Why the Art of Cooking is Like Great Leadership
Recently I was cooking for members of my team during our executive retreat in the U.S. Virgin islands.
As I juggled lobster, Wagyu beef filets, duck breasts and tuna steaks on the Big Green Egg outdoor grills (I have two of them at my home!) it occurred to me that there’s a significant correlation between the art of cooking and great leadership.
The points of convergence between one of my favorite hobbies and the skills required to be an excellent corporate executive sizzled through my brain as I wielded spatulas, forks, and tongs.
Here are eleven key elements that readily sprang to mind which make the comparison and which, in turn, lead to a thriving workplace culture.
Managing the Team
Each of the dishes I prepared at my St. Thomas home was completely different. They needed different cooking times and temperatures. In the same way, each member of your team brings something different to the table and requires their own special attention. But at the end of the day you want the meal and the team to come together for the best results.
Monitoring the temperature of each protein is like monitoring the abilities and performance of your key people and making sure it all turns out right in the end. Leadership—like cooking—is a constant juggling act.
Mixing it Up
Just like your cooking style depends on the ingredients you have at your disposal you have to adjust your leadership style according to the personalities that make up your team.
When preparing a meal you take the ingredients and spices that you have and put them together to make something incredible. In leading your team recognize that each of them brings their own unique set of experiences and values to contribute to an outstanding project.
Taking Time to Develop
When you make something like a chili, a stew or clam chowder doesn’t it always taste so much better when it’s left overnight?
Likewise, I can make a good case for executives to sleep on important business decisions and revisit them the next day before finally pulling the trigger. Don’t rush decisions. Similarly, give your team time to marinate, meld, and collaborate for outstanding results.
Succeeding after Failing
We’ve all tried to cook something and were not happy with the end results. A dish turned out dry, burned or soggy. But we learned from that experience and our failure didn’t stop us going into the kitchen, trying again, and getting it right the next time. It’s not only okay to make mistakes—it’s good to make mistakes both in the kitchen and in the office. Just as long as you learn from them.
Sometimes when you’re cooking you need to try several different recipes or techniques before getting ultimate results. You should have the same open-minded approach when tackling any business project.
Using what You’ve Got
You may have seen television cooking competitions in which a group of chefs are given the same ingredients for a meal and have free range to create something delicious. It’s amazing how creative they can be in a short amount of time.
Give an identical set of facts and figures to your team and see how individuals conjure up a diverse set of solutions. It shakes-up the status quo and delivers a competitive advantage.
Knowing your Guests
The first thing you have to ask yourself when preparing a meal for a group of guests is what foods do they like and dislike. Are they vegan or vegetarian? Do they have any allergies? When you have the answers to those questions you can tailor the menu accordingly.
What about your company’s customers? The first thing you have to discover about your customer is what you need to cook up that will satisfy their business needs. You need to align all your resources to execute strategies that will want them returning for seconds. And thirds.
Developing your Skills
Becoming a great cook doesn’t happen overnight. It comes after years of trial and error, testing and refining new dishes. Many award-winning chefs discover how to turn their passion into practice by working with a master chef or attending a Cordon Bleu-type school. What does this tell you?
Business leaders benefit from the wisdom of a mentor, from attending training—especially recognizing that learning is a lifelong endeavor—and hiring executive coaches. Leadership skills you learned twenty years ago may not be as effective in today’s fast-moving business environment. Take note that great chefs don’t earn Michelin stars year after year by resting on their laurels but by creating new dishes.
The cook needs a vision of the final outcome of his efforts. How is he going to present it? What tantalizing aroma will he conjure up? And, of course, what will the meal taste like? Every business strategy meeting needs to start with the end in mind. Then the ingredients and the steps can be brought together to serve up a successful result.
For the chef, it’s working out how long each dish will take to cook so they can be taken out of the oven at the same time. For business leaders, it’s coordinating team members’ various tasks, so they converge to meet a project deadline.
Innovating and Experimenting
Quite often I don’t follow a fixed recipe. One evening at home I decided to make a seafood gumbo. I put it together with ingredients I already had in my freezer, refrigerator and pantry and added a dash of this and a dash of that.
I’m always experimenting with different ingredients and different flavors. You take calculated risks based on your experience (the marinade I used for the duck breast I cooked in St. Thomas I’d never used before).
Leadership is not a science. If you’re not constantly evolving and experimenting you’re not expanding. You’re not challenging your people. You’ll always get the same results instead of something creative and productive.
As mentioned earlier, I was single-handedly cooking lobster, Wagyu beef fillets, duck breasts, and tuna steaks for a dozen team members. That was quite enough juggling and responsibility for one person. That’s why I recruited some friends to provide a variety of side dishes to complement the entrées.
No leader can effectively run a business by herself. It takes a team. Executive chefs have an army of a sous chef, station chefs, junior chefs, and others that all work together under the pressure of tight deadlines to produce fine-tasting meals. CEOs and other executives need to build their own teams and give them the ability (and accountability) to fulfill their parts.
Professional chefs work in pressure cooker environments! They oversee multiple tasks overseeing a team of others often with last-minute challenges that must be immediately resolved. Good CEOs learn how to maintain their composure in the face of any crisis by adroitly communicating positive reinforcement to their employees.
In the same way that cooks needs to balance ingredients, flavors, cooking methods, and presentation a business leader must balance the talents of his team with the demands of various stakeholders and ultimate goals and objectives. In doing so you will help further a dynamic and healthy workplace culture.
Written by Jason Richmond.
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