Training top talent overcomes the ‘labor challenge’

“There is no present or future,” wrote playwright Eugene O’Neill, “only the past happening over and over again.”

O’Neill was speaking of Ireland, but his words could just as easily apply to a foodservice industry that is constantly wrestling with rampant turnover and talentless teams.

Like a bad check, the “labor” problem keeps coming back to dog our industry. Why? Quite simply, our chickens have come home to roost. Here’s a short history lesson that serves as a cautionary tale with possible solutions:

In the 1980s and 1990s the foodservice industry had both an abundant hourly labor pool and a foolish unwillingness to properly train and develop those people. So restaurant managers—encouraged to drive sales rather than develop people—turned, burned and churned their way through their workforce to the extent that 100-percent annual turnover is still considered best-in-class today. Seriously, how sad is that?

In addition to low pay, we invested little in developing managers’ supervisory skills, mostly “practicing” leadership on our hourly team rather than enabling it.

As a result of our poor stewardship, in the mid-1990s, for the first time ever, foodservice as a career became unfashionable. We elevated the customer and undervalued the crew, leaving scores of young hourly teams and junior managers overworked, underpaid and unappreciated. That created, in effect, “image terrorists” within an entire generation who came to loathe our industry—and warn their friends away from it—because of the way they were treated.

Soon, even politicians recognized the issue and tagged “burger-flipper” as synonymous with dead-end job. While foodservice politicalaction committees then railed against the burger-flipper label, little was done to raise pay, improve unit managers’ talent-building tools or enhance the self-esteem and career aspirations of hourly crew members. The truth is, we began paying lip-service to the notion of foodservice as a career, marked by a tepid advertising campaign that touted, “Ours is a special world,” yet little or no effective training was actually deployed to help unit managers better nurture, train and develop their promising hourly team members.

At the same time in the ‘90s, in the name of scalability and efficiency, our industry began to segregate talent development responsibility from the unit level, pushing it upwards into a formal and specialized department called HR. Volume can hide a multitude of sins, and profitable executives began to assume that success attracts talent, when, in fact, just the opposite is true.

You don’t build “business,” you build people. People build business.

In the early 2000s we began to pay dearly for our negligence. Unit managers soon noted the warning signs—after all, they were spending more time placing want ads than serving guests—yet headquarters overseers and “labor summits” responded by focusing on where to find new employees instead of fixing the root cause: the inability to effectively attract, recruit and develop talent at the restaurant level.

The expanding IT, telecom and retail industries needed talented young people, and so began to fish from the same generational and multicultural talent pool as foodservice employers, but with much greater success. Those other industries were armed not just with a better pay scale, but also with well-trained and effective supervisors who knew the value of high-performing, customer-facing teams. They understood that retention begins with recruiting, and their human resource and training departments were aligned and integrated from the store level up, not vice versa.

Not only did other industries target, attract and retain our talented young future workforce, but they also recruited our best HR people who could have been helping us now navigate a smarter path out of this muck and mire. But they don’t work in our industry anymore. The perfect storm has hit.

So, what can be done? Much more than one column can detail, but to help end our communal cranial-rectal inversion on the labor issue, we need to think big, act big and do something now. Here are seven things to consider:

Make talent management and talent-seeking everyone’s responsibility. Your unit managers are drowning in information and starving for knowledge relative to knowing how to find and groom talented crew members and junior managers. That must become a prioritized strategic issue in your company. The finance team must huddle with HR to develop effective, new ways to gauge the results of talent management, and board directors must hold executives responsible for developing their “human capital” in measurable and meaningful ways.

Make pay more competitive. The key word here is “more.” Yes, I know all about the studies that say, “Money is way down the list of employee motivators.” But then why do so many of our talented kitchen team members bolt for the restaurant across the street that offers 25 cents an hour more? It’s not because they’re not “loyal”; it’s because we haven’t earned their loyalty. That, and the reality that cash is still a prime motivator.

Proactively develop better bench strength. In the talent-powered company, no junior manager should be promoted to the GM position without also being responsible for developing two other junior managers for a future GM role. And no GM should be promoted to a multiunit-manager role without first identifying and grooming two other GMs to eventually become MUMs also. Make “building your own replacement” a precondition of promotion so that you create a coaching culture of talent development at every level of supervision.

Ask talent-centered questions before hiring. If you keep asking the wrong question when hiring you’ll keep getting the wrong person on the team. Instead of saying, “What position do I have open?” unit managers should instead ask: “How well do I want this job done?” This skews the search towards talent, not “bodies.”

Make it a privilege to join your team. “Hold out for talent,” says The Cheesecake Factory’s founder and chief executive, David Overton. “To continue to grow, and to ensure that their restaurants and teams stay successful, managers must always make hiring the most important decision.”

The more talent you accrue the more talent you attract. Don’t be a “star,” be a galaxy.

Understand that talent has many faces. Too many operators and HR departments screen for and hire team members and managers whose primary assets seem to be sameness and/or schedule availability. Flexibility should always be a factor when recruiting and retaining talented people. “The best people are worth accommodating,” says consultant Bruce Tulgan. “Hire for talent over conformity.”

Addition by subtraction. Too many unit-level foodservice managers believe that all employees are the same and that they don’t mind who they work with. But the thing is, they aren’t and they do. Unhire the people who make your job harder. As author Tom Peters has said: “Give a lot, expect a lot, and when you don’t get it, prune.”

Talent—and talent management—is the critical currency of high-performing foodservice companies. Believe it, and start investing in finding and retaining talented people as a strategic tool, or the brain drain will never end.