What Business Owners Can Learn from Dale Earnhardt

Running a successful business requires a wide variety of skills, but it also requires something that you probably never factored into your business plan: a flair for the dramatic.

Please allow me, dear readers, to give you an illustrative example not from the business world, but from NASCAR. (Trust me, it's relevant.)

Sunday marks 10 years since legendary race car driver Dale Earnhardt passed away, but his legacy lives on. Aside from his incredible driving skills, Earnhardt was memorable for his use of theater to add meaning to otherwise forgettable moments.
Here's a cool story ex-NASCAR driver Rick Mast told me about Dale Sr.:

In the early 90s Rick was hosting a charity event and needed a "name" to ensure a good crowd, so he turned to Earnhardt. Dale reluctantly said yes, but on one condition: He could only attend for two hours.

Recognizing that some Dale was always better than no Dale, Rick immediately agreed.

A huge line formed hours in advance. Dale got there on time, signed autographs, and with a couple minutes to go on the two-hour time limit threw a meaningful glance at Rick. Mast took the hint and put up a velvet rope barrier, announcing to the crowd, "I'm sorry, folks, but if you are behind this line we won't be able to accommodate you. That's all the time we have."

Several hundred people groaned and the line started to disintegrate. Dale kept his head down, signed another autograph, and with a keen sense of timing glanced up, looked around, and said, "Hey -- what's going on?"

Heads turned as Rick stammered, "I -- I told them we were out of time, Dale."

"What?" he half-shouted. "You might be out of time, but I'm not. I'm not leaving until I've talked to everybody!"

Of course the crowd cheered, the line reformed, and Earnhardt created a few hundred fans for life.

"Sure, he made me look bad," Rick says, "but that was all right. He was Dale Earnhardt."

I'm guessing Earnhardt had always intended to stay. He could have just signed and smiled and made the people who attended happy. Instead went a step farther and maximized the impact of his appearance with a theatrical turn. The people who attended undoubtedly went home and told their friends, "You should have seen it... they were about to send us all home but Dale jumped up and said he wasn't leaving until he met everybody!"

Theatrical? Sure. Calculated? Probably. Effective? Absolutely.

The same premise applies to running a business and inspiring employees. If you present an employee award, turn the occasion into a moment the recipient can share with others. Presenting the award is a given, so find ways to increase the impact.

If your company achieves a milestone, celebrate the achievement publicly. When you hire a new employee, do more than simply turn her over to a mentor or trainer. Find a way to make her feel a part of the company family right away.

Take time to make large and small events noteworthy. Stories and "moments" build a company culture much more effectively than posters, banners, and mission statements. Employees will almost never talk about mission statements. They will always talk about people.

Just keep in mind you are no Dale Earnhardt. He needed to build a personal brand. You don't. Focus the "show" on your employees and never on yourself. Save the theater for your employees -- they deserve the stage and the applause.

Photo courtesy flickr user Darryl W. Moran Photography, CC 2.0