I was coming home from Omaha on a Sunday evening a few months ago, jamming to NPR. This American Life was about to start and Ira Glass hopped on the mic with a preview of the evening’s story. He mentioned that this episode would be about Amusement Parks; to my delight his first stop was Worlds of Fun in Kansas City to talk with the Manager of Games, Cole Lindbergh.
I won’t do the story justice in writing….so you should go listen to it when you have 30 minutes free. Don’t have time right now? I’ll do my best to sum it up:
Cole Lindbergh is a 26 year old who started in the games department when he was 14 (you know…ring toss, pop a shot, guess your height, weight, age, win amazing plush prizes….games). Since that time, he’s worked his way up the ladder to manager of the entire games department, responsible for more than 120 teenagers every summer. He’s energetic (some would say silly), he loves what he does, he accomplishes large goals and most importantly he gets the teenagers around him to do the same thing.
Needless to say, the story really got to me, producing one of those infamous “driveway moments” that NPR is known for. I sat in my car listening to Ira and Cole discuss empowerment, motivation and the challenge of leading millennials. Ira at one point noted that “it’s rare to witness anyone so happily great at any job.”
The story ended and I shut off my car, closed the garage door and went straight for my computer. I found the Worlds of Fun Games department Facebook page and sent a message about how proud I was of Cole and how well he represented Kansas City. It took a few months, but I jumped at the chance to connect with him one on one (I offered to buy him some tacos….he should have charged me WAY more).
Through a conversation that lasted well over 90 minutes, I learned a lot…a better investment than some of the business books I’ve read. For most of us, Leadership is a trait you have to practice and hone over time. Leadership is part of Cole’s fiber, deeply embedded from the days of helping his father unload cargo from airplanes when he was only 12 yrs old (2 years from officially entering the workforce himself). He has a drive and work ethic you don’t see often….and it’s viral, he even put a spring in my step as I headed back to the office.
During our conversation, I heard 3 common themes that I would attribute to his success:
1) Set a Mission/Vision/Objectives
- This sounds simple in nature, but it’s often overlooked. Providing your crew with a North Star (not necessarily an instruction manual) is critical to success. Empower your team members to do the same…there should never be a question as to the mission (team or individual).
2) Invert the Org Chart
- Fight for your team, not with them. If things aren’t going in the right direction, it’s because you failed on #1, not that they have bad ideas.
- Cole walks the park every day, takes an interest in every single one of his employees (120+ of them…), surely you can do the same. Innovation is happening on the front line and Cole had an example where an idea from a 16 yr old working the ring toss came to him with an idea that DOUBLED the revenue for the game she was working on.
3) Attitude is Infectious
- Cole has drive and exudes work ethic, enthusiasm and passion…he even mentioned that he “would never work for someone who doesn’t want to have fun.” It’s no wonder his employees emulate his attitude, take part in zany training videos and come back year after year to work with him.
- Because of the seasonal nature of amusement parks, he has to rehire all 120+ people each year. He boasts a retention rate better than 75% year over year (meaning he only has to fill and train a fraction of new employees each year…most of them coming through referrals)
- His current lead team has an average tenure of 4-6 years (ridiculous when you consider the fact that these supervisors are just over 20 years old). There’s something about Worlds of Fun they like….I’ll give you one guess.
I have no idea what the future holds for Cole, but I can guarantee you this….he’s going to continue to be successful (and hopefully keep in touch with me as he enjoys that success). His next challenge will be to take a step back and realize that he’s a lot more than a games manager at Worlds of Fun, his skill set transcends what he’s doing today.
My advice to his current employer, find a place for this kid….he’s got the right stuff. Put him in a place where his leadership skills can be of most value to you. If you wait a few more years….you wont be able to afford him because someone else will.
Keep it up Cole!
Follow him on Twitter: @colelindbergh