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What makes an ideal general manager?

If the brand is the engine, the GM is the steering wheel

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at foodservice leadership conferences worldwide and the author of two books: Multiunit Leadership and The Fundamentals available on 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. 

Who’s the most important person in a restaurant? The customer? Maybe. But without a good GM, who will shape that customer’s experience? The GM hires the team, applies the process, supplies the energy, drives the numbers, provides the focus, connects with customers, executes the plan, builds leadership capacity, manages throughput, and delivers on the brand promise. And they do all of this in the most important location of all, where the company meets the customer: the restaurant itself. The brand may be the engine, but the GM is the steering wheel. Let’s examine the qualities that make up an exceptional General Manager in 2017. I've got a development plan so sharp you could pick your teeth with it.

Last summer I was working on a GM development plan for an international QSR chain. I began the process by asking for a list of regional GMs I could interview to get clearer insight into their challenges and best practices. I was sent a spreadsheet of names and locations and randomly chose sixteen GMs from the list. The VP of Ops gave me a call after seeing my choices. “You’ve chosen a pretty good cross-section of experience,” he said. “But may I suggest that you don’t waste your time talking to Jeremy, Katherine, Matt or Katelynn.” I see. Perhaps they were being let go? “Oh no, not at all,” he replied, “they’re still on the team, not just what I’d call up to par with the other GMs. Their turnover is high and their numbers are low. So maybe you could pick four others to talk to.” Well indeed I could, but what about the people who had to work for Jeremy, Katherine, Matt and Katelynn? The only choice they had was to put up, shut up, or move on — which they apparently were doing with some regularity. While their own home office recognized the leadership shortcomings, they were content to let those hourly teams and assistant managers deal with it. After twenty-plus years of consulting, I’d seen this pattern with companies before. History doesn't repeat itself — people do.

Why were those GMs allowed to retain such a critical role they were clearly unqualified for? Why were they not being coached or trained in a lesser role until they demonstrated more competence? Most importantly, how could this company tolerate such sub-par performance in such a critical role? Circumstances may not be negotiable, but decision-making certainly is.

Long story short, we helped that company improve their leadership standards and here are some core competencies to look for that can improve your GMs too.

  • Brand Ambassador. The best GMs are class acts that know the way, show the way and go the way. They hold the leadership high ground, are servant leaders, help others and serve as cultural role models for fellow managers and hourly associates.
  • Talent Spawners. The best GMs make hiring the most important decision. They find and develop standout employees and managers and foster collaboration among their teams. They are not afraid of losing their best people because they build a continuous talent pipeline and bench strength into their restaurant. They know that if they tend to their people, their people will tend to the business.
  • Masters at managing multiple priorities. Outstanding GMs focus first on what’s important, not just what’s urgent. They’re decisive, organized and fastidious in their planning and detailed in their execution.

  • Require very little time to “manage.” The best GMs jumpstart their projects and workload without requiring much instruction or direction. They take initiative and inspire their junior managers to do the same, approaching projects and improvements with enthusiasm. You can count on them to make it happen.
  • Consistent ABCD Behavior. They go Above and Beyond the Call of Duty daily. They coach, motivate and inspire Next Gen teams with energy, focus and direction. They establish and share specific goals for every shift and know how to motivate their teams to achieve them.
  • Create the Shadow of the Leader. Great GMs run restaurants that treat people with dignity, compassion, care and respect, and that pays dividends even when the GM is off. In fact, the restaurant may operate even better when they’re not there, because the assistant managers and hourly team will work even harder to demonstrate pride and ability.
  • Run it like they own it. The best GMs have an ownership mindset and do their best to instill it in their hourly team and junior managers too. They reinforce the basics of Foodservice Economics 101 daily with their team and teach them how The Game is Played.
  • Customer-focused. No-brainer, but the best GMs are just as focused on their internal customers (team members) as they are on their external customers (guests, consumers). A great guest experience is predicated on a great employee experience.
  • Tech-savvy. It’s 2017. A GM who doesn’t embrace technology is moving backward.
  • Fierce resolve. Being resolute without providing direction is impractical. But leaders who couple purpose with persistence inspire performance. Passion persuades.

If you’d like to uncover best demonstrated GM practices in your own company, here are three basic questions to ask:

  • What does success look like in our restaurants? Detail the answers and then work backwards from there.
  • What do my best GMs do — day in, day out, without missing a beat — to improve our people, performance and profits? Detail the behaviors; be specific.
  • What do the best GMs do before, during and after a shift to drive productivity and sales?

The quest for continuous improvement at the GM level never ends. Get enthused about identifying the skillsets that magnifies and attracts better leadership talent. Your biggest competitor is not the competition. It is indifference.

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at Leadership Conferences worldwide and author of two books: Multiunit Leadership and The Fundamentals. Check out his resources and training catalogue at and follow him on LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter @Sullivision

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