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Tough Love: Developing Your Restaurant’s Next Rock Star Leader

When you look at the landscape of executive-level leaders in the restaurant industry, their stories have a common thread: they started out on the ground floor. They were servers, hostesses, line cooks and bartenders. Over time, they earned opportunities to take on more responsibility as general managers, training directors or regional directors. And at some […]

When you look at the landscape of executive-level leaders in the restaurant industry, their stories have a common thread: they started out on the ground floor. They were servers, hostesses, line cooks and bartenders. Over time, they earned opportunities to take on more responsibility as general managers, training directors or regional directors. And at some point, they decided it would be possible (and pretty awesome) to carve out a successful career in the restaurant business.

Their rise through the ranks wasn’t by chance either. For every one of these leaders, there was a person or a couple of people creating a path, developing their skills and providing mentorship along the way.

Right now, in your restaurant, there are talented team members who don’t just see their job as a means to end – but see themselves working in a restaurant for the long term. They’re also looking for training, development and mentorship – whether they’re outspoken about it or not.

If you don’t have that person yet, keep reading. Because when they do walk through your doors or realize their potential, you’ll want to know how to retain, engage and train them into your next rock star restaurant leader.

Hire for Heart, Teach the Skills

You can teach skills, but you can’t un-teach the wrong behavior or bad habits. What you’re looking for is someone who comes by customer-service naturally and has a passion for learning and improving. It is a lot easier to give someone the tools for success in the industry when they already have the heart for it.

Peggy Cherng, CEO of Panda Express put it best for an article in Nation’s Restaurant News when she said, “The first thing you look for is a hospitality mentality … we look for people who have a mindset of serving others. Then we look for somebody really wants to learn and to never give up. I would think that I’d like to work for somebody who never gives up on themselves, who really wants to strive and learn, and be vulnerable … people who want to be the best they can be”

“The first thing you look for is a hospitality mentality … we look for people who have a mindset of serving others. Then we look for somebody really wants to learn and to never give up.”

– Peggy Cherng, CEO of Panda Express

Let Them Make Mistakes

You’re not always going to be around to provide guidance or prevent problems. After the initial training period, there comes a time when you’ve got to let go and allow them to make mistakes.

And when we say mistakes, we’re talking about issues that aren’t going to catastrophically impact the restaurant or another team member.

This is probably the scariest part of developing leaders in your restaurant. Can you really let go and let them make mistakes? Yes, yes you can. You should, however, intervene early when you spot a teaching moment or if your manager-in-training makes the same mistakes over again.

As you let go of your control and give it someone else (who you identified as capable), the best way to cope is to have some perspective. Remember, failure is not final, it’s the first attempt at learning.

Walk the Talk

Your team members look to you for cues on how they should behave. If you talk bad about guests – chances are your team will follow suit. If they see you overreacting to a situation, that’s like giving them a token to treat their fellow team member the same way.

Both you and your restaurant leader in training should uphold the vision, the culture and the standards that are important to your restaurant – whether it’s your vision or the vision of the franchise.

Remind them as they grow into their role as a leader, that they are the example and the team is looking to them for cues on how to act.

Give them Ownership

Give your leader-in-the-making the power to make decisions on their own. Chances are, if you have a true leader in the making, they’ll be begging for it!

And speaking of own – let them own specific areas of the operation. In other words, don’t get in the way of their success!

If it sounds a little scary – it’s cause it is! Relinquishing your control and allowing someone else to make decisions that you would have normally made is hard! What if they screw up? What if it’s not the way you would normally handle it?

At this point, you have to have confidence in your own abilities as a leader. You have to believe that you’ve done a good enough job to prepare them for the important role of leader.

Keep the Career Path Open and the Training Continuous

As your leader-in-the-making takes on more responsibility, owns more of the operations and is confronted with daily challenges and the ongoing pressures of success, they’re going to need someone to keep them hungry for more.

Whether it’s quarterly or annually, set aside some one-on-one time with your rock star and talk to them about their goals and then offer up training opportunities to keep growing their skills.

Connect them with a Like-Minded Network

They say you are the sum of the five people you surround yourself with. If they haven’t surrounded themselves with the right people already, introduce your rock star to a community of future restaurant leaders. Better yet, introduce them to today’s restaurant leaders.

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