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A foodservice leader’s core responsibility during the COVID-19 crisis is to stop a disaster from turning into catastrophe.

5 new leadership lessons for restaurateurs reopening during the coronavirus pandemic

Jim Sullivan outlines how to lead a successful team during challenging times

“The true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis.” —Brian Tracy

It’s no secret that I love the restaurant business the way an Instagrammer loves sunsets, politicians love gridlock, and Zuckerberg loves ads: wholly, viscerally, completely. But COVID-19 has strained the relationship as much as it has transformed the industry. Operating successful foodservice operations has always been tougher than a two-dollar steak, and now it’s shrink-wrapped with failed politics, inconsistent governmental leadership and abject uncertainty.  We still don’t know if we’re in the top of the ninth inning or bottom of the fifth.  And honestly, if I never hear the phrases “mandatory shutdown,” “bleach injection,” or “Coronavirus Toilet Plume” again, I’ll die happy. But if you look closely at foodservice leaders who faced the pandemic and pivoted to a greater good, there are lessons to be learned and applied.  Here are five of them.

First, do no harm. That maxim (Latin: Primum non nocere) is a mainstay of the Hippocratic Oath of medical ethics that every new physician avows to.  It also serves as a leadership baseline. A foodservice leader’s core responsibility during the COVID-19 crisis - or any other challenging time, for that matter - is to stop a disaster from turning into catastrophe. This is as true for a restaurant owner as it is for a politician (though the former seem to take it to heart more). Our initial responsibility, therefore, is to keep our crew and customers safe. And “first-do-no-harm” can also be applied as a filter to any new system we deploy, software we launch, person we hire, or third-party delivery app company we decide to contract with.  What is the potential short-term or long-term harm those decisions might inflict relative to manager task saturation, team culture, and profitability?

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Focus versus attention. When you’re headed somewhere and you lose your way, a street sign or the “you are here” icon on your map or smartphone can orient you to where you are. If you then re-calibrate where you’re going, you will see the best route to get you there. But the coronavirus has disoriented everyone, and there are no signs, playbooks, atlases or Google Maps that can confidently point us in the right direction during a global pandemic. We are lacking both the “you are here" and “destination arrived” icons; we conduct business in The Unknown. Everything fights for a leader’s attention in this industry, and always has: staffing, service, sales, hiring, training, marketing, food safety, social media, etc. And now COVID-19 has caused even more prism-like disorientation in scores of different ways, making it harder than ever to focus and choose a direction, causing many operators to abdicate to paralysis by analysis. The most successful leaders have always been able to distinguish between what takes their attention, and what needs their focus. The smart restaurateurs posited a foundational query: “What does the customer need under the current circumstances, and is our current operational system designed to meet those needs?”  If not, they asked, “Why not?” and made the necessary changes.

Re-onboard your team. Leaders know that staff disorientation is a relevant concern as well. If you were forced to furlough or lay off your team members a few months ago and are now able to start bringing them back, make certain you have an effective re-orientation program in place for them. Onboarding is not just for new employees, but former ones who are coming back under significantly altered circumstances, policies and procedures.  They will need to be aligned to the new realities patiently and with an attitude of gratitude.

Decide HOW to decide. The fundamental obstacle to successful strategic decision-making post COVID-19or anytimeoccurs when leaders fixate on the question: “What decision should I make?” instead of asking “How should I decide?” Answer the how correctly and you can profoundly improve both decisions and results, with or without a coronavirus breathing down your neck.  Questions that help you determine how to decide include: What kind of input or research is most relevant? Whose opinions should I solicit? What is easiest for the customer? What have my successful and unsuccessful competitors done? What if we don’t do anything? What could happen, and what might happen, based on our decision? Leaders in crisis know that sometimes questions are the answers.

People first. Here’s a final lesson in leadership from the pandemic that’s as down to earth as Home Plate: The best thing you can do for yourself as a leader and your company as a brand is to give your team confident direction and help your people succeed. And you do that with lots of daily TLC: Teaching, Listening, Coaching.

Jim Sullivan is the author of two bestselling books, Multiunit Leadership and Fundamentals which are available at Amazon, Audible or Companies using his products, programs or services include Starbucks, Panera Bread, Chipotle, Marriott and The Walt Disney Company. Join Jim’s 400,000 social media followers at LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.


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