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7 critical skills every assistant manager should master

7 critical skills every assistant manager should master

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.

No matter how much of a workaholic your general manager (GM) may be, the fact is that 70% of a restaurant’s shifts are supervised -- in whole or in part -- by assistant managers. This means that 70% of your volume, service, sales, profits, costs and customers are overseen by assistant managers (AMs) or shift leaders. Seventy-percent of a general manager’s bonus is directly dependent on the skillsets of the assistant manager. The critical question is: do your AMs know how to maximize performance, productivity and profits over all those shifts they collectively supervise, or are they “practicing” on the customer and crew? What’s the cost in lost profit, sales, turnover and repeat business when they merely “run” a shift versus leading it?  What’s the best way to develop AMs whose experiential leadership learning curve is analogous to laying track while the train is running?

An effective AM is like the blank in Scrabble; use her or him on any challenge and suddenly you’ve solved your problem. Pair an experienced GM with an organized and productive assistant manager, and any shift will be profitable despite the challenges, volume or situations. Here are the seven critical skills necessary to best develop your assistant managers and shift leaders so they can help take business to the next level.

Manage multiple priorities.  Start here always. The majority of new managers can stumble, fall or fail by underestimating the importance of planning and prioritizing their goals and duties. GMs must help AMs strategically plan and align their time and efforts to the daily activities that make them more effective and efficient.  This is job one.

Master basics of business, finance and technology. “Developing their overall business acumen is key to AM or shift leader development,” said Roger Karolick, chief operating officer for Daland Corporation, a Wichita, Kan.-based Pizza Hut franchisee.

“The biggest challenges that AMs or shift leaders face are being prudent with company property and resources, knowing how to make a restaurant profitable by mastering a P&L and understanding customer and people development metrics,” he said. Accumulating this knowledge requires clear communication and consistent coaching, and embracing technology as it relates to back office systems, social media, performance tracking and analytics.

Integrity, credibility and mesh. “Building credibility with the staff is extremely important,” said Paul Mangiamele, chief executive of Dallas-based Bennigan’s Franchising Co. “Learning how to motivate, teach and develop individuals in different ways to reach the desired goal is a challenge for every manager in the industry. Developing a management style that meshes with the GMs, while being flexible enough to account for the fact that each member of the staff is an individual and learns in different ways, is also an important skill for the AM. At Bennigan’s, every GM is expected to dedicate sufficient time each week to follow up on development plans and provide constructive feedback to the AM, so there is mutual clarity on their developmental progress. We believe in teaching, training and coaching our AMs until they have mastered every defined task and responsibility. This builds both knowledge and confidence, while cultivating truly valuable assets to the organization. We also expect our AMs to be self-motivated and to take ownership of their own development,” Mangiamele said. And as far as integrity goes? If you have it, nothing else matters. If you don’t have it, nothing else matters.

Screw up while the stakes are small. Despite what we’ve heard, experience is the worst teacher: it gives the test before the lesson. It’s OK to make mistakes, but not the same ones over and over. GMs should be patient early on with their new charges, but stress accountability and derive lessons from mistakes. After every shift, the GM should assess performance with the AM, share key learnings, praise performance where appropriate and discuss alternatives if problems arise. Ask the AM what they might have done differently instead of telling them what should have been done. Skinny the monologue and fatten the dialogue.

Scheduling and Communication. The best GMs recognize the power of a strong schedule and clear communication and teach that skill to their AMs. Smart AMs learn early on that the better they communicate with their teams before, during and after the shift, the more productive that shift will be.

Assess the competitive landscape. “Most AMs rarely venture outside their four walls to evaluate the competition,” Bennigan’s Mangiamele said. “This is an invaluable learning experience, and we encourage all of our AMs to take the time to get out, see what other restaurants are doing well--and not so well--and to share this info with their GM. We expect our AMs to ultimately develop as much market knowledge and operational expertise as our GMs.” Get AMs thinking proactively: If I was the competition, how would I put us out of business?

Continuously improve. Constructing a sustainable talent pipeline and residual bench strength is the foundation of future growth. GMs should evaluate the progress of each junior manager monthly.  Assess training or talent gaps and then assign resources to help them close the gap. Set so-called stretch goals for AMs; not too hard, not too easy. “Clearly defining performance expectations and using performance management processes to encourage, motivate and drive individual and team results through the AM is a critical responsibility of the RGM (restaurant general manager) or district manager,” said Daland’s Karolick.  Create an online system where AMs can share insight, questions and concerns with their fellow assistants, as well as immediate supervisors. Make tacit knowledge explicit.

Applying the seven skills above does not guarantee an AM’s success, but not applying them will almost certainly guarantee failure. These skills will incrementally improve your AM’s current performance and simultaneously teach them how to coach future leaders. The true measure of a successful foodservice brand is how many people come through the front door every day. It’s marketing’s job to bring people in the first time, but it’s the unit manager’s job to bring them back. Don’t leave this decision to chance by exposing your VIPs (very important pocketbooks) to unfocused or under-developed junior managers.

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