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Here are four key leadership attributes that have evolved during COVID. Integrate these strategies into your unit manager and above-store leader training and development.

How the pandemic changed restaurant leadership

Jim Sullivan shares 4 key leadership attributes that have evolved since COVID-19 hit

Three things we’ve learned for certain in the last 11 months since COVID-19 hit: 1) the foodservice customer has changed; 2) the foodservice team member has changed; and 3) the systems and process we deploy to serve each of those constituencies has changed too. And in case you haven’t noticed, that includes leadership.

Here are four key leadership attributes that have evolved. Integrate these strategies into your unit manager and above-store leader training and development.

Leaders are made, not developed. Change has always been a part of the foodservice industry operational landscape, but in the last 12 months a seismic shift has occurred: Change has transformed from being episodic to being continuous. And that is likely to continue for the next decade or so.

Preparing for change is what leaders used to do. Managing perpetual change is what they’re now tasked with. This requires new skillsets, mindsets and development strategy.

Chief among those mindset changes is the fact that you can no longer presume that leaders are more important than individuals. It was our individual team members, after all, who faced the pandemic head-on and made the necessary pivots and changes happen at the store level.

Critical thinking and adaptive skills are paramount in all current and future leaders. Hierarchy no longer determines who’s a leader and who is not. Plus, we’ve learned to value the “whole-person” approach to leadership development for unit supervisors: Help make them better people, as well as better managers.

Not surprisingly, most above-store leaders realized that that’s what they should have been doing all along. Think of it as “Leadershift.”

Get ready for a hybrid workforce. Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev told the story about the Russian manufacturing facility of the future that would be operated solely by robots and machines. There would be one tiny office above the plant floor that contained a chair and an on/off switch for the machines. A manager would sit in the chair, and a large dog would be chained alongside him. When asked the function of the dog, Gorbachev replied, “to bite the man if he reached for the ‘Off’ switch.” 

Since technology integration and innovation in the restaurant business has accelerated more rapidly in the last ten months than it had in the last ten years, one has to consider tech’s impact on traditional leadership. As artificial intelligence more fully integrates into our systems, as more robots share our kitchens, as predictive analysis and cognitive science and neuroscience-based learning assimilates into our planning and training, is leadership a bigger or lesser priority? 

Strategic “direction” for machines is determined by engineers and algorithms. Career development, strategic clarity, dignity, care, respect, “purpose” and equity are meaningless to robots and AI. So how — and whom — do leaders lead in a hybrid workforce restaurant?

Excel at indirect influence. For the first time ever, area managers found themselves unable to visit their stores when the coronavirus hit last March, due to government mandates. These routine visits are the very essence of the job an above-store leader is expected to perform. Restaurant visits routinely assess adherence to brand standards, store-level management capabilities, effectiveness of systems and processes, customer interaction and team member performance.

When prevented from visiting, area managers soon discovered how long (or short) of a leadership shadow they cast. That’s because their in-person absence meant that restaurant unit managers had to assume roles, responsibilities, and decision-making that was traditionally relegated to their supervisors.

True leadership is formed in the moments that challenge us most, and what’s more challenging than a worldwide pandemic that requires a full system reset and a strong pivot to daily innovation and dogged resilience?

General managers and assistant managers rose to the occasion. Enlightened area managers soon realized the importance of developing, reinforcing and inspiring self-efficacy in unit managers. Self-efficacy is the confidence we have to set and achieve our own goals under the circumstances surrounding us. A high degree of self-efficacy is what enables managers (and team members) to successfully navigate the challenges thrown their way.

Smart above-store leaders learned to lead more through governance than hands-on management. That means they no longer see themselves as the person who shows up and “fixes things.” Instead, they become more adept at one-on-one coaching at scale by evolving from compliance inspector to indirect influencer and brand ambassador.  

Define and deploy better practices. Teaching managers to lead via best practices is a peculiar process. It goes something like this: You find an Abe Lincoln (or a Norman Brinker, or a Howard Schultz, or a Nelson Mandela). You identify a bunch of best practices and attributes of Abe Lincoln. And you tell managers that if you do these things you will be like Abe Lincoln.

Sounds silly when you read it, but that’s what traditional leadership has done for the last fifty years: Identify, codify and teach best practices, and then wonder why we haven’t become an industry of Abe Lincolns.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and author, puts it this way: “In performance cultures, people often become attached to best practices. The risk is that once we’ve declared a routine the best, it becomes frozen in time. We preach about its virtues and stop questioning its vices, no longer curious about where it’s imperfect and where it could improve. Organizational learning should be an ongoing activity, but best practices imply it has reached an end point. We might be better off searching for better practices.”

So what are the new lessons in leadership that area directors and GMs can glean from these four leadership shifts? First, presume that every single day team members ask: “Do I matter?” At that point you realize your primary role as a leader is to routinely affirm — not just periodically inform — your crew.

Second, pursue the bright spots. Invest as much time scaling successes as you do solving problems.

Third, when you visit stores or conduct manager meetings via video, be upbeat and provide strategic clarity: Know the way, show the way, and go the way.      

Jim Sullivan is the CEO of, a consultancy whose clients include Panera, Chipotle, Domino’s, Burger King and Texas Roadhouse. He’s the author of two bestselling books: Multiunit Leadership and Fundamentals, available at Amazon.  For daily leadership insight join Jim’s 400K social media followers at LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.

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