The Angel’s in the Details

Make a Big Deal About the Little Things

Andy Dunn
5 min readOct 29, 2017
The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali

What late people don’t understand about us on-time people is that we hate you. And the reason why we hate you is that it’s so easy to be on time — you just have to be early. And early lasts for hours. And on time lasts a second. And then you’re late forever.

— Mike Birbiglia, Thank God for Jokes

Van Halen, in their contract with a concert venue, used to request a bowl of M&M’s back stage, with all of the brown M&M’s removed.

Were they being divas?

Clean the Toilet

On a recent call, a Walmart store manager spoke about how he transformed his store’s performance by focusing his team on the little things. The signal in the noise for him was the cleanliness of the bathrooms. If the bathrooms were spotless, this was an indication that everything else in the store was going right.

So he made a really big deal about the bathrooms every day and continues to, knowing that customers love a clean bathroom and all the other things that must be going right if the most thankless task in the store is done well.

Leadership is inspiring people. Management is keeping the trains running on time. Recently someone pointed out that it is a rare human who is both a great leader and a great manager. A leader who is so busy that he cannot manage his own calendar proves to be one of the two.

Two Kinds of CEO’s

The more defensive and angry I get, the more I later discover those feelings are usually just projections of feelings I am having towards myself.

An investor named Carlos once verbally collared me when I was late to a meeting, and said: “you can’t be on time.”

It was a morning meeting uptown. I had assumed the best case traffic scenario and the worst case scenario had emerged. Like a financial budget, those who assume the best will rarely hit plan. Conservatism, buffer, and judgment are required to always beat expectations. It’s a dance, to set aggressive goals without sand-bagging, but at the same time to set goals that you have 90% confidence you will hit.

I gave a petty excuse about traffic and the board member remarked that that’s why he takes the subway. I felt a surge of self-pity. I had been up till 3am working, and felt that focusing on those ten minutes while merited was a bit unfair. Hoping he would relent, the board member did the opposite. Carlos pressed on. As I dug my heels in further, defensively explaining how hard I was working, he interrupted me.

“No I don’t care. I know two kinds of CEO’s. One kind that is always on time. One kind that is always late. They both have the same job.”

I steamed. He was right.

Always on Time

An advisor named Martin, who taught me the servant-leader model, is that precious gem alluded to — both a great leader and a great manager. Apropos of nothing, he once told me that he always gets home early to his wife.

It was only later that I internalized what he really meant.

“How do you do it?” I asked.

“It’s simple, really. I estimate when I will be home, conservatively, and then add 15 minutes.”

He’s conservative about his “budget,” adds buffer, and beats expectations every time. As the CEO of a public company for a decade, he hit forty quarters in a row.

He doesn’t let his shareholders down, and he doesn’t let his wife down either.

This is not sand bagging. It’s setting goals, knowing you can hit them, and then delivering above expectations. In ten years, Martin’s company grew from 10 employees to 1,000 and a $1 billion market capitalization.

Martin likes to say that you don’t make your quarter by what you do in the current quarter, but in the strategy you set five years earlier. That, and your ability to execute yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Traffic in Midtown

If I had factored that outlier scenarios in midtown Manhattan can create thirty minutes of parking lot traffic unexpectedly, I would have taken the subway, and added buffer for the long queue that forms in the lobby of Carlos’s building.

The point is this: I could have been on time, but I actively chose not to. It took a comedian for me to realize: being on time lasts a second, being early lasts for hours, and being late lasts forever.

Good parents are always on time.

So are good CEO’s.

The M&M Canary in the Concert Coal Mine

The truth is that Van Halen had one of the most complicated shows in history. They were taking massive lights and amounts of equipment around the country. They were jumping all over the stage.

The M&M request was a shrewd way to ensure that their contract was being read — for their safety, for the safety of their fans, and to ensure an amazing show.

If you ever meet someone who is obsessed with the little things, and it bothers you, take an introspective look inside. The person with the problem might be you. Only by being obsessed with little things do amazing things emerge. The culture of little things emerges from the top down, not only by what is celebrated, but by what is role modeled. Picture your parents pestering you about your room, that coach who was always tinkering with your swing, or that boss who keeps getting on your nerves about the size of the font in the presentation.

Are they in your way, or are they the way?

Around the time that Carlos taught me the meaning of time, he was also pushing us relentlessly to make money.

I started to be on time.

We started to make money.


I’m not always there when you call. But I’m always on time. I gave you my all, now baby be mine.

— Ashanti



Andy Dunn

Spirit animal @bonobos, swan hunter @redswan, brother @monicaandandy. I love cilantro but love even more the people that hate it