Zamboni Management

The title here is shameless misdirection. Its manipulating purpose is to somehow lure those millions of hockey fans in Canada to read a blog about people management. Clearly many of you have stopped reading this as I confess my deception. For those of you who were raised to finish what you start, allow me to continue.

Clearly a majority of hockey fans have nothing to do between those painful intermissions that disrupt three twenty- minute periods of well-played hockey. Like you, I feel the fifteen minutes of hockey intermission is unnecessary, remembering what my grandmother use to say, “No rest for the wicked”. This phrase does have biblical roots, however it gained great popularity from the comic strip Little Orphan Annie in 1933, when the cartoonist simply used that phrase as a title of his syndicated strip.  Rest is highly overrated, and your grandmother warned you that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, yet these intermissions continue to occur?

There is an actual reason for the 15- minute break, as hockey players seem to be rejuvenated when restarting their work on a fresh sheet of ice.  This proceeding article has absolutely nothing to do with pucks, body checks or skates. I will attempt to mention trivial hockey stuff, throughout this essay as I cleverly attempt to keep your interest.

After each hockey period, the trusted and too often ignored Zamboni rumbles onto the ice, and clears the debris and remnants of a hard fought twenty minutes of competition. The more alert drivers of this miraculous machine, subtly add bleach to the formula, to erase any blood that may have spilled onto the ice during the occasional mild disagreement between players. The remarkable thing about this ice-making machine, is the fundamental design and look has hardly changed since Mr. Zamboni struggled to invent something so his name would be remembered.

The roots of Frank Zamboni’s invention are scarce. By scarce, I mean I did nothing that would resemble research for this article. So allow me to just speculate on how the Zamboni came into being. I suspect Mr. Zamboni was working on a paving device for his driveway. That device was unfortunately completed in early February during a cold spell. He just had to try his machine immediately, and discovered he had created a fresh sheet of ice that was treacherous to his home. Cars slipped onto the road and mailmen kept falling down as they attempted to deliver his inflated hydro bills. That hopeless pursuit failed but accidentally did evolve into the machine that today creates the ideal surface for hockey and unplanned jerky walking steps to a microphone right before you sing the national anthem. For those annoying people who demand facts, Frank Zamboni patented his miracle machine in 1949 from his home in California.

If one has time to reflect, and I am suggesting you have that time between periods, the Zamboni is the perfect metaphor for a people management approach. Okay hockey fans I may have lost your attention, so let me just type Gordie Howe hat trick.

Zamboni Management suggests three key attributes that all great managers consistently demonstrate when supporting their people.

  1. Clear the Ice.


Managers have a lonely selfless position, and though they are accountable for people’s development, driving business and personal growth, they are often simply managing one crisis after another. Their people tend to bring more issues than solutions and the manager must maintain their realistic outlook, stay disciplined and be positive regardless of the staff challenges.  Managing would be such an easy job if it just wasn’t for the people. Bobby Orr was a better defenceman than Denis Potvin!

Your staff can also feel a little beaten up after a day of customer complaints, internal unresolved issues, and the daily demands of a professional. This is where a Zamboni might just be the ideal managerial approach to help clear things just a little for your tired, well- intentioned employees.

Clear the ice for them. Remove obstacles that have impeded their success. A key role for all people managers is to manage processes and let your people get to the work, while you deflect or remove things that do not help in improving productivity. Like the fresh sheet of ice that glistens before every period, instill hope and possibilities with your team after every interaction with your team. The great managers do this instinctively however your own instincts can get temporarily skewed because of the bad day you might be having. When you are viewed as a leader who gets things done, your people will get even more things done. The Montreal Canadians have won 24 Stanley Cups but the New York Yankees have 26 World Series Championships.

  1. Get on the Ice

The Zamboni is on the ice and not in the press box. The important distinction is that all great managers are also out on the playing surface of their people. They do not manage from the press box, occasionally walking into the field of play, speaking platitudes before quickly returning to the comfort of their lofty ivory tower. Great managers constantly join in the game. They are simply present with their team as often as they can be. Your staff will notice this more than you realize.

An interesting observation from my work experience is that when field people get promoted to the office they forget to get back in the real world to observe what is really going on with customers. Market research, focus groups and other data is helpful in company strategies, but it will never replace talking to customers. Questions and insights that are often missed in surveys will always be revealed in a face to face conversations.

The Zamboni also makes regular trips to its location, because it knows consistency and reliability are key to its performance. Those are key manager attributes as well, and one cannot underestimate the importance of this undervalued Zamboni characteristic. The reliable consistent manager transforms their people like water can magically transform into ice. Have I lost you? Wayne Gretzky still holds ninety-three NHL records.

  1. Fundamentals have not changed

The final Zamboni management point is perhaps the most interesting one. The fundamentals of its operation, has not changed in its eighty-three years of existence. This fact is also very true in management truths and values. Many courses, many books and too many consultant firms to mention here, are created to suggest that the role of manager has changed.

I will not argue that the environment, the shift in organizational values and the demise of strict authoritarian structure has occurred for the good of industry. I would also suggest that three core pieces of management have not changed at all. Inspire your people, manage your people and lead your people have always been the hat trick of all of the great managers you have admired. Conversely you remember fondly the manager who lacked any of these critical management skills.

The late Harold Ballard would not have supported my managerial argument, though I might suggest history would. Let’s not forget the ultimate measure of great management is results of its teams. Ballard would have of course counter argued that point and might even have blamed his own Zamboni driver at Maple Leaf Gardens, as the fundamental reason for his team’s consistently unimpressive performance. To the Leaf fan, I would propose they would vehemently argue that the ice has never been the problem.




4 thoughts on “Zamboni Management

  1. Great analogy Mr. Ford. In your typical hilarious and insightful way, you’ve helped me to remember some of the basics – like your people should feel more energized and hopeful when you are finished your day with them. Sometimes those obvious objectives can get lost when the manager is being pushed by those in the press box to drive up secondary outcomes like shots on goal or +/-. Keep up the great work – if you’re a Leafs fan you won’t have hockey as a distraction for much longer.

  2. I spent time clearing the ice with someone on my team today. I wish I had read your blog before my meeting so I could have borrowed the Zamboni analogy. Well played, sir.

    Such a simple formula. Such a powerful insight. What a concept… “Manager as enabler.”

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