Former CEO Of SeaWorld Joel Manby Says Focus On What You Do Well

Don Yaeger

01/05/22 | Inspiration


Former CEO Of SeaWorld Joel Manby Says Focus On What You Do Well

Joel Manby has always been brutally honest about life and business. Maybe he learned his lesson guarding another tall Michigan native named Earvin “Magic” Johnson in high school and realizing, after the future Lakers Hall of Famer lit him up for 42 points, that “basketball wasn’t going to be my sport.”

In a recent interview, Manby shared that instead of going home and beating himself up over the drubbing, “I realized that the big lesson was to focus on what I could do well and not try to keep getting better at something that I’m not that good at.” Fortunately, there were many other things at which he did excel, including football, baseball, theater, and good old-fashioned school work.

Working hard at what he was good at got Manby to Albion College. There he played football and baseball and studied economics well enough to become class Valedictorian, a Rhodes Scholarship Finalist, and earn a tryout with Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers. Here, as with basketball post Magic Johnson, he successfully narrowed the field of future careers to exclude America’s pastime.

No, Manby was not meant to play professional sports, but he was undoubtedly meant to be a business leader. This realization became crystal clear two years after college when the boy from Battle Creek was admitted to Harvard Business School and emerged with an MBA in 1985.

First, he starred in an episode of the CBS hit “Undercover Boss,” in which he saw first-hand and poignantly how “people just want to do a good job and, sometimes, just got blocked from doing so for some reason, often financial.” The experience impressed him so profoundly he set up the Share It Forward Foundation, HFE’s charitable organization, which aids employees in need.

The second transformation came after he left HFE and wrote a book called Love Works about the HFE culture. He founded his own company called Love Works and began working full-time as a keynote speaker and an author. In my interview with him, he reinforced his vision of team-focused leadership. Included among the many nuggets, Manby offers from this vision are:

  • Setting a high bar for excellence: Just as he does for himself, Manby wants his team members to focus on their strengths and passions while also not short-selling themselves. “We can usually do more than we think we can,” he averred. “And the people who we lead can do more than we think they can. But we are the ones who have to set the bar higher.”
  • Tying rewards to team performance: Manby thinks many leaders focus too much on individual compensation at the expense of team performance. “Every compensation system I have used has had at least 50 percent tied to team performance,” he explained. “People have to understand the team is more important than the individual.”
  • Favoring dialogue over monologue: When Manby became CEO of SeaWorld in 2015, the company was reeling following the 2013 release of the documentary film Blackfish, a story that blamed the stress of captivity experienced by SeaWorld’s orcas for the deaths of three SeaWorld workers by an orca named Tilikum. Faced with the daunting task of fixing SeaWorld’s public image, Manby chose to reach out to, rather than villainize, his counterpart at the Humane Society. Their partnership led to improved practices with the whales and the “return of the public’s trust” in SeaWorld’s mission.
  • Practicing servant leadership: Manby says he has had points in his career when he has practiced servant leadership and other moments when he has not done so. And he will tell you definitively that being a servant leader works better. “Servant leadership brings out the best in people,” he said. “It makes the organization thrive and culture thrive.”

Both the company and the book called Love Works celebrate what Manby calls the “be” imperative of great leadership. “All companies have what I call do goals, which are about getting financial results,” said Manby. “I am interested in the be goals — what kind of leaders do we want to be in the organization?”

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