Standing ovation Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Ken Young doesn’t want to be the sole mind or voice behind a decision.

“I encourage the people in our organizations to come up with offbeat ideas,” he says. “I’ll do it myself. Then, let’s all shoot holes in it, and who knows, maybe by the time we’re done, we come up with something that is excellent or we’ve decided not to do something.”

But Young, co-founder and president of Ovations Food Services LP, hasn’t always led this way.

“When I was younger, I didn’t delegate nearly as much in decision-making,” he says. “I was much more hands-on. But as I picked up more responsibility, at a certain point, I said, ‘I’ve got to let other people make some of these decisions. I’ve got to let them do their thing. I can’t be involved in everything.’”

He’s led the company from $112 million in 2006 revenue to $170 million in 2008 revenue.

“I think that’s one of the things that has permitted our food services company to grow at an accelerated rate because our clients know that our management is permitted to make those decisions, and I’ll explain that to our clients also,” says Young, who also owns four minor league baseball teams and one minor league hockey team.

It’s not to say that Young wouldn’t have been successful with his old style of decision-making. Certainly, there are plenty of old-fashioned, strict leaders who want everything done their way. While that could work, they could be missing out on great opportunities.

“When you start looking at someone who is a dictator, it’s tough changing their opinion,” he says. “The old manager could have been successful, but he could be three times more successful if he did it a different way.”

Guide the decision

When Young needs to make a decision that involves key people in the organization, he receives input from those people and they have a healthy discussion. Young won’t share his opinion unless it’s needed.

“I purposely don’t let people know where I want the decision to go,” he says. “I’d rather have them come up with it. ... I feel that’s part of leadership.

“If you can get buy-in and feel that others have made that decision, I think that’s important. The way you do that is just talking things out.”

You can guide the conversation, but you don’t want to let it be known you have chosen a side in the discussion. Once the decision is made, you don’t necessarily need to take ownership of it.

“I don’t think in leadership that people need to know that you have made the decision,” he says. “There can be subordinates and others in the organization. As long as you buy in to that decision, let them think that they’re the ones that made the final decision.”

If the discussion is veering off in a way that is getting away from the main topic, he will bring everyone back on course. But he still will keep his opinion to himself.

“Because I realize one of the things when you’re leading, whether you are the president of one organization or even the leader of a committee, often people want to hear your opinion and then they’ll buy in to that opinion,” he says. “But that doesn’t always make the best decision.

“I don’t want people to agree just for the sake of agreeing. That is something that you need to convey to your employees, and then have them buy in to it. If I say something is red, and it’s really blue, I want them to tell me that.”

To reach that level of comfort will take time, so you have to continually work at it.

“It’s easier if they’re not sure where I am on an issue,” he says. “They’ll open up a little bit more. That’s where I think the best discussions take place.”

Learn to live with mistakes

Part of delegating decision-making is dealing with the mistakes that come along with it. If you want your lower-level managers to make decisions and take ownership, you have to let everyone know that you know mistakes will be made.

“The biggest thing I tell them is, ‘If you make the wrong decision about something, I’m not going to be overly upset about that. We can use that as a learning experience. However, if you make the wrong decision because you were careless or you didn’t gain the knowledge you needed, that upsets me,’” he says. “I’ll tell people that right upfront.”

When Young was 26, he was working for a food service company in Kansas City. The company was running the food service for the 1976 Republican National Convention, and he had the opportunity to put together a program for the convention.

It was a pretty substantial investment, but he received permission from his superiors for the project.

At the time, Young thought it was a great idea, but after the first day of the four-day convention, the programs weren’t selling like he thought they would.

“After one day, you get this pit in your stomach that you think, ‘Maybe tomorrow will be better, and I know it’s not going to be,’” he says.

“So, it turned out it was a bad decision. I’ll never forget this because I did think this was a bad enough decision that this could cost me my job.”

It didn’t cost him his job, but his boss did have a talk with him about it.

“We’re talking, and he says, ‘You know Ken, we could have sent you to Harvard Business School for what you lost on this,’” Young recalls.

“It relieved me because he was able to joke a little bit about it, but at the same time, we saw what the seriousness of that situation was.”

That situation hit home with Young because it said something about leadership and dealing with somebody who made a bad decision.

“If somebody has weighed something similar to how I would weigh making a decision and it just isn’t the right decision, I think you have to support the person usually in that case,” he says.

If someone makes a mistake that cost the organization $20 million, Young will have to hold himself accountable for allowing someone to make that decision. You have to avoid putting a manager in the position where he or she is left on an island when making a decision with big financial consequences.

“There’s obviously a point, especially with financial decisions, there’s a point where I am either going to buy in or make the final decision,” he says. “When you look at something that can do great harm to a company if it’s the wrong decision, I’m going to at least approve that decision.

“You come down to at what point is the risk that you are not going to permit somebody to make the final decision without coming to you. That just depends on the circumstance.”

If a wrong decision is made, then you need to sit down with the involved parties and talk about why the decision didn’t work.

“Because you have some great employees that just aren’t always going to make the right decision, just as I’m not always going to make the right decision,” he says. “When I make a bad decision, I just tell my own people, ‘I blew this decision. It wasn’t a good one. Here are the reasons I made it, but XYZ didn’t pan out so it turned out to be a poor decision.’”

Go your own way

W hile you may make a move to involve others in decisions, and you are ready to live with possible mistakes, at times, you still have to go with what you want.

“A good leader just doesn’t always go with the consensus if you think the consensus is wrong,” he says. “A good leader looks at why he thinks a decision is a right one and tries to explain why it is a right one, even though a larger number of people don’t agree with that.”

If you are in a situation where the room is against what you were thinking, but you believe your way is the best direction to head, then you have to make that decision.

Such was the case with an idea Young had about one of his baseball teams. The team would allow kids to run the bases a few Sunday afternoons a year, but Young wanted it to be an every-night occasion.

Young presented the idea in a meeting with about 20 staff members.

“We went around and there were probably 15 reasons why maybe you didn’t want to do it every night,” he says. “But every one of those reasons, they weren’t very good ones — ‘It’s going to keep the staff there an extra 20 minutes, it’s going do this, or it’s going to do that.’

“At the end, I said, ‘OK, I’ve heard everything you said, but the customer service and having those kids and their parents go home as happy as can be because they got to run … that’s going to send a great message, so we are going to do it every night.’”

You don’t want to make a habit of making decisions this way, but in instances where you feel very passionately, you should.

“It’s something like that where if I feel strong enough about something, I may listen to everybody, but in the end ... I haven’t been able to convince them to look at it from the same perspective I have, but that’s the way we are going to go,” Young says.

After making a decision that goes against the majority, you have to explain your reasons why you made the decision you did.

“When I explained in the end, ‘This is why we are doing it this way,’ they may or may not agree with me, but the fact is they say, ‘OK, he is doing it for a certain reason and we looked at it from a different perspective.’

“So, you get them to buy in. Then, the proof is in the pudding. They see the reaction of the fans and so forth, and if it’s a ho-hum, they might say, ‘Ken, this didn’t work the way you thought.’ Or come back and say, ‘This is pretty enthusiastic for everybody,’ and so they are then eager to go along.”

How to reach: Ovations Food Services LP, (813) 948-6900 or