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16 critical skills multiunit leaders overlook

Clear communication and big-picture thinking are essential

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. 

“Reward your people for taking risks. If people tell me they skied all day and never fell down, I tell them to try a different mountain.” — Michael Bloomberg

Our company spends a good deal of time designing, developing, and deploying multiunit leadership training programs for top foodservice and retail chains worldwide.  While both athletes and musicians can be good at just one thing and be successful, an effective multiunit leader, or MUL, must master several key proficiencies to be effective across his or her region. 

Our research shows that the critical skillsets for effective multiunit leadership revolve around seven core competencies: Brand Ambassador, Servant Leadership, Talent Scout, Head Coach, Marketing Guru, Synergist and Goal Getter.  While those skills are easy to list, mastering each one can be more challenging to pick up than a watermelon seed on a linoleum floor.

A big reason why is that all leadership is situational; one restaurant may require the multiunit leader’s skill in marketing, another may require help and focus in scouting and developing talent, while yet another needs strategic clarity on budgeting or food safety issues. 

The thing is, you can’t just take the skills that made you good at running one unit and simply apply those same skills equally to six, seven, or eight other units; the foodservice industry is neither that simple nor that forgiving.  MULs have to adapt to the unique personality of each restaurant, market and team they serve. The only non-variable is the menu. So learning how to evolve from successful GM to successful MUL takes more than luck and pluck. It’s a complicated learning process that involves a good deal of intuition, improvisation and imagination with heaping helpings of process, procedure and patience, too. Here are 16 of the more common — and overlooked — performance roadblocks that both new and veteran MULs routinely face, along with a few suggestions on how to overcome them.

1. Not operating at the right altitude. This is evident if the new MUL is doing tasks that should be delegated. Multiunit leadership is a “thinking” job, not a “doing” job.

2. Under-communicating with managers. This makes unit managers unsure of their duties, roles and goals.

3. Taking back tasks you’ve delegated. This is usually because you believe you can do them better, and this severely undermines the confidence, and ultimately the competence, of your managers.

4. Micromanaging. Another confidence drainer, this doesn’t allow managers to improve upon and expand their own capabilities, even if they screw up along the way. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.

5. Weak strategic orientation. Strategic clarity is a cornerstone of MUL communication and supervision.  The inability to be strategic is a sign of being promoted too quickly.

6. Lack of clarity. This is a communication killer. Without specificity, ambiguity thrives, and ambiguity is the source of most conflict between leaders and teams.

7. No clear understanding of how all the pieces of the business fit together, in the region, the market, across the brand, and relative to competitors and the rest of the industry.

8. Critical-thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills. This needs to be taught to assistant managers, stressed to GMs and perfected among MULs.

9. How to identify, rank and resolve multiple priorities. Forget “time management.” Teach your management team how to prioritize instead, and how to ascribe and attain incremental shift goals that directly relate to period or quarterly goals. Show them how the skills apply to personal goals as well.

10. How to build, maintain and grow bench strength and a talent pipeline. Will you have enough people to meet your three-year and five-year growth goals? How good is your management team at sourcing talent?  Now is the time to completely reassess how you hire and who you hire.  For every single position in your restaurants, ask this question: “What does the person need to do to be successful in this role and what do the best people do differently?” This will help you sharpen the focus of who to look for and how they perform.

11. How to scale learning to associates. The best MULs teach their GMs how to continuously improve learning and development on a shift-by-shift basis to help them address new challenges and complexities. New POS system, LTO or process? What’s the best way to teach it? (And it may not be the way it’s always been taught.)

12. How to create and execute a stellar first day/first month experience. Onboarding new team members with focus, energy and fun is the foundation of tenure. Make it a priority.

13. How to maximize employee tenure in every position. While your competitors are focused on finding new team members, the best MULs focus first on retaining the “Superkeepers” they already have so that endless recruiting is minimized and you can keep your aces in their places.

14. How to efficiently gather and analyze relevant information. Given the volume of data and reports that MULs are increasingly faced with, it’s no surprise that we’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.  Make certain your MUL development program devotes generous time to the process of analyzing, interpreting and acting on data.

15. How to reduce complexity in systems, process, operations. Great MULs continuously ask: “Why do we do it that way? What is the reason behind it? Is there a better/smarter way? What if we did it differently? What if we didn’t do it at all?” Challenge the process.

16. Teach teams why in addition to how. When they’re overworked and under-led (by well-intentioned but distracted multiunit leaders) unit-level managers tend to become technicians, not leaders. They’re taught what to do and how to do it but lack an inherent understanding of the why behind operational process and procedure. This lack of understanding undermines both purpose and perspective, which severely restricts the ability to consistently engage, develop and inspire the hourly crew.

As you can see, the role and responsibilities of above-restaurant leadership are complex, variable and demanding. As one area director told me, tongue firmly in cheek: “This job is really easy if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The brand new fourth edition of Jim Sullivan’s bestselling book Multiunit Leadership has just been published. Get it at Amazon, or bookstores. If you’re interested in booking Jim as a speaker for your next Leadership Conference, you can reach him on LinkedIn or

TAGS: Workforce
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