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10 signs an hourly employee is ready to be a manager

10 signs an hourly employee is ready to be a manager

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at foodservice leadership conferences worldwide. His newest book Fundamentals is available at Amazon or Check out his leadership video series at This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. chief executive Jim Sullivan
"Tend to the people, and they will tend to the business.” —Thomas Edison

I remember quite clearly the first night I was entrusted with managerial duties in a restaurant.

I was a 19-year-old shift leader waiting tables at a Holiday Inn restaurant in Williamsport, Pa. The manager on duty was unexpectedly given free tickets to a rock concert that night from a bar patron. He hustled over to me and with a crooked smile said, “Sullivan, fate has smiled upon you this evening, you are now closing the restaurant.” I stopped dead in my tracks. “Wait. What?” was all I could manage. “Don’t screw it up,” he said, grabbing his jacket. “Here’s the keys.” He noticed the panic on my face and added, “It’s dead tonight. Just lock up the register trays and credit receipts in my office, and the front door gate by the hostess stand. Make sure everybody clocks out. Nothing to it. Cool?” I nodded numbly and he dashed off.

It was pretty simple at first. Then the thunderstorm hit about 90 minutes after the manager left. After the lightning bolt struck the roof transformer, the electricity went out, along with the refrigerators, lights, ovens and most of the staff. One of the cooks had the great idea of pulling our cars around front and turning on the headlights to shine into the dark dining room through the restaurant’s windows so the panicked patrons could at least find their way out of the restaurant and bar. They did, and quickly. Most without paying.

That evening I learned three lifelong lessons:

1. There are good managers and bad ones.

2. Grace under pressure is key.

3. The restaurant business is a free circus every day.  

Since that crazy night three decades ago, I’ve helped groom a few hundred exceptional hourly employees into managers, many of whom became successful and grew into much bigger roles, giving me confidence in my ability to choose and develop effective foodservice leaders. And if building leadership bench strength is important to you and your organization, it helps to know what to look for among your exceptional hourly team members that will help make their transition to management effective. So here’s my short list of behaviors to identify and consider when you’re evaluating team members for promotion from hourly to supervisory ranks.

1. They can manage themselves. The ability to effectively manage others begins with the ability to first manage oneself.

2. They routinely demonstrate ABCD (Above & Beyond the Call of Duty) behavior. One sure sign of manager-ready associates is a commitment to master and excel at the tasks at hand.

3. They have the respect of their fellow employees. All of them. Strong character is a critical cornerstone of strong leadership. If you have integrity, nothing else matters. And if you don’t have integrity? Nothing else matters.

4. They model the way. Whenever you cite the model employee in meetings with your fellow managers, you use her or him as an example of patience, performance and productivity.

5. They’re already managers (without titles). Other team members tend to ask this associate the kinds of questions they’re afraid to ask real managers for fear of looking dumb or forgetful. And they patiently explain and demonstrate the right way every time.

More key characteristics

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6. They build their own replacement. The promotion-worthy hourly employee shares expertise and insight, and successfully trains, develops and motivates the next generation team member to the role they once had. And they do it with fun and focus.

7. They challenge the process, calmly. Manager-worthy associates master their role and actively search for (and often find) better solutions to common obstacles.

8. They spend time with other outstanding performers. It’s been said that you are the cumulative sum of the five people you spend the most time with. Outstanding team members tend to hang with people who like them and are like them.

9. They like to learn and be given targets. The best future leaders are learners and goal-oriented. They examine how the job they do might be done even better and then share what they’ve learned with others.  

10. They always seem to be working during the most profitable/productive shifts. Look at your spreadsheets. Compare the best days and the worst ones with the labor schedule. Which team members and which managers are consistently on staff on the best and most profitable days? And which are most often present on the worst ones?

All of the behaviors listed above are starting lines. You could — and should — have many more future leader characteristics based on your brand, experience and teams. So use this list as a starting point for discussion with your managers and encourage them to add to the list.

How do you prepare hourly employees to become managers? Join the conversation in the comments below.

If you’re hiring someone from the outside to be a new manager, be certain you assess their capacity for learning as well as their résumé. In today’s world, résumés are somewhat irrelevant in that managers should not be hired based solely on what they’ve done, but rather for what they can do. Bank on the future more than the past. No one comes as close to perfection as they do on a résumé. The ability to self-direct and self-instruct are critical skills rarely found on a résumé, but worth searching for in your hourly talent pool.

Having an entrepreneurial outlook and an innate ability to be a lifetime learner are platinum skills for the next generation of foodservice leaders.

Jim Sullivan is a consultant and keynote speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. The third edition of his bestselling book Fundamentals is now available at bookstores or Check out his training catalog at and follow him on YouTube or Twitter @Sullivision.

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