Not Seeing the Forest For the Trees

Selling popsicles for a living is pretty fun.

Except when it isn’t.

In the dead of winter it can be pretty brutal. (Turns out people don’t want quite as many frozen treats when it is dark and cold outside).

After Halloween, the pop carts stop going out, the phone stops ringing, and the excitement and energy that typically abounds at King of Pops turns into a soul-sucking malaise of dread and despair as we dolefully trudge into the office each day, searching for things to do.

I’m exaggerating. A little.

Sure we take a break in the winter (the coolest among us surf, I keep having kids), but still, we can only rest so long. The same energy that drives us to greatness when selling pops can manifest into frustration when no one is buying.

We had to do something in the winter.

So what do you do when you have a business built on exceedingly cheery and fun-loving pop slingers that really want to keep working? What do you do when you have a fleet of trucks and a wealth of social capital with a very large fanbase?

You don elf costumes and deliver Christmas trees all over town of course.

Yes, Tree Elves is a perfect fit for us. It helps us to continue employing hourly staff. It helps us keep the lights on. It helps keep us in the public conscious for the entire year, not just the summer months.

And, just like selling popsicles, selling Christmas trees is pretty fun.

Except when it isn’t.

When we rolled out the idea of Tree Elves to everyone in the company, it was met with more than a little skepticism. (You want us to wear what!?)

Eventually though, everyone was onboard. We (management) bought a bunch of beautiful Fraser firs, tree stands, and elf costumes uniforms and shipped them across the southeast to each city hub. A lot of time and effort went into building the website and the backend ordering system. Flyers and social media posts were created for all to use.

It was turnkey, we thought.

Except it wasn’t.

It was backbreaking work to unload and store the trees. Most of the city managers had failed to obtain a high-traffic tree lot, depending solely on visitors to the Tree Elves web site. Sales were dismal. Operations were a mess.

After the first week, the people in each city hub were angry and frustrated and ashamed.

Management was angry and frustrated and disappointed.

At the end of a long year, every ounce of remaining energy was spent on placing blame, rather than generating ideas to sell the trees.

So who was right?

Were those in the trenches right to be confused and tired and unsure of what to do next?

Or were those of us that cooked up the idea in the first place correct in thinking that a semblance of a plan was enough, and that the same bright, energetic minds that made our popsicle business so successful could certainly handle selling Christmas trees at Christmastime?

The answer is both. Or rather, neither.

My high school basketball coach once decided to install a complicated motion offense in the midst of my senior season. We had lost something like 10 games in a row and he thought for sure this would work.

It didn’t.

We ended up with a record of 4-20. (As an aside to the Participation Trophy Generation, it’s okay, I turned out fine).

I can remember vividly the practices and games during which we tried to run this offense.  Our coach would scream at us for moving too slow. For not trying hard enough. For just not “getting it.”

Of course, our perceived lack of hustle was not a result of laziness or being tired. (I certainly wasn’t tired, I played approximately two minutes a game).

No, we were paralyzed by thought. We were afraid to make any mistakes whatsoever, so rather than just run and react, we were pausing and thinking.

Ask any athlete and they will tell you, this is no way to play.

Compounding our confusion was the disappointment we felt in letting down our coach. His reaction was to motivate the only way he knew how-yelling.

But then a vicious cycle emerged: the angrier he got, the more ashamed and resentful we got.

Playing a sport is fun.

Except when it isn’t.

The King of Pops Christmas story has a happier ending than my senior year of varsity basketball.

Almost all of the trees are going to end up sold. Our strong culture and deep trust in each other (earned over many years) allowed for creative sales ideas to eventually flow again. Operations were smoothed and customers are incredibly happy. So are the elves.

And while we learned a lot about selling Christmas Trees, the more valuable lesson applies year round:

To accomplish anything of value, we must make every attempt to understand and share the feelings of those we interact with.

We must empathize. We must see the entire picture.

From both sides.