I learned an unexpected lesson recently and feel that, maybe, what I learned can help you, too. Working in an E&S dealership with a strong emphasis on the front of the house, I like nothing better than talking about tabletop items ... discussing bands, borders, brushes or base plates gets my blood moving. At our company, new restaurants are our lifeblood. We all know that there is a very detailed, "left brain" side to an opening that involves the organization of delivery dates, order quantities, lead times and availability of supplies, not to mention establishing pricing. Since each element is critical, all need and deserve careful consideration.

However, it's the creative, "right brain" part of unit openings that really energizes our sales force. Some DSRs select a single manufacturer with which to coordinate everything. Others prefer to choose a piece of china here, a flatware pattern there and accent pieces from someone else. With their tabletop designs, our reps transform operators' fuzzy ideas into an atmosphere and, by so doing, help create a restaurant's "feel." We imagine a great tabletop as not only aesthetically pleasing, but also designed to let diners know what to expect, what they can look forward to. It might take days or weeks to design and set a customer's tabletop. At times, it can feel like pulling teeth. Yet, when it gels, you know it!

Do we, as principals, inspire our sales team? Are we blah or brilliant leaders?

But, back to my unexpected lesson. When we opened a new restaurant recently, our DSR, rightfully proud, took pictures. Just as the pictures were developed, we received an announcement from Foodservice Equipment & Supplies calling for entries in its annual tabletop awards competition. Urged on by co-workers, the DSR agreed to submit her new restaurant project to FE&S ... but not before challenging her project partners to do the same. Out of nowhere, a race was on! The whole place was sucked into the competition. There were pictures, bets, menus and calls to owner/operators. Our store was electric with excitement.

Management threw in some bucks and more dealer sales reps got into the fray. Who would submit first? Who had the best pictures? In which customer category should our entry be slotted? My sales reps, while talking about their customers, were really thinking of beating their co-workers for the top spot in the upcoming competition. They took pride in their work and exhorted each other to greater efforts. Above all, they were thrilled to enter a national contest. I stood somewhat back and wished good luck to all.

FE&S' competition forced us all to look at what we had been doing for the past year. For some, it was an eye-opener. How creative had we been? Did we inspire our customers? How could we help our customers to achieve a better look in their operations, an up-to-date atmosphere? Did our DSRs have the tools and samples they needed? Were the factory reps available and offering effective help?

As a result of our recent experiences, we have started looking at our tabletop installations differently — asking ourselves not just do they work, but are they blah or brilliant? And, how about ourselves? Do we, as principals, inspire our sales team? Are we blah or brilliant leaders?

Maybe some intramural competition might help us become a little lighter, a little brighter. Maybe we can use the competitive stimulus to help keep ourselves and our staff electrified. I guess my lesson was that a little friendly competition did an awful lot to energize our daily routine and might have the same effect on yours.