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What a Soup Kitchen Taught Me About Running a Business

[lead]It’s amazing what a couple hours away from work can do for your perspective. Six of us took the quick walk up the street in downtown Raleigh to The Shepherd’s Table, a soup kitchen that operates five days a week in the basement of a local church.  We successfully served 268 men and women, said thank-you and goodbye, and headed back to work.

And suddenly work felt different.[/lead]
Some of the feelings were totally expected.  I expected to feel grateful for what I had.  I expected to feel compassionate toward those we served, people who try just as hard as us day in and day out, but haven’t caught the breaks that we have.

I did not expect to feel like I’d just been taught a lesson on how to be a better manager.

Here are 4 things I learned from the Soup Kitchen about how to run a business:

  1.  Start the day together
    Our company needs to do a better job of this.  We come in at scattered times, we have a little small talk, and we get to work on whatever isolated individual task we may have.  At the Shepherd’s Table, first thing in the morning, they meet in a circle (the circle seems important, no beginning, no end, no “boss at the head of the table.”) Everyone is acknowledged.  Our tasks are explained.  We all hold hands and we pray.  I can’t tell you what a difference that makes.  Even if prayer isn’t your thing, I am a huge fan of holding hands and affirming our faith in each other somehow.
  2.  Be so efficient that people say, “HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS ARE EFFICIENT!!”
    The Shepherd’s Table has three full-time employees.  THREE. With that many people, they open and close, they manage donations, they fund-raise, they schedule, they work with the parent church, they train a revolving door of about two dozen volunteers a day, and they feed, on average, about 250 people.  They do it with a smile and a positive attitude.  We should all be so efficient in our workplace, and we should all be proud of how much we get done every. single. day.
  3.  Don’t be wasteful
    The soup kitchen gets its food from donations.  100% of it.  They go to Panera and get bread.  They go to SAS and pick up soup.  They go to Trader Joe’s for flowers.  They go all over the city to pick up perfectly good food that otherwise would have gone to waste.  They use every bit of that food.  They are maniacal about saving, preserving and reusing. I got back to the office and thought about this a lot.  In offices, we waste a lot.  We waste food that goes bad in a fridge.  We waste opportunities because of egos.  We waste time.  I feel like if we tried to treat our day, and our job, as a precious commodities that shouldn’t be wasted, we may not only be more successful, we may also be happier.
  4. Understand your client. Make this your #1 priority.
    Before we got started, our new friend Soteria told us this – I will never forget it…

“When you serve these men and women, do it with a smile. You have no idea what that means to them.  If they don’t return the favor with a smile of their own, please understand it’s nothing personal.  For many of these people, when someone sees them on the street, they cross over to the other side to avoid them.  So they may not be used to this kind of treatment, and may not even know how to respond.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”

What a thoughtful way to treat a client! Start by thinking about their feelings.  I don’t mean, “figure out what they want and get it for them.” I mean, do your best to truly understand their nature, their personality, and all they’ve been through.  Try to imagine living in their shoes for a day.  Make that the baseline of everything you do.  I am going to try to do this a lot more and wonder if it won’t lead to more success with our clients.

Thanks again to our new friends down the street for showing us how to be better people, and also better at our jobs!

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