Tag Archives: management

Learning Management From A Chef’s Life

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’d like to highlight a business lesson I was reminded of while watching “A Chef’s Life.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a series (now in its fifth season) that features Vivian Howard, the chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, as she runs her restaurant, raises her kids, writes what is now an acclaimed cookbook, and improves her craft. I watch it both for the great storytelling as well as to learn about the local food traditions and recipes of the Carolinas

As the series has progressed and Vivian’s star has risen, she has sent some time ruminating on the fact that she spends far less time in the kitchen of her restaurant than when she opened it. She also talks about how strange it feels when she actually does go back into the kitchen, whether it’s to develop new dishes or to do a quality check. This resonated with me even though my business has nothing to do with running a restaurant.

Executive chefs are really managers. While they were once line cooks, the amount of time they spend cooking is inversely proportionate to the responsibility they have. Like any manager, their job is to make sure that the entire operation is moving in sync and that the people who do the actual work have the tools and materials they need. They teach where necessary but other than in emergencies, they don’t step in and actually do the job that is the responsibility of their subordinates.

This is probably the hardest thing for new managers to understand. I remember that when I began managing people it was extremely frustrating to watch my subordinates take more time to do projects I could do in a flash. Their work was often full of errors, mistakes I wouldn’t have made just because I had a lot more experience. But doing the work for them would have been just as big an error since they wouldn’t learn and I would not be working with the other members of the department.

On the show, Vivian remarks that show doesn’t feel as if she’s doing anything when she’s in the restaurant’s kitchen now because it runs most days without her. I used to feel the same way as I was learning that my job entailed different “doings.” Wandering around and listening, clarifying goals, working with other department heads, giving a pat on the back to someone and a kick in the butt to another are all part of the manager’s job but when you’re used to having an overloaded project list and deadlines, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing much at all. In reality, Vivian has done a fantastic job managing since her operation runs well on its own. She can focus on the next project – new dishes, new restaurants, the next book – while knowing her business is operating efficiently. Not a bad model for any of us!

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Breaking The Fast

We’ve arrived at Yom Kippur again and there is a part of the holiday’s traditions that involves food so it’s an appropriate Foodie Friday topic. Beginning this evening, those who observe the holiday will fast for 24 hours. Traditionally, the meal that follows the fast is “dairy”: bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish of some sort, a sweet noodle dish called kugel, and cakes. The thinking is that a relatively bland meal is appropriate following a fast and the dishes can be prepared ahead since one doesn’t do work of any sort on the day. Hey – if Sandy Koufax can skip work and not pitch the World Series (which made a huge impression on me back in 1965), you and your bubbe can stay out of the kitchen.

My family generally had whitefish salad, egg salad, and tuna salad available as well. I know that blintzes are big with some families, although my family was never patient enough to cook them (listen, when you’ve not eaten for 24 hours, even another 10 minutes is an eternity). Everyone would generally grab whatever was available to eat immediately, breaking the fast while their bagel toasted.

Obviously, there is a much more important aspect to the holiday than food. Last year I wrote that:

Most people think of the day in terms of atoning for one’s sins. That’s not quite right in that it’s an incomplete statement. That atonement is only a part of the equation. There is a broader focus on other things as well. One is charity, one is repentance and the other is prayer. Those things can also be interpreted as trying to embody high ideals, returning to those values and ideals if we’ve strayed from them, and self-reflection.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, taking a day to think about that three-legged stool is a valuable thing, both personally and with respect to your business. Since this is a business blog, let me focus on the business aspect. Every business needs to give back somehow. Whether it’s mentoring on a pro bono basis or sponsoring a Little League team, it’s not only smart marketing. It’s the right thing to do.

Atoning in business is simply reflecting on the times over the past year when you missed the mark and determining to do better. It may be a badly handled customer service issue or it may be treating an employee badly. Identifying those instances and improving the future is a fundamental part of being a good businessperson.

And prayer? I’ll leave that to you. I was always taught that prayer is not about you and shouldn’t focus on your wants. I think even atheists can pray since, as Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.” Not a bad place for any businessperson to be.

Happy New Year!

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Unintended Consequences

It’s Foodie Friday and I have unintended consequences on my mind. What spurred that were a couple of food-related things. I went to do some research about an alcoholic product and of course, I was asked to verify my age before being allowed to read the brand’s website. I assumed that was some sort of regulation imposed on beer, wine, and booze makers since it’s the sort of thing I caution clients about doing all the time: preventing the user from completing their task as seamlessly as possible. As it turns out, there is no rule requiring alcohol brands to do this. What it might do, however, is deter the very people who should have more information about alcohol – young people – from getting educated. This is an unintended consequence. If they lie about their age to gain access, you’ve also caused them to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and making them break the law is another unintended consequence.

