Sarah was obviously brand new on the front desk of the upscale hotel in Las Vegas where I was staying. My first question at check-in yielded a zealous, “I am new and I do not know the answer, but please let me find out.” She sported a trainee designation under her name on her badge. It signaled to me to lower my expectations and give her a wider than normal berth.

She was eager to serve; earnest in her attempt to do new tasks correctly. While I could tell she was a bit nervous, she was also jarringly authentic. She publicly owned what she did not know. She asked me to hold something for her as she worked to undo an innocent mistake. At one point, she stopped her task and exclaimed, “This is such a wonderful hotel, I wish I was a guest.” She championed my patience by asking a colleague out loud, “Show me how to get this guest a room upgrade.”

The following day when I approached the front desk for a minor request, another employee rushed forward to serve. “I will wait for Sarah,” I said to the employee. I reflected: Why can’t they all stay like Sarah?

While we all desire superior competence, we rarely get the genuine eagerness of a shiny new associate still wearing the personality that got them hired. In today’s competitive world, we also need a Sarah who can be inventive.

There are four phases of learning:

  1. copying,
  2. competent,
  3. coaching, and
  4. creating.

Think of these phases on a continuum. Sarah was on the copying end of the continuum, mostly mimicking, modeling, and acting out of what she remembered from her training.

Her next learning phase will be “competent,” where she can demonstrate she “knows her stuff” and perform out of understanding, not just recalling.

If she gets really good at her skill and knowledge, she may be asked to coach another employee. Competence and Coaching can be the breeding ground for arrogance and self-importance. Wonderment is replaced with superiority. Customers can be on the receiving end of smart and smart-alecky.

The highest point on the learning continuum is the capacity to create or invent. It is the realm of innovative service. From its world comes leaving customers delightfully surprised yielding a profoundly remarkable story they are eager to share. Good service is value-added, the byproduct of competence; innovative service is value-unique, the result of creativity. It is a return to the wonderment of a Sarah who adds ingenuity to her capacity for realness.

It requires an environment of never-ending learning. Wise organizations do not stop at the competence level. Their leaders model the humility of an inventor; the curiosity of an archeologist and the passion of an artist. They trumpet the recognition that good is the enemy of great; discontent the birthplace of progress. When Bob Kriegel wrote the book: If It Ain’t Broke, Break It, it was not an invitation to destroy; it was a charge to transform.

Greatness comes from celebrating the glorious return to “I am new.”

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