CEO Joel Manby on How Leading a Company With Love Works

Lead With Love

Joel Manby is the incoming CEO of SeaWorld and the former CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment.  Herschend is the largest family owned theme park in the US owing 26 locations including Dollywood and Stone Mountain.  If he looks familiar, you may recognize him from his appearance on CBS’ Undercover Boss.

Joel’s is the author of Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders, a book about practicing love at work.  Talking about love at work may seem strange coming from a hard-charging executive who spent years in the automotive industry before joining Herschend.  After reading this book, I could tell that Joel meant every word of it.  Still, I had to start with the question about love at work.

This is a business book, but the title and the theme are all about Love.  Joel, you were an executive at GM, Saturn and Saab.  It’s all about metrics.  Numbers.  Results.  But, you say no, Love Works.  Tell me more about your transition from hard-hitting analytical executive to someone who sees love as a business success factor.

It’s still about metrics; the key question is which metrics? At HFE we measure all the standard business metrics including financial results, customer scores and employee scores. We all have to hit those numbers. In addition, we are also measured on HOW we go about hitting those numbers. We are all evaluated on the seven words outlined in Love Works. In fact, the top raises are given to those who hit both measurements; and all senior leaders are expected to be good at all of the above.




Success Defined By Love

How do you define personal success?  Corporate success?

I define personal success as being consistent to my own personal mission statement:  to love God and love others. I can achieve that in a number of personal endeavors; but feel blessed to be able to achieve it in a growing, profitable business. Corporate success should be defined the same way:  ultimately, what is the mission statement of the company? Ours is to “create memories worth repeating.”

The former CEO of Saturn, Skip LeFauve, said something that had a big impact on you.  (And what a great name he has!)  “Loyalty is no longer a function of rote or duty, but rather passion.  You must do things so astonishingly well that customers become not merely loyalists, but rather outright apostles.”  Tell me how that hit you, and what you’ve done differently as a result of this type of thinking.

If all of our business decisions start with what is best for the customer and what will the customer get out of our decision, that focus clarifies the process of making a decision. Skip’s comment raised the bar of what we were trying to accomplish. We wanted a Saturn customer so excited about their car buying process that they told 10 others about it. That, in fact happened for the first 10 years of Saturn.   That type of thinking is at HFE too. We don’t want to just make a guest happy, we want to create an emotional connection with that guest in some way, shape or form. That’s a higher bar and takes a ton of leadership time and effort.

Joel Manby's 7 Principles

1. Patient

Have self-control in difficult situations.

2.  Kind

Show encouragement and enthusiasm.

3.  Trusting

Place confidence in those around you.

4. Unselfish

Think of yourself less.

5. Truthful

Define reality corporately and individually.

6. Forgiving

Release the grip of the grudge.

7. Dedicated

Stick to your values in all circumstances.

I’m a big believer in handwritten notes, and have written about their power.  I believe that they are incredibly powerful, and enduring.  I’m not surprised you kept the note from Jack Herscend and love the fact you included it.  Tell me about the power of that note and what it did for you.

I was having a bad day in a bad week in a bad month and Jack’s note came along at just the right time.   It reinforced me and my team and the results we were getting in the worst recession since the Great Depression. However, what came a week later was even more impressive. My wife and children received a handwritten note from Jack that read:  “Dear Marki, Lauryn, Erinn, Jesse and Anna, Over the last 2 days I had the privilege of watching your dad provide the most awesome leadership to the President’s team. It was the kind of leadership that leads to actions pleasing to Jesus. I’m soooo grateful you all choose to share him with us.   Appreciatively, Jack.”

A letter to the spouse of an employee? How many of us have done that?!?  By chance, that same week I was offered the opportunity to interview for the CEO position of a competitor at more than twice the salary.  After discussions with my wife, Marki, we decided not to pursue it. After all, for once I loved my job and I loved the way people were treated; including myself. That note had a powerful impact, as can notes from any of us.

