Sweet Spot Leadership, with special guest: Mark Estee

Okay, we’re back and I’m still with special guest Mark Estee of the Reno Local Food Group. This is the second part of the interview and if you haven’t read the first part, check it out: Roller Coaster Leadership. We’ve been having a great conversation about his projects and some of the things he faces as a leader/manager and how those things are handled or addressed. Let’s not waste any more time as this doesn’t need any more setup. The last thing we were talking about was his managers need to have ownership, that
 they need to run with their own projects and the result is valuable experience regardless of success or failure.

Mark: “Those are the things we use to create that organizational leadership we were talking about earlier. Now I’ve been in other places where it’s been a dictatorship, I came up in that. You know I worked in hotels and it was the way the general manager wanted it and that was the way it was going to be, no matter what. And I was fuck’n pissed cause the general manager never worked a god-damn day next to me. He didn’t know the hell I went through. So, I think there’s something to be said about coming from the bottom up, I think there’s something to be said about willing to do and be a part of every job that’s out there, but also knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. So, if I know I’m not good at something, I’ll find someone who is good at it and bring them on.”

Elton: “Play to your strengths and play to their strengths?”

Mark: “Yep. I kind of call that ‘Putt’n the ego aside.’ A lot of times I think ego gets in our way of leaders in situations like that. And we need to make sure we’re checking our ego at the door, and that everybody else checks their ego at the door, that we’re all making good solid decisions.”

Elton: “Which leads to success?”

Mark: “It can lead to success. I always challenge my managers and I talk about this a lot and that’s if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. You know what I mean? If you play it all close to the vest and all safe. Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that but I’m going to go out on a line and say that 90% of businesses do that. I’ll say 90% of businesses get to a place and then they play it close to their chest, I’m not knocking them, that’s just not who I am. You know I had a manager say to me one time, it was a couple years ago and he doesn’t work with us anymore, and I was talking about something and he’s like: ‘You’re never satisfied man! You’re never fuck’n satisfied!’ And I literally threw the table over and said: ‘Get the fuck out of here, I’m never going to be satisfied, who’s satisfied?’ Satisfied, what does that even mean? Now, we don’t sit here and harp on people every day like crazy, but we’re never satisfied. Again, what does that even mean? Is it an exit plan? In which case, no! Not right now.”

Elton: “Where you sit back and coast?”

Mark: “No way! I’ve been in businesses like that, I don’t like that. And that’s not how I want to run my company. Now, do people have days off? Yeah, everyone gets two days off, everyone has family time, everyone has all that kind of stuff they need. It’s not like we’re salve driving everybody.”

Elton: “Quality of life, you have to have that quality of life outside and inside.”

Mark: “The thing is, the thing that I’m working on, in full disclosure, I’m working on figuring out my end. You know, I’m the guy, still to this day that gives everybody their days off and I don’t have days off. But, I’m in the growth period and for me it’s like, it builds up a loyalty or a trust factor with the managers knowing that I’m not asking them to do anything that I haven’t done or I’m not willing to do myself.”

Elton: “Sure, leading by example. And there’s a lot to be said about leading by example.”

Elton: “I want to backtrack again to something you said about that transparency and how you’re open to the community. Are there any ways that you’re engaging with the community to say, and not just when they come knocking are you transparent, but are you banging on people’s door, knocking on people digitally, knocking on people’s conscience saying: ‘Hey, we’re a transparent company, come check us out. Hey, we’re reaching out to the community, come check us out. Hey how can we help you? Come check us out.’”

Mark: “Well I think, to answer that question let me say this. We’re more about attraction rather than promotion. So I would rather, and I think people have, seek us out versus me seeking them out. I think that gets to be a little bit pompous, I think it’s a little bit of a bad thing. You know what I mean? We just do what we do and if that attracts people to come talk to us that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s great too. I’m not the food police, I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. Like I had somebody call me and say: ‘Look, I really want to get involved in this whole local food movement, I want to get in on all the related media, how do I do it?’ And I said, ‘Buy local food.’ Real fuck’n simple answer. You know? Buy local products, there’s no secret.”

Elton: “Yeah, sounds pretty straight forward.”

Mark: “Exactly. We’re sitting here talking about how do I do this and how do I do that? And the answer is, just go out and buy it. There’s no secret. The secret is there is no secret. So I think for us we’re more about just doing what we do. We do talk about it a lot, again we’re not playing it close to the vest you know? When asked to speak, I speak, but I don’t go around volunteering to talk to anybody. If someone asks me I’ll say: ‘Yes.’ And I do say ‘Yes’ a lot. Actually there’s a point that I need to pull back a little and we’re talking about the possibility of putting it together. There are a lot of projects that have come to fruition that I consulted on for free, or given my advice on or given my opinion which is totally cool but there’s a point there and well shit, a lot of people get paid to do that. You know? So I feel I get paid back in other ways, you know like every time I give I get ten times back.”

Elton: “Right! And there’s a lot to be said about that too. I checked out your website and it tells you about this or that but you’re … how do I say this? You’re providing an atmosphere where you’re giving and then like you said, you’re getting back tenfold from that giving. But you’re not giving to get back. You’re giving to actively engage with the community and I think that active engagement fosters communication, trust, loyalty, and I think you’re seeing that now take place in a lot of your different projects.”

