Zingerman's Deli

Leaning into the future

entrepreneurship leadership Nov 13, 2022

The ability to lean into the future and visualize what a business looks like ten years on is a skill that sets successful entrepreneurs apart from the rest.

I first learned about visualization at a Small Giant's passport event over a decade ago. We were taking a behind-the-scenes peek at the iconic Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbour, Michigan. And how two owners with a clear vision built a family of businesses with revenues of over $37 million - from a deli.

If you don't know the Zingerman's story, it goes like this...

In 1992 Zingerman's was a successful deli doing $5 million a year. Owners Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig had no plans for growth or significant change. In short, Zingerman's was your typical small business, exhibiting all the symptoms of companies that had hit a growth ceiling.

Ari and Paul had a choice: keep Zingerman's a small, local operation and run the risk that it would languish or grow.

But growth meant risking the attributes that had made Zingerman’s extraordinary – close contact with a community, customer intimacy, team spirit among employees, and exceptional quality of food and service.

One day, Ari asked Paul: "Where will we be in 10 years?"

It was a busy morning; a cooler was broken, the kitchen staff was stretched thin, and Ari hauled Paul out to talk about the future.

That morning started a two-year debate culminating in a new vision for growth, leading to the business I was visiting.

Formulating their vision demanded time spent reading, thinking, and talking – meeting regularly to discuss their ideas at a picnic table next to the deli.

They wrote and rewrote their vision statements. They solicited help from people inside and outside the business. And by 1994, they had Painted a Picture for The Zingerman's Community of Businesses – a company comprising 12 to 15 businesses. Small businesses in the Ann Arbor area, each bearing the Zingerman's name but having its own specialty and identity.

Leaning into the future...

When you plant one foot in the present and lean out to place the other in the future, you can paint a picture of what could be.

For most people, the idea of creating a ten-year vision is daunting. But a three-year timeline is short enough to be realistic and achievable yet long enough to allow you to realize innovation and expansive ideas.

A three-year plan gives your people the clarity they need to incorporate your vision into their day-to-day goals. Striving enthusiastically toward a more prosperous future, you've painted for them.

How to create your Painted Picture...

When you peer into the future, what do you see? Forget about how you're going to build your vision. Focus on painting a picture of what you see in the next three years.

Close your eyes and give it a try...

Chances are, if you’re sitting at your laptop you’ll find yourself quickly distracted.

To do this effectively, you need to free yourself from the daily grind of running your business. This exercise is one of the skills that separates successful entrepreneurs, founders, and CEO's from mediocrity.

When entrepreneurs, founders, and CEOs ask me, "What makes some business owners more successful than others?".

The answer is simple: they find the time to work on their business, starting with a plan for the future.

So, here's what you need to do...

Step away from your laptop

It used to be that you could leave your office and do this work in a place you wouldn't get hauled back into your daily routine. But nowadays, we tend to flip open our laptops and create an office where ever we go. Close the lid, step away and find a quiet place to think.

Turn off all devices

Turn off all devices, and don't do this work on your laptop, tablet, or mobile device. You WILL get distracted. You’ll be tempted to check emails or WhatsApp notifications or get sucked into the vortex of social media.

Pull out a journal or a few sheets of paper and start writing.

Think "Where" - Not "How"

Forget about how you'll make your vision a reality. Your focus should be on the road ahead and where you want to go. Describe what your business looks like 3-years down the line. How does it feel? What does your office look like? How big is the work team? Who are you working with in the future? How has your business evolved?

Think outside the box

The biggest challenge you will encounter is your own limiting beliefs. Put them aside for this exercise and dream big. Think outside the box. Paul and Ari envisioned a community of businesses. All of those businesses help each other to evolve and grow.

In summary, a Painted Picture is a roughly three-page document that describes in vivid detail what your company looks and feels like three years out without detailing how each part of the vision will get built or put in place.

*Photo credit: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty


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