Focusing on culture or developing leaders. Where do we start?

I’ve had the pleasure of studying many restaurants that are doing incredible things.  Whether it’s in the realm of being more climate friendly, or providing decent work opportunities in healthy work environments, all these operations have one thing in common……great leadership.

The labour challenges the restaurant industry is facing have been well documented.  In fact, I’ve contributed to this discussion with my research, writings, podcast and media appearances.   In every aspect of this challenge , looking at the issues with a critical eye, operational leadership comes to the forefront when discussing solutions.  The common question we are trying to answer is about how we can become an employment opportunity of choice, moving beyond the stigma that exists of being a ‘second-class’ industry.  After many years of study, I believe the most important step to achieve this is by focusing on better leadership practices in our operations.  This means that restaurant owners, managers, and chefs need to have strong leadership knowledge and abilities.

I’ve just competed reading a book entitled Managing People in Commercial Kitchens (1).  Written by the world’s leading scholars on the subject, the book provides both theoretical and practical applications for improving the management of people in restaurant kitchens (leadership).  Before I go any further about the findings of the book, I’ll add that I think the issues, and hence the answers, go beyond the doors of our kitchens to include the front of house.

The book concludes that the main challenge chefs face “is managing human resources” and that “the tight budgets in restaurants do not provide opportunities for leadership training and developing, which in some cases may result in survival issues.”  The book lists endless studies that show that improved human resource practices contribute to “improved turnover, labour productivity, asset and equity return, and profit margin.”  What operator doesn’t what these results?

The book, which has a global perspective highlights challenges restaurants face including; bullying, managing mental health, sexual harassment, commitment to long hours demanded by management, power based on position, poor working conditions, low pay.  Conversely, the authors reference studies that show increased “job satisfaction has been found to negatively correlate to work stress, absenteeism, voluntary turnover intention, and to positively correlate with employee performance, productivity, and job involvement.”

All of the above-mentioned factors and outcomes have one thing in common, they are in some part determined by the quality of the leaders that run the restaurant.  While this may be obvious to some, my belief is that the thinking that ‘leadership is paramount’ is being overlooked by something I hear so much about, culture. 

Considered one of the greatest business leaders of all time, Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher was famous for his repetitive use of the quote “if you ain’t got culture, you ain’t got shit.’  I agree with Kelleher that culture is key, but study Kelleher and you will find that the amazing culture he built at Southwest was an outcome of having great leaders, something that he repeatedly recognized.  The guru of organizational culture Ed Schein wrote a seminal book on the subject called Organizational Culture and Leadership.  The entire book is about how leaders’ abilities and actions will determine the culture of an organization.  In other words, you can’t have a great culture without first having great leaders, they determine your culture no matter what vision, mission, or values you espouse. For this reason, I propose that we consider moving the focus away from ‘culture’, and instead direct our attention to the nuts and bolts of supporting a strong commitment to the leadership development of those that run our restaurants.

Now let’s look at some great things that are happening.

My study in this field has led me to two shining examples of organizations that are working hard to develop front line restaurant leaders across the globe.  The first example is MAD, a group based out of Copenhagen.  Founded over a decade ago by several progressive thinkers including Noma Chef Rene Redzepi, MAD provides an intensive 5-day leadership training.

While the MAD offering is in person, with many challenges that limit participation, Unilever has created a free leadership training program based out of its Fair Kitchens program.  The Fair Kitchen’s website states that ‘in this online education series, you’ll learn from inspiring kitchen leaders and industry experts from across the world.  The insights and advice shared about self-awareness, communication, recruitment, team building, wellbeing and crisis management are invaluable.”

Lastly, I’d like to promote an approach being taken by Skills and Development Scotland, a branch of the Scottish Government. They have invested in and produced a 15-hour free training session called The Chef Management and Leadership Training Program.  And while I again think we should move beyond limiting our leadership development efforts to chefs and include all restaurant managers, I applaud the Scots for focusing on an area that will make a difference in the long run.  It’s my personal opinion that too many of our Canadian government supported initiatives focus on attracting people to the industry, instead of making a ‘stronger industry’.   A stronger and more inviting restaurant industry in Canada will only be achieved when we have highly trained and developed leaders running the show.

  1. Giousmpasoglou, C., Marinakou, E., Zopiatis, A., & Cooper, J. (2022). Managing People in Commercial Kitchens: A Contemporary Approach. Routledge.

By Bruce McAdams

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