Leadership Principles Burned in at the Grill

By: Jennifer Maneely

Do you ever fear being judged harshly? Or do you work hard to be liked or respected? These are just a couple of lessons I learned from my experience as a Unit Manager of Waffle House. There is no doubt that the restaurant business is a hard business and Waffle House can push anyone to their limits of capabilities. After all, it’s a 24 hour management job with full P&L responsibility with high expectations for good food, great service and a workforce that is often temporary.  In terms of experience and development of skills, it was the best job I could have asked for fresh out of college. It gave me a rich exchange of life lessons I continue to carry with me.  Here are just a few principles that apply in many situations.

Don’t be afraid to let the food go.

We used to say this to the new grill operators in training. What it means is this: when the food is done, put it on the plate as quickly as you can and be confident enough in your abilities to let it go. What happens to some cooks is that they would get stuck on worrying about mistakes to the point they would burn the food. Or, they had a hard time putting all the pieces of the orders together, because they would worry if they had put all the pieces together correctly. Next thing you know, there is a jam up on the line and no food is coming out, or coming out a lot more slowly than Waffle House would like It to. After all, their saying is “good food fast”.  Life after Waffle House is not that much different. I see clients and people being afraid to “let the food go.” Often it comes from a place of lacking confidence in yourself and your abilities. When the food is done, let it be done, put it on the plate, and go on with your life knowing that you got it out correctly.

It’s not about being perfect, it’s about knowing how to recover from mistakes quickly.

To add on to the “Let the food go” principle, many cooks would often stare at their masterpieces checking things two, three, four times before they would call their servers to come get the food. Yes, mistakes can jam up the line but so can worrying about mistakes. Worrying about potential mistakes can be just as harmful and costly as actually making the mistakes. When I trained cooks, I spent considerable time teaching the cooks to come back from mistakes quickly. In the beginning, they would make a mistake, look around for someone to blame or just stare at the mistake and would lose focus. Some cooks never seemed to get over their fear of making mistakes and never could reach the next level in their skills. How many of us get caught in the mistake cycle and can’t seem to reach the next level in our skills? I’m less afraid of making mistakes now, because I know I am going to bounce back from them quickly and that gives me the confidence to just go with it. I am not afraid to “let the food go” mistakes and all.

It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is.

When I first started training on the grill, when a mistake happened, there would be this long blame game of whose fault it was. Talk about a jam up. We spent more time arguing over who to blame than it would take to fix the mistake and get the food out. And, on top of that, we all got mad at each other over some stupid bacon and hash browns. When I started letting my ego go on whose fault it was, I started taking responsibility for everything. A funny and unexpected thing happened when I started taking ownership for things that weren’t my fault: other people took ownership quicker. People who started out arguing over whose fault it was when I chimed it “It was me, it was my fault, sorry I will fix it.” Next thing I know, the same people arguing stopped arguing and told me it was actually their fault. The reason they took ownership is because they felt safe to take the ownership, they knew I wasn’t mad at them. Mistakes happen.

I will add in, I’m not addressing the big mistakes that cost people their jobs and lives. It’s the insignificant ones I’m addressing. If someone else accidently killed someone, don’t take the blame, that’s not a good idea.

People are not good or bad, they are strengths and weaknesses

All too often, we go around and label people good or bad at their job. If people are bad at one aspect of their job, we label them as bad at their job. As a manager, it was my job to try to put people in the right spots. Some cooks for example were not so good at making eggs, but they were great at marking plates. If I wanted to have a good, smooth day, I’m not going to put the person that’s not good at making eggs on eggs. It seems so simple, right? But how many times do we put people in the wrong jobs and then label them as incompetent, even when they say that is not a strong suit of theirs? Part of my job as a manager was seeing people for what they were good at and not labeling them as bad or good at their job. I saw them  as humans with strengths and weaknesses. I had servers and cooks that would consistently show up a few minutes late. They were horrible time keepers, but they were great servers or cooks. I had one server who was bad about bringing their personal stuff to work. She was constantly whining and complaining to whoever would listen. Most of the staff didn’t like her and wanted me to get rid of her. I didn’t because despite her “Debbie Downer” vibe, she was a great server and the customers loved her and she did her job really well. So we worked on her weaknesses instead. My point is, my management abilities got a lot better when I started viewing people as strengths and weaknesses and not good or bad. I had the chance to work with their weaknesses and put them is spots where they excelled.

Caring Too Much About What People Think Will Set You Back

I have to be honest about this one, becoming confident from the inside-out is a lesson that came from Waffle House, but learned after I left. I wish I had been better at this while I was still working there.  I may still be there if I had been. With reflection, I have gained an understanding that I don’t owe everyone an explanation. As a manager, I am privy to the whole picture while my staff is not. I always made the best decision I could make given the situation that I was in, but not everyone agreed with all my decisions. Hell, I didn’t even agree with all of my decisions. I was confident in the fact that I was a good manager and that I was making the best decisions possible with the facts I had. I was not confident in the fact that everyone else viewed me as a good manager because some people didn’t. And I cared way too much about people seeing me as a good manager.  Because I cared too much about what other people thought about my decision making, I put too much energy into explaining myself. This principle folded into a host of issues for me that tied me up in knots and gained me very little. I wanted people to like me and I worked way too hard both physically and energetically getting people to be on my side. It worked for the most part. I earned a lot of respect from most of my staff, but, in the end, it caused me to be burned out to the point I could no longer sustain myself and had to leave for my own well-being. The way I chose to operate was not sustainable. Learning to do things for the right reason instead of popularity will be a lifetime journey and I am making daily strides.

To sum things up in a nice little bow, don’t be afraid to let things go, be confident enough to make mistakes because it doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. You and everyone else are merely full of strengths and weaknesses, so are you putting people or yourself in the best spot to succeed in? And most importantly stop caring so much about what people think about you…it’s not a sustainable model for your life.

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