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Who Moved My Tinsel?

Dec. 17, 2020
Leadership lessons from a multi-century market influencer.

Ho ho ho!

At this time of year, it's all systems go here in the North Pole. Our production line is in full flow, with an army of elves working themselves into the ground to ensure that Christmas, despite this year's challenges, is a rip-roaring success. As ever, this involves a mad flurry of last-minute orders, with children waiting until the last moment before they compile their wishlists and mail them in to yours truly. Which means that the whole team has to be working at an optimal level if we're to pull another rabbit out of the hat!

But then I've always dealt in seasonal miracles—that's the very nature of my business. Making the impossible look easy is second nature to me and my staff. Not that I can afford to rest on my laurels, despite being an old hand at the wish-fulfillment game. It's a combination of tireless innovation, and timeless principles that enables me and my festive crew to excel, year over year.

So what makes the business tick? How do we manage to exceed the fiercest of expectations? Why is it that, despite heavy snowstorms and supply chain nightmares, Santa & Co always ship on December 25th (or on 24th of December to some parts of the world)?

It's a question that many business leaders have asked themselves. One or two have even indulged in shameless corporate espionage–attempting to bribe my elves in order to  discover the secret sauce that makes North Pole Inc. such a shining model of efficiency. Other CEOs–still in touch with their inner child – have sent me heartfelt letters, as in days gone by, when they were knee-high to a grasshopper. All they want for Christmas is the secret of Santa's enduring success.

Some of these desperate pleas have touched this old heart of mine. After all, I know what it takes to stay ahead of the pack and contend with alarming new challenges (Black Friday and Cyber Monday, to name but two of them).  So in the spirit of seasonal generosity and good fellowship, I'm going to share some of those core insights that can greatly improve your organization at any time of the year.

Get to the Point (and Keep Pursuing It)

You may wonder how we find the time to fulfill many millions of orders, and guarantee delivery, with a single sleigh in operation. Magic helps. I won't deny it. But more than that, it’s those procedures and best practices that underwrite the whole glittering venture. Working to such a tight deadline, every second is precious to us, so we treat our schedule with the utmost respect.

What this means, in real terms, is avoiding any pointless meetings that add little or no value to the organization. All too often, these hourlong shop talks end with nothing of substance decided upon or finalized. Instead, the attendees tend to wander off topic and contribute nothing except hot air.

In this line of work, the customer is king (or little prince), so that's where our true focus lies. Staying in touch with children and parents throughout the year, listening carefully to what they have to say, even reading between the lines of their letters. Making ourselves available at all times, and going the extra mile (or 10 thousand!) to make sure their dreams come true.

Take Care and Nurture Every Last Talent

My elves know just how important they are to the running of North Pole Incorporated. Making them feel appreciated is something I take very seriously. We may not have any written programs about employee care on open display, but there's never any doubt about their value to the operation. My gratitude is an active principle. And it's one that I uphold unceasingly. It doesn't matter what they look like, where they hail from, or what kind of lifestyle that staff members subscribe to. Great results–and the desire to repeat them–are the real determining factors at Claus HQ.

Of course, there are occasional treats for the front-line troops (not least the home-baked cakes and hot chocolate that we keep in ready supply!), but the whole team are reminded of their worth to the company throughout the working week.

Grant the Freedom to Excel 

I always find time for my elves, no matter how busy I am–even if I'm with Mrs. Claus or another senior staff member. More than that, I encourage them to approach me at the drop of the hat and listen to all of their ideas with a truly open mind.  Given how invested they are in the business, it's little wonder that many of these ideas are inspired and have since been implemented by the company. Of course, some are too wild or impractical to ever be realized, as Mrs. Claus would no doubt tell you, but that doesn't mean that I belittle these suggestions. Indeed, I always give them a good hearing, and consider their merits from every angle, which gives the whole team confidence to come forward and share.

In this same spirit, I let my people do their job as they see fit. I grant them considerable license in how they go about it. As long as all of the requirements are met, that's good enough for me. They know their own rhythms and what works best for them, and I respect that whenever possible. Contrary to what you may have been told, elves need their sleep (and umpteen coffee breaks!) just like the rest of the population.  They've even been known to take the odd weekend off. Something that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. Still, that's fine with me if they come back on Monday morning, firing on all cylinders and fighting fit.

Harness the Power of Deadlines

Every job, without exception, has a clearly stated deadline. A deadline that's known to me, the elf in question, and all the rest of Santa's little helpers. Although I let them do their job in their own way, that doesn't mean I'm lackadaisical about team performance. If a deadline looks like it won't be met, I require immediate notification and insist that the elves inform other team members about any potential rescheduling. At the same time, I don't add to their burdens unnecessarily by demanding lengthy reports or buttonholing them with endless queries. It's enough to pass on my concerns at the first time of asking, and make these crystal-clear.

Equip Your Team for Real Success

During the summer months, we might have a short adventure day or two to highlight teamwork essentials, but the process of learning is baked into the work environment. The real emphasis is on continuous development as we put these best practices into effect. This means giving my staff the right tools, and logistical support, to realize their full potential and power their self-directed progress.

If they take pride in their work, they will often know where their weaknesses lie and do their very best to address these. In such cases, I give them all the resources they need to raise their game and then reward them for the step up in class.


I never let up in emphasizing this critical message. None of my elves–or wider staff–are in any doubt just how important it is for them and me. There is an ongoing commitment, throughout North Pole Inc. to open dialogue and clear, effective communication. Everybody knows what is expected of them–and when!–and we all do our level-headed best to dispel any confusion that arises in a timely fashion. Tasks are clearly defined, as are their deadlines, which not only dispels a great many personal anxieties, but also frees up more time for genuine productivity.

Hold Yourself to the Same High Standards

I'm not above taking a good, hard look in the mirror and holding myself to account every so often. If I have great expectations of my workforce, it would be wrong if I didn't regard myself in the same clear light. Reflecting on one’s own performance and personal development is hugely important. You're never too old to learn–in fact, it becomes ever more important with each passing year. At the same time, I'm not so vain as to consider myself indispensable. I can't cover all bases myself, which is why I have the humility–and good sense–to recognize and reward serious talent whenever I see it. I'm ready to relinquish certain roles just as soon as someone else can make a better fit of them. Even if that means a successor taking the reins, and steering Rudolph through the December skies, then so be it!

So there you go–a rare glimpse into the mind of a multi-century market leader. It goes to show that a heap of common sense–and a sprinkling of magic–really can go a long way. 

If children still retain their faith in the old firm, it's because we always deliver on time and guarantee top-notch quality. Before on-demand delivery became a thing, we were blazing a trail and shipping product via millions of chimneys (Jeff Bezos, eat you heart out!).

That said, there are some things you can't put a price on, and a child's delight would be one of these. Which is why we give our all to lighting their faces up and ensuring festive cheer.

Merry Christmas to you and your families!


R. Paul Vuolle, CEO of Bellevue SME Advisors GmbH in Switzerland and Germany, works actively with small and medium (SME) size manufacturing companies in Europe in SCM/Outsourcing, logistics, turnaround and restructuring, market expansion, as well as succession planning and financing. 

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