Leona Helmsley’s parable

By Doug Samuelson

Although their most recent conference had been, on the whole, a good one, the group of analysts gathered in the company’s lunchroom seemed focused on a common complaint. “I was 20 minutes late to a session I was supposed to present in, even though I started out half an hour before the session, because nobody could tell me where the room was,” one of them groused. “A couple of the student volunteers sent me off in wrong directions. And have you ever seen such confusing maps in your life?” There were nods and grumbles of assent all around.

Tom, another member of the group, added, “Yeah, Rick, you’re right. At one point, on the last day, I asked one of the convention center people whether there was anything interesting nearby. He said there wasn’t. I found out later that there were many interesting attractions nearby, including an exhibit on the life of Walter Cronkite at a nearby museum, about a 15-minute bus ride away if I’d known which buses to take.”

“I’d heard the city was a really nice place,” George, a third analyst, offered. “Too bad I didn’t get to enjoy much of it. I have to admit that the convention center largely spoiled it for me. And then there was my hotel, a little out of the way but an easy bus ride from downtown – but the hotel desk clerk couldn’t tell me which bus to take. It turns out three of them, any of which worked just fine, stopped right in front of the host hotel and got within four blocks of the convention center. I guess maybe the desk clerk was getting commissions from the cab company.”

At this point Steve, the oldest member of the group, said, “This points to one of the most serious weaknesses we have as a profession. We’re great on the big picture, but we don’t have so much patience for little details, and sometimes little details are what can kill you. We should have learned from Leona Helmsley!”

“Leona Helmsley?” Tom exclaimed. “Didn’t she end up in prison for tax evasion? And didn’t her people hate her and call her ‘The Queen of Mean’? Sounds as if she overlooked a few details herself.”

“True,” Steve conceded, “but remember, people may have hated working for her, but it was delightful to be a guest in her hotel. Did you see the news? Westin Group is buying the Helmsley Palace. Westin runs fine upscale hotels, but this may be one time when having Westin take over a hotel is a step down! The Palace was widely regarded as a model of what a top-notch hotel should be. And if you think about it, the same personality traits accounted for both views of her. She was a nit-picking perfectionist who would throw a fit if an ashtray was missing, or a doorknob wasn’t polished or some item was missing in a bathroom. Of course it’s a pain to work for someone like that, but she got results!”

George chuckled, “Sounds as if she fit the definition I heard of a perfectionist: one who takes great pains – and gives them to others.” Everyone laughed.

Steve shrugged. “We can be perfectionistic enough ourselves when it’s important to us. You don’t get to be an O.R. analyst without taking a lot of math classes, and you know what grade you get if you mess up ‘just a few little details’ in a theorem proof. And we know that details count in a lot of practical settings, too, but we also know how hard it is to get absolutely everything right. We all end up compromising somewhere. But some compromises hurt you more than others.

“Many years ago,” Steve continued, “I worked for a bank out in California that lost a lot of market share because they couldn’t recruit and keep the most attractive and personable tellers. One reason was that they required more paperwork between transactions than a savings and loan, since they could handle a wider variety and complexity of transactions. So their tellers had to keep customers waiting, and maybe they were a little less friendly, while they filled out these complicated forms. Bottom line, the tellers with more charm, even if they had weaker command of the other tasks, got hired away. Those added transaction capabilities were supposed to be a customer benefit and a selling point, but what most customers saw was that they liked the competitors’ tellers better.”

“I think I see how that applies to the conference,” Tom affirmed. “Many years ago, I was at another of these national conferences in a big, sprawling hotel with too few meeting rooms for all the parallel tracks. They had some sessions in hotel guest rooms scattered around the place. So they had about 20 student volunteers, including about half a dozen with walkie-talkies, escorting people to rooms, and the hotel staff also could tell you where everything was. There were a few complaints, but nothing like what we’ve been hearing – and saying – this time.”

“There were student volunteers this time,” Steve shrugged, “and they were all supposed to have walked all around the convention center in advance. But maybe nobody made sure they did. As a result, a lot of great effort didn’t get appreciated. So we see Leona Helmsley’s key insight: the things the customers see are the ones you can’t compromise.”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., a small R&D and consulting firm in Annandale, Va.