I also read a piece on the growth of restaurant delivery services:

As mobile food delivery apps like Seamless, UberEats, Caviar, and Postmates steadily expand their delivery zones and their customer bases, many restaurants are increasingly relying on delivery orders as a significant source of revenue — and they’re having to adapt operations accordingly to keep up with demand.

The unintended consequence here is that restaurant personnel are often spending so much time servicing the take-out business that the customers seated in the dining room have a lesser experience. Putting aside the fact that there is the potential for a restaurant’s reputation to suffer when the product delivered is way inferior to the product in the dining room, a failure to properly prioritize the kitchen to service the folks who have journeyed to the dining room could set up a lose-lose situation, with neither the folks eating at home nor the people eating out being satisfied. There is also the stress caused by having to refine the operations plan to support the take-out business.

We see unintended consequences all the time. Kudzu went from being an ornamental plant to a menace. When the British governor of Delhi, India addressed a cobra infestation by putting a bounty on cobras, they got more, not fewer, snakes, as people raised them to collect the bounty. I’m sure you’ve seen examples in your business of this, whether it’s a different response to a price change than what was anticipated or a sudden wave of popularity of a brand or product based on some bit of social media madness.

Whatever it is, it’s incumbent on all of us to think about every decision in the context of what the effects of a course of action might be. Who is affected and how? How will it affect competitors and what might their possible responses be? Do this more each alternative you’re contemplating and your odds of avoiding an unintended consequence will improve. You with me?

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Navigating To Success

One of the roles I play along with my regular consulting gig is an advisor. I am what’s call a “Navigator” at one of the oldest incubators in the area. Each month, the Navigators get together and listen to a pitch from a resident company. It’s good practice for them (you can NEVER have enough practice pitching your business) and it’s good for us to become better-versed in what’s going on.

Most of the companies headquartered at the incubator are engaged in scientific research of some sort and there are a lot of Ph.D.’s wandering around the building. They know a phenomenal amount about their fields and about the company they’re germinating. The problem is that they don’t seem to know that they’re building a business and not a science experiment. We had one of these get-togethers yesterday and I was speaking to another Navigator, comparing notes about the companies we’ve seen and the pitches we’ve heard. He had found, as had I, that most of these very smart entrepreneurs had no trouble explaining the nuances of some very complicated science but had massive difficulty in explaining how they were going to make money.

A book from a few years ago wrote up research that found that 87.5% of Millennials disagreed with the statement that “money is the best measure of success.” On a personal level, I couldn’t agree more with their thinking. There ARE many more important things in life that reflect success and failure. On a business level, unfortunately, that’s dead wrong. When you raise capital, your ability to provide a return on that investment – i.e. money – is the measure of success. Otherwise, you’re not a business: you’re a charity. Since these entrepreneurs – almost all of whom are Millennials – claim to be building businesses, part of what I and the other Navigators help them do is to focus on the business of their business and not just on the science and their products.

We ask them the kinds of questions I hope you ask yourself. What problem are you solving? Who else is solving it? Why is your solution better? How much will it cost to build your product at scale? How is it priced? What is the profit margin? What’s the competitive set in how big a market? Pretty basic questions, I know, but these are smart people who have never been asked them before. The ones that can answer them clearly are the ones that will get funded and survive. Do you fall into that group?

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I Don’t Need A Hero

If you’ve spent any time reading this drivel, you’ve probably seen my constant nagging to provide value by solving problems. No, I’ve not changed my thinking about that, but I’d like to put one stipulation on the statement: make sure that the problem is real. I’m thinking specifically of those people who have hero syndrome. Not the seriously ill type such as the firefighter who is also an arsonist, lighting fires so they can save the day. I mean the people who are constantly solving problems that don’t exist.

I used to work with someone who would stick their head in my office and report that some client or partner was having an issue. They also told me not to worry – they were on the case and would handle it. Phew! Of course, it was rather odd when I mentioned to one of the “saved” partners that I was happy that my team member was able to solve their issue and the partner had no clue what I meant. Fortunately, the “hero” in question moved on not long afterward.

The other side of the equation is also true. There are people who are the “go-to” people in various areas and who become indispensable, so much so that their mental and physical health can suffer because they don’t want to disappoint anyone. It’s another aspect of hero syndrome. They feel as if they won’t be appreciated if they ask for help. Instead, they often become bitter, burnout, or both.

How do we handle people with hero syndrome? First, make sure the problems they are solving are real and are worth solving. Not everything is a crisis, you know. Second, make sure that they have the resources to solve the problem quickly, efficiently, and completely.  Sometimes for those of us who were higher-ups, it means getting your hands dirtier than usual, often doing work for which you’re overqualified. I always felt as if I was paid to be everyone’s safety net, so if it was a job I could do, I did it. I have plenty of paper cut scars from making last-minute copies and assembling binders when I was needed. Finally, pay attention to the folks who are constantly being heroes. Make sure they’re not lighting the fires they’re busy extinguishing. Make sure no one is constantly backlogged with work and everyone knows it’s OK to just say “no” when they’re overwhelmed. Those times are when those of us in management earn our pay.

