Loud, Clear and Quiet

macallanI have have had the great pleasure of dining in a place, with a team, and at a time that were all remarkable.  Doug Hall and I are were in Perth, Scotland enjoying a wee dram of uber premium Scotch Whiskey over a traditional dinner sitting in the very house that’s on the face of The Macallan bottle itself. (My bedroom is in the third floor, top right window.  Doug and his wife in the top left.)

It was one of those parties with assigned seating that ensures you don’t sit near anyone you already know.  Lucky me, to my left sat Ken Grier - the maestro and key leader that’s led The Macallan to be the world-renowned premium Scotch it is today - growing the brand and the lore around the spirit to unprecedented levels.  The Macallan, if you don’t know it, is a truly luxury item - in the ilk of Mercedes, Ritz Carlton and 5 star restaurants and resorts.  It’s a trophy to have, and has won more awards than I can list.  

After hearing about exotic travels and business predicaments that rival some of the best in the world, I got to quiz Ken on his secret to success when it came to Innovation Leadership.  Because, in fact, it’s thanks to his vision and leadership that The Macallan is what it is today. 

After talking through innovation a bit, I told Ken about this blog and asked if he had any experiences and wisdom to pass along - given he’s clearly a successful leader that relied on innovation as a key part to his strategy.

Ken shared two particular instances when he learned something key in a seemly understated circumstances - the key being the power of listening to even the quietest voices.  

Early in his career he was part of a team building offsite.  His working group was assigned one of those impossible challenges where you’re guaranteed to mess it up unless you look at it very differently.  His team consisted of a dozen boisterous guys and one quiet young lady.  As soon as the team was assigned their challenge, immediately the louder voices took over with how to solve the problem.  

Ken said, 

“Every now and again I noticed the young lady saying quietly, ‘Excuse me, I think there’s another way to come at this.’ or ‘You might want to consider this other approach.’ But we all ignored her and carried on.  

“In the end, of course, our answer was wrong.  And she was right.  But she wasn’t loud.  She wasn’t in my face. So I assumed she had nothing important to contribute.”

“I thought I learned the lesson but I quickly forgot as I found myself leading another business team years later.  We had 24 hours to solve a challenge before a key pitch meeting.  22 hours into it, when we already had our solution chosen, business case built, presentation ready...I heard the quiet Finance guy - who by all accords should have no idea how to solve the challenge, speak up.  He suggested an idea 180-degrees different than the one we’d built up.  It was totally different and totally right, but I’d missed it.  Fortunately, I did a full stop at hour 23, switched to his idea and changed the entire course of the pitch and won the business.

Now I know to listen to every voice - no matter how small or unexpected - and remind myself to weight every contribution equally...no matter how it’s delivered.”

So next time you take time to have a sip of Scotch Whiskey, treat yourself to a Macallan and drink to Ken - an innovation leader that continues to learn more every day.