When I was a kid learning to read, I always knew meatballs didn’t come from the sky.
I knew a frog and a toad couldn’t talk to me about life (because, as we all know, frogs and toads cannot talk.)
But, at the same time, some books could be so captivating that they became a staple in our bedtime routine. Whenever my dad traveled, we would recite the lines from one of our favorites.
We practiced for weeks while he was home. Every night when he was away, he would call to say goodnight and wait anxiously to see if I was ready. Then, finally, one night, I started.
“I’ll love you forever,” I said.
“I’ll like you for always,” he replied
I said, “As long as I’m living.”
He said, “My baby you’ll be.”
Then, we’d do the whole thing in reverse. But I’d end with, “My daddy you’ll be.”
To this day, this story still sticks with me. And if I called my dad and said, “I’ll love you forever,” I have no doubt he’d respond with, “I’ll like you for always.” Twenty-five years later, we’d pick right back up—like no time had passed at all.
That’s because books from our childhood have such a huge impact on the rest of our lives.
These stories shape and mold us into the people we become. In many cases, we take on the traits that we learn from reading (although, hopefully not the bad ones).
The book that always stuck out to me the most was Laura Numeroff’s, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
You’ve probably read it before, but this story is cute. In the book, the mouse is given a cookie and then asks for a glass of milk. After getting the milk to go with the cookie, it asks for a straw, a mirror, scissors, and a broom.
Each request prompts another, until it comes full circle with the mouse getting another cookie and asking for another glass of milk.
Perhaps this was an odd book for me to gravitate toward. (Heck—I’m an odd bird.)
I think most people just view it as a story about an annoying and needy mouse. You give the mouse something nice and it just asks for more.
But, it always struck me as something bigger. The lesson always seemed to be about action and reaction—about our responsibility to other people.
As I’ve moved through my career, this message has shaped my philosophy as a leader.
The Tale of Two Managers
I realized that this book can represent two approaches to management.
On the one hand, there are those who see the mouse as needy and entitled. As a manager, this represents a hands-off style where managers fill roles and expect employees to do their job without any extra help or encouragement. To them, employees are in debt to their manager for hiring them. They owe it to the company to do the work.
In my experience, this is management without leadership.
On the other hand, you have the opposite philosophy. The role of management is to provide whatever is necessary for an employee to succeed. This philosophy sees each request not as a burden, but as the mouse wanting an opportunity to grow and learn. Through this lens, the employer and the manager owe it to their employees to set them up for success. Hiring them wasn’t a favor—it was a commitment to their future.
This is true leadership—when a manager understands that their role is to build and lead a team, not just fill in names on a schedule.
I embrace the second philosophy.
My personal management style is about empowering employees. And sometimes that means giving them the things they need, even when it seems annoying or silly.
Giving a mouse a cookie, to me, is a lot like hiring someone. As a leader, I am the one who decides to make that hiring decision. But, I can’t expect to just hire a new team member and walk away.
Giving someone a job is just the beginning of my obligation to them.
As a leader, my role is to help them be successful. If I give them a cookie, then maybe they need a glass of milk. And that’s okay.
When we hire someone to do a job, our goal shouldn’t be to fill an empty locker. It should be to put the best person in the position and create an environment for them to do their job to the best of their ability. It’s about coaching, mentoring, and helping them grow—not only as an employee, but also as a person.
Rising to the Occasion
In the book, the mouse makes some mistakes. He makes a mess after eating the cookie, leaving crumbs all over the floor. But, when the mouse makes a mistake, he asks for some help —a broom to sweep up the crumbs.
Employees make mistakes, too. (No one is perfect.)
How leaders handle these situations can shape the culture of the entire team.
I have walked into many stores where managers will rush in whenever there’s a problem and “just take care of it.” Sure, it alleviates the current situation—it might make them feel better in the moment. But this approach actually creates a much larger issue.
By rushing to solve problems for their team, they’ve created a culture where their team isn’t given the tools to be part of the solution. When you take away those tools, most people can’t help but feel like they’ve become part of the problem.
When I come across managers that struggle with this, I try to coach them on how they can be a more effective leader—not by solving more problems, but by making sure they get their team the tools they need.
The key is to slow down.
Step back, look at the big picture, and decide the best course of action. Sometimes, that means taking the time to coach in the moment. Other times, it may require a quick solution and a commitment to following up. In either case, you bring them in as part of the solution. You coach them on how to solve the problem.
To decide which approach is best, you have to understand your team. That means investing time in your people—figuring out their strengths, weaknesses, and how they like to learn.
If you go around looking for problems to fix, you’ll spend all of your time managing situations. But if you coach your people through the process, they’ll learn from it. If you give them the tools and knowledge to fix their mistakes, most people will rise to the occasion.
Great leaders help their teams grow, not by solving every problem for them, but by giving them the tools they need to solve problems on their own.
This is what sets great leaders apart from managers.
Investing in People
If you give a mouse a cookie but you don’t give them a glass of milk, they won’t be happy. (Unless they’re lactose intolerant.)
Likewise, if you hire someone and don’t give them the tools they need to succeed, they’re bound to leave.
This is a trap that I think many managers fall into.
They fixate on filling roles, but they ignore their job in fostering the growth of their team. They hire great people and then leave them to fend for themselves. This is like giving them an invisible roadmap to failure.
Leaders understand that their team will always have needs.
Sometimes, they’ll ask for more. Sometimes they’ll make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on them.
If you give someone a job, you should be prepared to help them be successful. Sometimes that means giving them a glass of milk and sometimes it means helping them clean up the crumbs. But the fact that they’re asking for help means that they’re engaged and grateful for the opportunity. It means they want the chance to learn from—and grow with—you.
As a leader, it’s your job to give them that chance.
It’s your job to invest in your team.
More often than not, when I’m brought into a team that has a reputation for a toxic culture, it’s never because the team is lacking. It’s because the members of that team don’t feel valued. No one celebrates their birthdays, no one takes the time to ask about their families, and, worst of all, no one bothers to just say, “thank you for all that you do.”
These gestures matter.
They may seem small or trivial, but they’re the hallmark of investing in your team.
To turn around the culture, I start here. I start with how the team is treated and focus on making them feel valued and important.
In management, we often stress the importance of focusing on the customer—we push for building relationships and elevated hospitality. But what we forget is that our team members are our customer. As managers, we serve them. In order for them to make customers feel comfortable and confident, they need to feel it first.
We’re investing time, energy, and resources—giving them what they need (and sometimes want)—in hopes that the investment will come full circle. I truly believe that when you invest in the right person, you’ll get it back 10-fold—every single time.
The moral of this story is to invest in people. Believe in their abilities.
And when you give someone a job, be the type of leader who has a glass of milk ready.