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Interview with Joel Manby

This week I interviewed Joel Manby, CEO SeaWorld, on the topic of leading in tumultuous times — when leadership is anything but easy and convenient. Joel shares his perspective on serving your team well in difficult times. Don’t miss these important insights for your leadership.

Tell me about a brave act that you took as a business leader, that required you to grow in capability – or to overcome a fear? 

“As the CEO of SeaWorld, we were faced with a very difficult public perception issue regarding  killer whales being held in human care. Although we had a strong set of facts on our side, given a set of negative factors including the death of one of our whale trainers, a damaging documentary, public sentiment changing and legislative forces against us, we made a very difficult decision to phase out our Killer Whale program and end their breeding going forward.

It is very hard to imagine how gut wrenching this decision was for the board of directors and me. It is hard enough to be bold when a leader or board is making a decision that will be supported by his/her team or company. It is quite another situation to make a bold and/or difficult decision that you know will make a significant portion of your own employees not only upset, but most likely cause them to question your leadership and commitment to them.

In some cases, the best decision for a company may be not immediately be seen that way by employees who have dedicated their lives and careers to the very thing you are changing. Yet, as a leader we want what’s best for all our people, but that is not always possible. Making an unpopular decision is not easy, but leadership means tough calls for the good of the many.”

When you asked your organization to go through this tumultuous change in direction, how did you evidence your personal commitment to them?

“To make the announcement I was in NY for all the morning talk shows and radio appointments. Then, I flew to each of our SeaWorld properties to meet face to face with our zoological teams, many of whom were upset about the decision because they perceived that the board and I had admitted we were wrong regarding breeding our whales and having them in theatrical shows. Our decision was a reflection of data that said we were not going to win the whale issue in the battle for public perception, it was not an admission that our past practices were wrong. However, I understood why they would feel that way. I listened through some anger and lots of tears during all three employee meetings.

My separate meetings with the whale trainers, who had been hit the hardest, were some of the toughest meetings I have ever experienced. We cried together, we worked through some anger, but most of all we just talked and listened to each other. My goal was not to get them to agree, but to understand.  They were incredible in the process and the memory of those meetings still brings tears to my eyes.

The next morning, I got very touching notes of encouragement from those same trainers. We are now focused on addressing some issues to help them move forward, including engaging them in our new Orca Encounters that will replace the theatrical shows we will phase out.

My personal commitment to listen to them, cry with them and then get them involved in the future went a long way to strengthen a strained relationship.”

In your book, Love Works, you talk about love as an action verb. . . Does loving others serve them well?  How so?

“Yes, it does serve the employees well because our goal is their success and growth.   Yet, it also serves us well.    When I look back at the major mistakes I have made, both professionally and personally, it was when I did something that was what I wanted, but was not necessarily the best for others.     When I created a mess, it was because I focused too much on myself. A servant leader must serve from within. It has to come from the heart. If we truly want to serve others and help them grow and become better, this will result in better results for the employee, the company and you as a leader.”

What action can you take to serve your team when they are struggling? 

“I believe anytime we can simplify the terms of success and clarify with simple metrics it eliminates any lack of clarity; and a lack of clarity creates a lack of urgency. At SeaWorld we have moved from dozens of pages of “key metrics” to 5 focus areas with 3 key metrics for each: one page with 15 metrics. The rest is all back-up. There is no question what success looks like. Now all our energy is on fixing what is broken, vs. debating what success is. “

Are there tools that you teach to help team members advance in capability? 

“I look for leaders who bring solutions, not problems; leaders who have thought through the issue and make a recommendation. I can help them more by playing a Socratic role in questioning their thought process so they learn INSTEAD OF me solving their issue for them. I always have the veto vote, but I try to coach them to make a better recommendation or decision. Too many leaders, even senior ones, look for their boss to make the decision for them. Those leaders are destined to be a #2, not a #1 if they do not advance their capability.”

Looking back, what time in your career would you say was an inconvenient, yet essential leadership moment?

“Anytime I have had to let someone go that I hired or mentored is ALWAYS inconvenient and difficult. I feel I have failed them as a leader and that never feels good nor comes at the right time. But I know it is the right decision for the enterprise.”


joel manby headshotJoel Manby

President and Chief Executive Officer

SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.

Joel K. Manby is President and Chief Executive Officer and a director of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.  He previously served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Herschend Enterprises, the largest family-owned theme park and Entertainment Company in the United States, when he appeared on the CBS reality TV series “Undercover Boss.” Mr. Manby has shown that leading with love is effective, even in a business environment, as described in his book “Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders.”

Prior to joining Herschend, Mr. Manby spent 20 years in the auto industry in general management and marketing roles, primarily at General Motors in the Saturn and Saab divisions.  Mr. Manby served as CEO of Saab Automobile USA from 1996 to 2000.  Mr. Manby currently serves on the board of directors of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. and also serves as a member of the National Advisory Board of The Salvation Army.  Mr. Manby received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.S. from Albion College.  As valedictorian of Albion College, Mr. Manby was a Rhodes scholarship finalist.








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