Make sense?

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Our Daily Bread

I was struck, this Foodie Friday, by an article written for the Civil Eats site about how much bread is wasted. I don’t mean financial resources. This is actual bread: loaves, bagels, even donuts. As the piece states:

There’s also the fact that, except in the most exclusive bakeries, a bare shelf is a no-no. Customers expect fresh bread and lots of it. Sugar and fat are also relatively inexpensive, so it is safer to make too much and donate the leftovers than it is to risk running out.

Apparently, it’s a worldwide epidemic, caused, in part, by the growth of factory bread. You know: mass-produced loaves that taste like nothing and are full of fat, carbs, and not much else. Putting aside the quality of the products, I hate waste in all of its forms but particularly when it comes to food. Yes, there are people in this country and around the world who are starving, but I don’t think for a minute that the food either you or I throw out is taken from their mouths. I also get that the statement is more a reminder to be thankful for what we have. What’s lost in idly tossing out food or giving away a bakery’s excess is something I learned from both my friend’s grandmother who taught me to cook and from watching Jacques Pepin on TV.

Nothing is to be wasted. Old bread becomes breadcrumbs or a panade to round out meatballs or a meatloaf. Maybe it’s even the star of a Panzanella. Top mac and cheese with fresh breadcrumbs. Veggie trimmings can be collected and used to make broth, as can shrimp shells or meat trimmings. Ground beef generally is, in fact, meat trimmings.Find some Jacques Pepin videos on YouTube and you’ll be struck by how everything he has is used somehow, even as a garnish.

Bakeries might need to do a better job of managing their dough, but so do we. The kitchen mantra of wasting nothing needs to apply to every business. I once saw the events group at the NHL dragging full garbage bins. They were tossing the contents of their closet which contained event signs and other stuff. We turned their garbage into a million dollar auction business. Nothing is wasted.

What if the bakeries and supermarkets changed the paradigm? What if empty shelves were a sign of an in-demand, high-quality product? What if they made less? Great BBQ places run out of food in hours. It sure makes projecting your P&L a lot easier when you know that you’ll sell everything you make. Sure, you’re losing a bit of upside by running out, but how does that compare with what you’re wasting? Food for thought!

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Hot Dog! It’s Friday!

It’s Foodie Friday! I spent many years working in the sports business and because of that, I was privileged to attend hundreds of sporting events around the world. One of the best parts of those experiences was the food. Inevitably, there was some down time which allowed me to wander about the arena or stadium and sample the food. I am a big believer in what I consider the truism (as the late great Frank Deford wrote) that a hot dog tastes better at the ball park. I’m such a devotee of having a dog (or 3) at the game that I usually have one before I even get to my seat. But why is that, and, more importantly for our purposes here, what does that tell us about our business?

A cooked hot dog garnished with mustard.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You might suppose that it’s the particular brand of dog served. I’ve purchased the identical brands served at various places and they never taste the same when I prepare them at home. I’ve boiled them, steamed them, grilled them, or some combination of methods and yet while the taste is similar, it’s not the same. It’s not the condiments or the bun (steamed, grilled, toasted, or right out of the bag – doesn’t matter!). No, dear readers, it’s the environment.

Many studies have demonstrated the effect that environmental elements have on our perception of food. Obvious things such as lighting and less obvious things such as the music playing have been proven to change how we perceive food tastes. One obvious example is food eaten on an airplane, where the pressure is lower and the noise is higher. Our taste buds don’t function as well at 35,000 feet so airline chefs overseason their dishes (the combination of dryness and low pressure reduces the sensitivity of your taste buds to sweet and salty foods by around 30%, according to a 2010 study conducted by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics). What does this have to do with your business?

A lot. The environment we create in our offices or stores or even our digital presences can affect how workers and customers “taste” what we’re offering. If we demonstrate a commitment to openness and trust, we create an environment where everyone perceives that things are better than elsewhere even when they’re common events. We can yell and scream while we eat at the ballpark. The food tastes better because we’re having fun. Are you encouraging that kind of fun in your place of business? Most concession stands offer condiments so you can have your food the way you like it. Do you offer the same kind of personalization to your workers or customers? Do you take their personal lives into account and offer some flexibility in hours or remote work?

Think about why the same dog you prepare at home tastes way better at the stadium as you think about how you approach your customers and your business. You’ll be on the way to standing out from your competitors, even if they’re offering a similar product or service.

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