Andrew Alfano feels like lightning has struck twice.

No, he's not talking about the remake of Chips.

The ex-Starbucks executive joined the coffee giant in its early days and recalls much of the same energy and excitement he now feels as chief operating officer of the Learning Experience, a company with 300 locations open or under development that provides a blend of child care services, educational development, and enrichment programs for toddlers and preschoolers.

According to Alfano, the company--founded by chairman and CEO Richard Weissman--is the fastest-growing early education franchise in the country, with 10 straight years of double-digit top- and bottom-line growth.

In an exclusive interview, Alfano recounted lessons learned from his days at Starbucks that he's blended (pun intended) with lessons learned since arriving at the Learning Experience.

Here are six great lessons for success from Alfano:

1. "Circle time" is not just for kids.

Alfano has learned the importance of being intentional about staying connected to employees. At the Learning Experience, once a month Alfano and department leaders gather with employees for what's called "circle time." The gathering is a state-of-the-union type interaction in which they discuss company performance, priorities, successes, and challenges and take time to celebrate employees.

It's a venue where the COO gets to practice what he preaches about the importance of staying connected and listening to employees. As Alfano told me, "How's it going?" is not an expression. It's an inquiry you have to follow up with actual deep listening.

So recommit to your own version of "circle time" to start another kind of circle--a virtuous one. Circle time has helped the Learning Experience get big and stay small, something every employee wants (the benefits of a big company while still feeling like part of a connected family).

2. The experience your consumer has will never be better than the experience your employees have.

Closely related to the first lesson, this goes beyond institutionalizing listening to the employee to investing in the employee experience. The truth is that employee happiness (or lack thereof) flows through to the customer. Prioritizing the employee's happiness and experience happens when you prioritize culture, something Alfano believes is not separate from strategy (it is strategy).

Culture belongs on a pedestal. Period.

3. Lead and get out of the way--but don't go away.

Alfano is a big believer in empowerment and assigning accountability, but he also knows that empowerment can go wrong if the leader just disappears. To the employee, this can feel like dumping instead of effective delegating.

So when granting autonomy have an agreement in place for what's in scope within that autonomy and what the success criteria are, and then be prepared to provide the resources and help needed along the way.

4. Know when you're at an inflection point.

Alfano is keenly aware of (and is acting on) the fact that his company is at an inflection point. Every city, county, and state has its own idea of what should be occurring at the preschool level, and more than ever they look to the Learning Experience as the standard bearer of an optimal experience.

Combine that with the fact that Millennial parents, more so than those of previous generations, are astutely aware of the benefits of preschool (it's an industry set to explode), and that spells inflection point.

Know it when you're in it.

5. When you get to the point where you know what you don't know, you know the most.

Alfano learned early on that he couldn't do everything on his own, that he needed to bring others along with him to get results (versus leaving bodies behind). He's acutely aware now of what he doesn't know and feels all the wiser for it.

And what to do when you realize all that you don't know? Surround yourself with people who complement your weak spots, and ask a lot of questions.

6. Problems are good.

The COO encourages employees to bring problems forward sooner, so they can be solved faster. And he looks for "thousand school solutions"--robust solutions that will stand the test of time and be broadly applicable in the future.

Create the same attitude toward problems--turn the fear into a ferocity for progress.

It sounds like Alfano has adeptly transitioned from coffee to kids. Here's to hoping his accumulated lessons help you accumulate your own success.

Published on: Aug 3, 2017
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