knock-off items.  These types of markets show up all over Southeast Asia – I’ve now visited similar markets in Taiwan and China as well.  The Silk Market, in Beijing, China, is truly amazing.  It is 5-story indoor mall, close to Tiananmen Square, that looks completely legitimate from the outside, and yet is completely filled with knock-off items of every variety.  Whether you are looking for copycat jeans, purses, electronics, jewelry or a host of other items, anything and everything seems to be available in this mall.  Including very nice watches at very low prices.

Knock off Watches for a doctor of ethics?

Truth of the matter is, I’ve become a bit of a fan of knock-off watches, and have several in my collection (I know, I know – my wife reminds me that my doctorate is in personal ethics and leadership – why am I buying knock-off merchandise?  I don’t have a good answer for her.  I just enjoy bartering with these vendors, and I also like big watches.  So much for my consistency, huh?).

Recently, I did some work for Intel in Beijing, and ended up with a Saturday lay-over before I headed home.  After revisiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, I ended up on the 5th floor of the Silk Market where the knock-off jewelry and watches were on display.  Three hours of intense haggling later, I headed home with four very nice looking “Faux-lex” watches (they look like a Rolex, but cost me less than $40 each).

You get what you pay for

Unfortunately, you get what you pay for: two of the four watches don’t keep very good time.  They look great, but I must rely on my smartphone if I want to make sure I know precisely what time it is.  Of the other two, my favorite, a copy of the Rolex Deepsea model, stopped working within two weeks of my return.  I could hear something rattling around inside the watch case, and wondered if it could be repaired.

That led me to Sabir. Sabir owns the watch kiosk at the local shopping mall.  He’s been in the mall for more than 15 years.  He replaces watch batteries, does simple repairs and sells replacement watch bands and inexpensive watches.  Recently, he also reminded me of a vital leadership lesson.

I’ve gotten to know Sabir in the past couple of years because of my wife’s many watches and the batteries that keep going dead.  And the repairs I’ve asked him to do of my many knock-off watches.  He’s always happy to oblige me.  Over time, we’ve struck up many conversations.  He is a warm and gracious conversationalist, and has a good enough memory that he knows I always have new “knock-offs.”  He’s not a fan of them, but over the years he has fixed bands, replaced parts and put batteries in several of them.

Sabir is a hard worker and a strong family man, and his mall kiosk has provided for him and his family while taking care of thousands of shoppers and their watch needs over the years.  I asked him recently if it was a good business to be in.

He smiled while shaking his head wisely.  It’s been a good business, but he also suspects he could charge more money, be more firm with customers, and maybe be more profitable. Unfortunately, according to him, at times “he thinks with his heart.”  So, Sabir has left profit on the table.  He hasn’t marked up his replacement bands high enough. He’s allowed customers to take advantage of his battery replacement guarantee.  He’s kept hourly workers on his payroll who weren’t working as hard as they could.  etc., etc., etc. Ultimately all of this has cost him money.

But has it really?  There are a variety of places I could go to get my wife’s watch batteries replaced.  Or get my “faux-lex” bands fixed when they break.  But I always go back to Sabir.  His “short-term profit sacrifice” has created, at least in me, a long-term customer.  And I suspect I’m not alone.  I don’t spend much time at the mall where Sabir works, but every time I’m there, Sabir is busy – customers come from all over the place to have him service their watches (by the way, after my recent visit with Sabir, I’m wearing my repaired “Faux-lex Deepsea” frequently).

Leader – I think there is a leadership lesson here for all of us.  Not about knock-off watches – about long-term organizational success.

Short-term leadership or long-term?

You and I both know that sustaining profitability is an absolute must for long-term viability.  Even leaders in non-profits know they must operate in the black for the long-term health of their organizations.  If you and I are doing a good job, we are doing everything in our power to deliver every dollar of profit we can to our organizations.  But if we are exceptional, we also realize that an equally important value is serving our employees and customers well.  The best leaders serve both their organization and their people well.  They do so with wise minds and big hearts. They – like Sabir – “think with their hearts.”

Leader, how can you do this better?