Mark: “We’ll tend to say: ‘Do the work, but don’t be attached to the results.’ So, we’re willing to do the work always, and not just me, everybody is. We want the results and for instance we’ll say: ‘We really want to promote lunch,’ so we try and then lunch usually then gets promoted. Or, we have some bad reviews about service so we all want to really improve service. But then we get another bad review but we’re still trying. So to me, it’s like we did the work and we ask: ‘Did we do it?’ Then we again ask everybody: ‘Are we doing everything we can right now?’ And maybe someone is like: “You know, I think I could have, I think I only touched ten tables that night but I missed the eleventh table and that’s the table …’ And we’ll respond: ‘Okay, well than hit them all.’ Then well boom, all of the sudden all those problems go away. Or they say: ‘You know what? I touched eleven tables that night and still that happened.’ Okay, well let’s keep doing it and even though we didn’t get the results we wanted, I bet if we keep doing it we’ll eventually get the results we want. Right? So it’s just kind of that small mentality.”

Elton: “Sounds like it’s the little things? All fine tuning?”

Mark: “It’s all about the small stuff.”

Elton: “That can reach so far into what you’re trying to achieve.”

Mark: “Yeah. Again, going back to it the culture is the setting, that vision, that mission is the setting and everything else is little compared to that. And all of the things that we do that are little, but put them together and that adds up to that setting. And so it kind of feeds itself that way, that’s kind of how we manage our whole entire operation. And we ask our employees to buy off on that. One of the things and I’m not sure if other people do it is our employees are our biggest proponents. You know, that mass is our biggest group of people talking about what we do, talking about our culture, talking about who we are and all that stuff. Those are the things that really make us successful. So I know that it comes from me and goes down to our managers, it goes from our managers to our employees. You know I think that’s how it works the best. And the way we do it is for me, I’m the hardest on the managers and the sweetest on the employees because the managers have to manage that in their own way. So for employees when they say: ‘Mark, can I get some vacation?’ And I’m like: ‘You know, you’re going to have to go talk to your manager, I can’t answer that for you.’ It’s not my job you know? I’m not going to step on the managers toes.”

Elton: “Sure! And you’re not here to micromanage?”

Mark: “Right. So, and I learned that the hard way, to really make sure that it stays that way. Like if one of the employees says: ‘I want a raise.’ I’m like, okay, let’s all get together to make that decision. I may like that person a ton and think they do a great job but I’m not next to them fifty hours a week.”

Elton: “But you hire the people to make that call. That’s why you put them in place. Again, play to your strengths, allow them to play to their strengths, and then with everybody that you have, you have this strong environment.”

Mark: “And even if it’s easy for me sometimes, I have to let them kind of earn their bones, they have to earn their bones.”

Elton: “Like you did?”

Mark: “Right. I might be like: ‘I could do that in five minutes,’ but also I’m like: ‘Okay no, it might take you five hours to do the schedule, so be it.’ So, instead I say: ‘Hey, I’m really good at making the schedules so if anyone needs my help I’m here, if not, you guys got it.’ They can show it to me and I’ll look at it, go through it and show them the scenarios. So, it’s kind of a fun thing to kind of help manage other managers still. That’s how we do it.”

Elton: “Right! So that ground floor improvement, that ground floor excelling, it sounds like it’s kind of permeated throughout all of the businesses.”

Mark: “Yes, that’s what we work on. Now is it always perfect? No, we’re constantly tweaking it.”

Elton: “Well, that goes back to that guy who said: ‘You’re never happy.’ And your reply: ‘No, no I’m not.’ And on one level if you stall out …”

Mark: “’Satisfied!’ I’m always ‘happy’, but I’m never ‘satisfied.’”

Elton: “Okay, let’s make that delineation.”

Mark: “There’s a big difference. Because if you’re not happy in your business who the hell wants to be around you? So, I work hard to be happy, that’s important.”

Elton: “And I get that vibe from you.”

Mark: “It’s important that everybody is happy.”

Elton: “Okay, well even when I walked in here, I walked through the place, I came back and I was engaged by everybody that I encountered in a very positive way so it definitely exists. So, it’s not something that you’re just talking about, it’s happening. But, if you’re never satisfied, and you’re trying to avoid that ‘stall-out’ point, there’s gonna be the guy right? There’s gonna be that guy right behind you that is pushing, that’s pushing harder. And you’re pushing to keep ahead but you’re also pushing because you love what you do. And I believe that’s what people do who excel in project management, in leadership, and in the businesses. They love what they do and they’re good at it. So, they’ve found that ‘sweet-spot.’ And you may find people, business managers that love what they do but ehhhhhh, they’re not the greatest at it. Or they’re really good at it but their hearts not in it. But when you find those leaders and business managers that are not only effective in the business side of things, but they’re effective with their employees and they’re effective in engaging with the community, that to me is just … it resonates with me and with the people I interact with in the right way to getting those quality results.”

Mark: “Yeah, yeah to all of that.”

Elton: “So, I think you hit on ten or twelve things more than I anticipated so I’m going to conclude our interview here.”


So, again, a roller coaster of an interview. We were literally all over the place and I probably could have pieced it out into combined single thought threads. But, I believe the spirit of the interview would have been lost. Literally, we met for the first time, sat down and shot-the-shit for twenty minutes. Yes, all that took place in a twenty minute time period. We were spitt’n it out as fast as the thoughts and words rose to the surface. For me, it was fantastic!

I want to thank Mark Estee and his assistant Amanda Bratzler for putting together this interview and making the time to sit and talk about leadership and project management in a fast paced industry that is, like Mark said, is not for the faint-of-heart. So, to the readers, it’s about finding that ‘sweet-spot.’ Aligning a passion with something you’re good at. It’s not easy to do, but if you get the opportunity to combine those two things, you too could find yourself working seven days a week and loving every bit of it.

Image Credit: Photo by Author