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Why most multi-unit manager training falls short Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Why most multi-unit manager training falls short

Research shows investment in this critical role is lacking

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. 

A unit GM builds a strong store team; a Multiunit Leader (MUL) shapes a market-wide Dream Team. GMs develop a customer base, MULs develop a market. A GM manages, a MUL oversees. A GM “does for,” a MUL “helps with.” In short, MULs manage the people that manage the problems, not the problems themselves.  MULs are “regional CEOs” who impact and shape the experience of every team member and guest in their market. They are the connective tissue between the company and the customer. And yet our recent industrywide MUL Research shows that foodservice companies spend twenty times more on their hourly team members than they do on developing their Multi Unit Leaders. Strategy changes with scale, and so should training dollars. This learning and development gap must be addressed.

All leadership — and the reaction to leadership challenges — is situational. The District Manager job description in most companies is more tacit than explicit. That is, the critical skills they need to master are rarely documented, archived and shared, so that others in the organization beyond their immediate sphere of influence can directly learn and benefit from their experience.

Oddly, development for hourly teams and unit managers is increasingly digital, but Multiunit Leadership development today is mostly analog. Given the proliferation of multimedia platforms and technology in hourly and unit manager training, it’s almost as if MULs (Multi Unit Leaders) are taught via cave paintings by comparison. It’s certainly not that MULs don’t embrace technology; they manage intricate back-office, ordering, scheduling, delivery and food-cost software daily and they’re carpet-bombed with data weekly.

But here’s the thing: Our MULs are drowning in information, and starving for knowledge.

Consider how much hard-won corporate memory has been and is being routinely lost, given the failure of most companies to archive and share MUL best practices. Now consider the amount of revenue not being generated from better-trained MULs and the cumulative corporate expense of repeating the same mistakes over and over.

Many, if not most, of the MUL training resources I see at the corporate level still get it wrong.  They prescribe a Inspector role versus being a Head Coach. They focus more on how MULs can force compliance and manage a unit-level checklist, rather than how to coach and develop a store’s team through governance. They’re taught how to spot problems, but not how to accurately identify and resolve the problem’s root causes, so that the snags don’t reoccur. Our research confirms that we need better resources for improving the MUL role.  You don’t improve leadership “in general”, you improve leadership in specific. 

Every year we conduct research with hundreds of foodservice and retail Multi Unit Leaders (MULs). You can visit for more detailed insight, but here’s a top-line summary of what we learned from our most recent MUL research in October:

  • The best MULs are managers too. They organize big things and little things. They align strategy to execution. They allocate resources. They track progress, make adjustments, and delegate responsibility so that they are constantly developing more leaders. A manager knows the way; a leader shows the way.
  • Average number of units that MULs in North America oversee is eight. (We met one area director who is directly responsible for 26 stores. Pray for her.)
  • The MUL role has increasingly become more tactical and directive (what to do) than strategic (why to do it) today than it was ten years ago. Most MULs interviewed think it should be the opposite.
  • Task saturation and data onslaught via reports and spreadsheets is approaching the deluge stage for the majority of foodservice MULs.
  • MULs we researched visit their stores an average of once every 2.5 weeks.  They averaged a total of 2 hours, 45 minutes per visit. The MULs we interviewed with the most profitable stores visited an average of once a week, and spent 5 hours per average visit.  
  • Most companies spend more time and resources detailing career path opportunities and development plans for their hourly crew and unit managers than they do for their MULs.
  • Eighty-seven percent of MULs surveyed felt their company’s tools and training resources for ongoing MUL development are “below average” or “inadequate.”
  • Ninety percent report that development tools and resources to help veteran MULs re-energize, re-focus, and re-invigorate after two, four, six, or ten years on the job are practically nonexistent.

Forty-eight percent of MULs interviewed were unable to identify the specific behaviors MULs should use before, during, and after store visits that will most effectively improve team performance after they leave that unit. Guesswork prevails. We need a new roadmap.

Too much of what passes for MUL training and development today was developed decades ago when the industry, customer, crew, technology and marketplace were radically different. The leap from “telling what to do” to “telling why and how to do” is a skill that requires patient coaching, guided practice and innate skill. We need to invest more time and digital learning resources into developing the relevant skillsets MULs need.  Customers change, markets change, learning styles change, employees change and competition changes, so the way we select, develop and coach our Multiunit Leaders must change as well.  When we improve ourselves, we also improve our teams, our industry and our guest experience. MULs don’t just work in the foodservice industry, they shape it.

Jim Sullivan is a popular Keynote speaker at Leadership Conferences worldwide. The 4th Edition of his bestselling book Multiunit Leadership is available at Amazon or as well as his elearning program MultiU. Jim has over 400,000 social media followers and you can join the conversation at twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn.

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