The key principle is that Jack spends the first 20 minutes of every day focused on thinking about yesterday and what notable behavior he witnessed that he can reinforce by writing a note.  Most leaders are too busy taking the next hill to ever thank those helping them get there. Writing notes is an important way to do that.




The Importance of Enthusiasm

I underlined and ultimately blew up this quote for my own office.  “The enthusiasm of the guest experience can never rise any higher than the enthusiasm of your own employees.”  I love that.  How do you encourage enthusiasm?

That is not a simple answer, but I would say to those reading to read the book to find out. I am not trying to be cute, but building enthusiasm is a combination of strong leadership and good processes:  including what you measure, how you set goals, how you promote and hire, what you focus on, etc.    All these are touched upon by diving into the seven words of love outlined inLove Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders.




You encourage leaders to make decisions based on integrity and faith with a focus on people.

Actually, we don’t focus on faith at HFE; we focus 100% on behavior. We are clear where the definition of leadership comes from: The Bible. We are clear that these principles are based on how Jesus loved others. However, we only require our employees behave in a manner consistent with the seven words. The rest takes care of itself.

What was it like to be on Undercover Boss?  There had to be a moment where you paused and worried about appearing on the show?

Undercover Boss was an incredible experience. We were overwhelmed by the positive response we received from the nation’s exposure to our culture. That response proved to me we had a leadership crisis in this country and was a big reason I wrote the book.

All of the things we gave to the employees featured on the show came out of our internal foundation, Share it Forward. With Share it Forward, employee donations are matched by the company and all of it is used to help employees in need. After the episode aired, our foundation went from helping 40 families a year to almost 800 families last year, so it really helped us help others.

Yes, I was nervous to do it. We had no editing rights and the first time I saw the episode was when 18 million Americans saw it. So, I was a nervous wreck that night. However, our board and the Herschend family had enough faith in our people to take the risk, and we are glad we did.

You’ve transitioned into various companies.  I’m a student of successful culture.  As a CEO myself, I’m always working to improve the company culture because I believe it makes a huge difference.  But if you aren’t a CEO or divisional leader, you can still make a difference.  Any tips on how to do that?

I am so glad you asked that. My time at HFE has proven to me that ANYONE can make a difference. In fact, anytime we come into contact with anyone we have an opportunity to make a positive or negative deposit into the culture of the company.

In the final chapter of the book, I challenge the reader with “it is up to you.” It is not up to your CEO, your supervisor or co-worker. Any employee at any level has the power to make a difference. For example at Dollywood, the person who has the greatest impact on the culture of the park is not the president or general manager. It is Judy Ward, an executive assistant. She is truly committed to the seven principles and that dedication impacts not only the people she interacts with but continues to have ripple effects throughout the company.


Faith at Work

How has your faith influenced you as a leader?

Jesus #1 command is to love others as he loved us: unconditionally. So for me, leading with love is a perfect way to integrate my faith into my work. Hopefully, the way I lead shows that God is at work in my life.

I love the concept of “be” versus “do” goals.  Would you briefly explain that concept?

For most of my career, I was focused on my “do” goals – what I wanted to accomplish in my career, what level of financial success I wanted to achieve. But I realized that simply accomplishing my do goals did not bring me contentment.

When I left the auto industry after 20 years and began a new chapter in my life at HFE, I created a set of “be” goals for myself. Be goals are about defining the kind of person I want to be. And I have  control over these goals. I can be a good husband, father and friend while at the same time being a good leader.

I give my be goals the same priority as my do goals. Just as I set aside time to accomplish my “do” goals, I also set aside time to accomplish my “be” goals. Now, my do goals and my be goals are in alignment, and I have contentment like never before.


Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders

Continue Reading

Learn the important power of prioritizing sleep

Learn the important power of prioritizing sleep

Subscribe today and receive a free e-book. Get Your Guide to a Solid Night of Sleep free when you sign up to receive blog updates via email.

Thank you! Please check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This