restaurant manager Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

Why multiunit leaders are like head coaches

The key to being a successful leader is training others, not doing it yourself

“Coaching is not doing, and it's not telling people what to do. It's guiding, questioning, prompting and encouraging forward movement. Most important, it's inspiring people to take ownership of their own careers.” —Simon Sinek

Some choose it, some lose it, many pursue it but never do it, most earn it and others never quite learn it. But no matter how they came to the role, there’s no denying that Multiunit Leaders — the manager of managers — are the linchpin to any successful foodservice brand.

A Multiunit Leader, or MUL, supervises dozens of unit managers, develops hundreds of leaders, shapes the experience of thousands of customers, and helps generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue, quarter after quarter, year after year, market after market, brand after brand. If a multiunit restaurant chain was a body, MULs are the brain, heart, spine and legs, keeping the enterprise focused, driven, alert, upright and moving in the right direction.

Despite the critical role MULs play in a brand’s success, the collective time, money and resources that many companies invest in annual Multiunit Leadership development is smaller than the period that ends this sentence. It’s high time to rethink the critical skills a Multunit Leader must master in the 21st century foodservice industry. And maybe Head Coach is a good place to start.

In professional sports, the Head Coach does not work alone. He or she oversees a team of assistant coaches who focus on specific team roles and responsibilities. In the NFL, the head coach supervises a group of assistant coaches who are responsible for a variety of specific disciplines, including strength and conditioning, offensive line, defensive line, quarterback, receiver, kicking, punting and special teams.

In professional baseball, the head coach is called a manager, but he or she also supervises a battery of position coaches responsible for the team’s hitting, running, fielding, pitching, base-stealing and fitness. Each coach is responsible for developing and executing a focused part of the game plan.

But a Head Coach, like an effective Area Director, is always focused on outcomes. They align preparation and talent, set a game plan in motion and execute a strategy based on targeted goals or competitive strength.

In the restaurant industry, there is a distinction. Unlike assistant coaches in sports, GMs at the unit level are not exclusively focused on just one specific aspect of the game. Like their titles imply, they are generalists. They’re responsible for every facet of the unit’s performance, including staffing, retention, service, sales, food safety, EBITDA and quality. And, naturally, they’re better at some skills than others. So the MUL’s responsibility doubles down as a Head Coach: They are the prime developers of the brand’s talent pipeline and bench strength. Ultimately, the MUL’s primary task is to constantly expand leadership capacity.

Some MULs are better teachers than others. The reason is that too many Multiunit Leaders are preoccupied by data onslaught, fixing problems or fighting fires. Not that MULs would necessarily spend all their time coaching our teams if these three distractions were removed from their lives. (But most of them say they would.) 

When confronted with common, or even uncommon, work challenges, most MULs prefer to simply fix the problem themselves and move on. Why? Because they learned the hard way that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. And when Multiunit Leaders are hard-pressed for time, they defer to the timeworn path of least resistance: do it yourself.

That path is well traveled, but it doesn’t lead to stronger teams. And it’s contrary to the MUL’s central purpose: They are hired to think, not to do. They are paid to manage the people who manage the problem, not the problem itself. 

Taking the time to coach and let managers make mistakes on the way takes time and patience. But, ironically, the more time you spend coaching your managers, as opposed to doing it yourself, the better they get at resolving problems and making progress. The better Head Coach you are, the closer you get to “MYTOP:” Multiplying Yourself Through Other People. As one of my first Area Directors told me, “If you don’t spend all your time training, you will spend all your time training.” A Zen parable if ever there was one.

Being a good coach is challenging. Being a great coach is difficult. Being the best coach ever is virtually impossible. Until you realize that coaching, like leadership, is always situational, it will be an elusive skill to master. Because of this, there is no one proven style of effective coaching, but there are proven coaching techniques that generate greater results. Here are three:

  • Informed intuition. Experienced MULs develop a sixth sense I call “informed intuition.” They know from past experience that if “this” occurs, then “that” is likely to happen next. They routinely collect and share best practices from their GMs, so their experience can help current and future leaders learn and grow both instinctively and intuitively.
  • Align instruction to strategic clarity. A great Head Coach expresses complex ideas or targeted goals in a clear, concise and timely manner. They inspire short-term goal achievement through clarity and repetition. MULs should identify the specific resources, metrics and action steps needed to accomplish team objectives and help eliminate roadblocks or obstacles so that progress is not impeded.
  • Continuous Improvement. The best Head Coaches apply constant, gentle, daily pressure to improve. It's not about always being the best; it's about being better than you were yesterday.

The reason that exemplary Head Coaches are rare in business or in sports is because it takes more patience than we’re usually willing to offer, more time than we’re normally willing to commit and more talent than we’re usually willing to develop in ourselves. But Multiunit Leaders don’t really have a choice; coaching is a pay-me-now or pay-me-later proposition.

Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at restaurant leadership conferences worldwide. He’s the author of the bestselling books Multiunit Leadership and Fundamentals. You can access his apps, videos, podcasts and training catalog at, and follow him on YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitter @Sullivision.

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