The Elephant that Flew

This Tip opens and closes with an elephant story. The first is a traditional tale that reminds us, all is not as it seems. The second is a sad, but uplifting story about a baby elephant called Max.

Six blind men are on a journey when they come across an elephant for the first time. The first man feels the trunk and jumps back. “Be careful brothers, there is a giant snake in front of us!” The second man laughs. He is at the back of the elephant holding its tail. “Don’t worry it’s just a piece of rope.” The third blind man, who has been feeling one of the elephant’s legs, claims it is actually a tree. The fourth man has one of the elephant’s ears between his fingers. “I think it’s actually a hessian blanket”, while the fifth, who has been feeling his way along one of the tusk states with certainty that it is a curved spear. The sixth man, arms raised, is feeling his way across the elephant’s body. “I’m not sure what you are all up to but we’re not going anywhere because what we have in front of us is a wall.”

Perhaps one moral of this story is the barriers to our progress are often not as big as we think. Another is, when describing the nature of things, we need to be careful not to mistake one aspect for the whole. This is certainly the case when it comes to the franchise relationship.

The three legs of the franchise relationship

In our training programs we liken the franchise relationship to a three legged stool. The first leg is the legal leg. A well drafted legal agreement is important for defining the formal obligations of franchisees and franchisor. But equating the franchise relationship to the franchise agreement is like saying your marriage is the same as your marriage certificate.

The second leg is the commercial leg. Franchisees and franchisors enter into a franchise relationship to improve their prospects of business success. This commercial aspect of the relationship should enable them to gain a competitive edge by sharing knowledge, resources and a brand. However many franchise networks with strong legal and commercial legs fail to achieve sustained success because of a weakness in the third leg.

This is the psychological leg — how franchisees and franchisors feel about being legally and commercially connected. It incorporates trust, commitment and the expectations people have of each other. Because this third leg is invisible it is often neglected, to the peril of all parties.

The magic of commitment

Back to the marriage analogy, partners can have a successful life together without a marriage certificate or without sharing their resources or their name. But a relationship can never prosper if there is a lack of trust or commitment, or if there are continual misunderstandings over how each person expects the other to behave.

While a franchise relationship is certainly not a marriage, after 25 years of marriage and of working with hundreds of franchise networks, I can’t help but regularly be reminded of the parallels between the two. For instance, the need for commitment to tough out the inevitable ups and downs of an interdependent relationship, where you can’t just walk away. Ironically, the average franchise relationship these days lasts about the same period as the average marriage — 8 years.

The second elephant story, which I heard on the BBC over the weekend, is also about commitment. Gary Roberts, a nurse with a pilot’s license, courageously searched out and rescued a baby elephant, the sole survivor from a herd of over 100 elephants who were brutally massacred by poachers with machine guns in Chad. Click here to read the story and see Max the elephant being flown to safety in a tiny Cessna aircraft. Stories like this are a reminder of both the intelligent kindness and the stupid brutality of which humans are capable.

When it comes to how we treat each other and our animal friends, it seems anything is possible, which is both a cause for hope and despair. I choose hope. How about you?

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