When I was at uni, my summer job was waiting tables in a diner-type restaurant that served burgers and salads and a variety of fried animal parts with chips. It had a great reputation, based on good food and good service. I was studying to be an architect, and didn’t consider that this job would in any way inform my ‘real’ career. I think back on those summers a lot, and shake my head with admiration that guys running a burger joint could be so good at managing teams, and how much I learned from their example.
Here are just a few of the lessons I learned that I try to practice. Thanks, guys. You taught me well.
You and Your Team
Don’t come to work if you aren’t in the right frame of mind to work – At the start of every shift, the manager would say something like, ‘If you don’t want to be here today, go home – we’ll cover for you. If you’re not in the mood to be cheerful and welcoming to our customers, you’ll do more harm than good. If I see you not smiling, I’ll send you home, so if you can’t get happy in the next 15 minutes, just hang up your apron and I’ll put you on another shift another day.’
Good service was our key responsibility, so we were reminded of it at the start of every shift. It was okay to have a be having a bad day, just not on the clock.
Everyone’s job is important – Each role on the team contributes to the outcome. No one gets a license to be rude or put on airs. You’re not more important than the guy in the kitchen because you’re out on the floor and he’s in the back (or vice versa). It is all one team to the customer. Make sure everyone knows their value, and treat them like you know it, too. As the waitress, you can smile as sweet as pie, but if the burger is undercooked, they’re not coming back. It could be a great chicken fried steak, but if you have an attitude, they’re not coming back.
Practice respect, have fun, keep it positive, and everyone has a good day.
Everyone has part of their role that is necessary, but not glamorous – Each shift had a list of tasks that needed to be done during, and at the end of the shift – fill the chip warmer, replenish the ramekins next to the salsa bucket, keep the coffee machine brewing, replenish the glasses next to the soda machine, etc. At the end of the shift, someone had to marry ketchups (I don’t even remember the other end-of-shift tasks, I hated this one so much it’s erased the memory of all the others). Each person got a different task every shift. Everyone shared the burden, and as a result you only had to marry ketchups about once a week. Hoo-wah.
Make sure no one in your team is taking on too much of the ‘not glamorous’ stuff – and that no one is seen to be exempt, or ‘above’ it. Yeah, you have a master’s degree. That’s awesome. We still need to take out the trash, and guess what? It’s your turn, buddy.
The boss is there to help you - The manager was required to know how to do every job in the restaurant (including the preparation of every item on the menu). He told you this in your training – not as a boast, but as a reassurance. The point of this skill requirement was so that the manager could step in and help anywhere the system was stressed. He would run food, make salads – whatever we needed – he was an extra pair of skilled hands, waiting to be deployed, not a taskmaster simply supervising, and definitely not sitting back in the office counting the money.
A manager leads the team, but is still part of the team, so be ready to dive in and assist whenever and wherever your team says they need you.
Everyone helps when you’re in the weeds – ‘Being in the weeds’ was the distress call when you were overloaded. You might get ‘slammed’ by the hostess, seating your station with three 4-top tables at once. It was okay when taking orders and serving drinks, but when it was time to run the food, you could find yourself short of hands, even with a tray. Everyone on the shift was trained that when someone said they were ‘in the weeds’, if you could help, you helped.
Who was getting the tip was irrelevant. It was about making sure you looked out for your colleagues, and that what the customer saw was a smoothly running team.
Everyone gets a turn to be the boss – Cleaning up your station at the end of a shift was a quality control issue, enforced by the shift captain. You couldn’t go home until you’d cleaned the tables, refilled the sugars, salt and pepper, and swept up. When you thought your station was shipshape, you checked with the shift captain. They would inspect your station, and give you permission to clock out and go home. Sometimes people in this role would abuse it. They could find real or imagined issues with your station to make you stay longer. This temptation was mitigated by rotating the role throughout the staff. Since you could be shift captain the next day, people didn’t play power games – well, not more than once, anyway (karma’s a kicker).
Passing the lead role around fosters mutual respect within the team. Team members are less likely to think it’s safe to ‘kick downwards’ if they know tomorrow they will be ‘downwards’. In addition, letting people have a responsibility that gives them some power over their senior colleagues is good practice for one day leading a whole team. Make sure there is a good feedback loop – whether it’s 360 reviews, or self-reflection with a mentor.
Everyone needs a shake break – We made terrific chocolate shakes. They came out of a machine in the kitchen, and next to it was a little stack of paper cones that would hold about three mouthfuls of the heavenly stuff. We were told in our induction that we were entitled to ‘shake breaks’ during our shift. It was a great little pick-me-up in the middle of an intense shift – it took about a minute, but it gave you a moment to take a deep breath, get happy again, and go back out into the fray with a grin on your face.
If you have a job that calls for focused concentration, make sure your team members know they have permission check out for a couple of minutes and recharge – they’ll be more productive, and happier.
Just a few more observations – these have less to do with team management and more to do with self-management, but they’re still well worth mentioning:
When you’re in the weeds, announce it, don’t hide it (part 1) – Everyone on the staff can see it anyway. The point is to make sure the customer doesn’t see it. Call for help, and you’ll (probably – see ‘part 2′) get it. If you don’t call for help, your team doesn’t know if they should dive in or not.
Don’t be a lone hero when you know you’re part of the Justice League. Throw up the Bat Signal and get reinforcements.
When help is not at hand and you’re in the weeds, announce it, don’t hide it (part 2) – That first five minutes when people were sat at my station were critical to success. I had a couple of minutes’ grace while they settled in and glanced over the menu, but if they actually noticed I hadn’t greeted them yet, I was dead. Sometimes the whole restaurant was so busy that there was no backup available, but if I walked by with armfuls of food for another table and said: ‘Hi! Welcome! I’ll be right with you’, I got 5 more minutes’ grace, and happy faces greeted me when I came back to the table. If I walked past their table and didn’t make eye contact, when I eventually turned up, they gave me the evil eye and no tip, regardless of how attentive my service was.
Even if you don’t have the result your client is waiting for, if you’re going to miss a deadline, don’t avoid the conversation. Tell them BEFORE the deadline is passed. Reassuring them that you haven’t forgotten them is appreciated. (Then deliver ASAP – with free chips and salsa!)
Humans, man. What can you do? – People would sometimes be cranky with me for no apparent reason. They’d bark their order at me – no please, no thank you, no eye contact. When I first started, I was very sensitive to any potential error I might have inadvertently made, so I would walk back to the kitchen, reviewing the exchange in my head, wondering what I’d done to set them off. I’d come back with their drinks – amd they were still cranky. I’d come back with their food, put it in front of them – and all of a sudden, it was, ‘Oh, honey, when you get a second, could bring me back some ketchup, please? No rush. That would be great, thanks so much.’ What the…? Hunger. A-ha.
Yeah, sometimes it’s not you. Hang in there, keep doing a good job – eventually your client will remember their manners (and if they never remember their manners, just do your best and don’t take it personally).