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10 core truths of restaurant leadership

Effective managers are always teaching — and always learning

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. 

Over the last decade our company has focused on researching the best demonstrated leadership practices in the foodservice industry. And in the last three years I’ve had the privilege to share those 21st-century leadership skills in presentations for brands like Panera, McDonald’s, Texas Roadhouse, Dunkin’, Olive Garden, Five Guys, Portillo’s, Chipotle and many others. In the course of this journey I’ve learned a few core truths about leadership that stand out. I think you may benefit from knowing them as well.

Leadership can’t really be “taught”; it must be learned.  Effective leadership development in your company should be focused on doing, not merely knowing, because doing is where learning actually occurs. What you know doesn’t matter, what you do with what you know is what matters. Emphasize skill application and learning from experience with your teams.

You haven’t taught it if they haven’t caught it. Instead of trying to overcome resistance to what people are not ready to do, find out what they are ready to do, and harness and direct that motivation and momentum toward your targeted goals. Often a team’s perceived resistance is due to the leader’s failure to communicate the goals. The truth is, you don’t communicate as much or as clearly as you think you do.  

Foster collaboration. Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a family, call it a culture, call it a tribe. Whatever you call it, you need one in your workplace. And one of the best ways to build that family is to know your “why.” Instead of telling people what to do and how to do it, lead with why you’re doing it. Leaders know the way, show the way and go the way.

Trust is a must. Everything rises or falls with leadership. It’s rare to read business success stories credited to great “manager-ship.” And integrity is the foundation of a leader’s ability to inspire a team. As author Warren Bemis says: “Managers are people who do things right. Leaders are people who do the right things.”

Get water to the end of every row. Author Stephen Covey used a farming analogy to illustrate the importance of shared knowledge: “Be certain that the water gets to the end of the rows,” he said, “and that once it does, have the people at the end of the row come forward and teach you so you’re certain that the translation — and learning — occurred.” Learning has not taken place unless behavior has changed. The best leaders focus on seeing and measuring that change so it can be taught and replicated downstream to next-gen learners.

School is never out for the pro. Collaborate with talented people outside your area of expertise. When we study or associate with people who know more than we do, our horizons always expand.  Research has confirmed that whom you associate with is crucial to who you become.  If you spend time with successful people, you’re more likely to become successful yourself. The best leaders don’t just seek a mentor, they seek multiple mentors, one or more for each of their major professional pursuits (or shortcomings).  This group of mentors can form a sort of personal “board of advisors” for the brand called you.

Challenge the process.  In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, author Anders Ericsson suggests that every leader should assess their team and ask: "What is the best way to improve performance among people who are already trained and on the job?" His answer is that deliberate practice — paired with coaching and feedback — of skills you’re not yet good at is the starting point, and continuous improvement is the never-ending point.

Vitality drives leadership. Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performers. The number of hours is fixed in a leader’s day, but the quantity and quality of energy available to them is not. Always leave every restaurant better than you found it, and leave every team member better. Seek out challenges.

Light the fire within.  The best managers today are less focused on being in charge and more focused on helping employees be charged up. “You’ll never get the best from employees by trying to build a fire under them,” says author Bob Nelson. “You’ve got to build a fire within them. There’s a big difference between getting employees to come to work and getting them to do their best work.  Get the best work from employees by expecting it from them, telling them you expect it and helping them attain it in any way they can.”

Be smart with heart. Leadership is an affair of the heart, not just the head. Getting things done is not the same as getting the right things done. Brains, like hearts, will go where they are appreciated, so don’t forget to recognize the performer as well as the performance. “The highest achievable level of service comes from the heart,” says Hal Rosenbluth, CEO of travel management company Rosenbluth International. “So the company that reaches its people’s heart will provide the very best service.” Judge team members on their best days not worst days and be both supportive and protective of your team. To get ahead, put others first. If you provide loyalty down, you get loyalty up.  

Jim Sullivan is the author of Fundamentals and Multunit Leadership, two books that have sold more than 335,000 copies. Jim has over 400,000 social media followers. You can follow him daily on LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter or download his leadership insight at

TAGS: Workforce
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