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What Can the Restaurant Business Teach Me?!?

I’m attending a conference in a couple of weeks where Danny Meyer, author of the best selling book “Setting the Table”, will be speaking about his business philosophy. The conference organizers strongly recommend that we read his book. My initial reaction was an internal groan when I thought about how much trouble I have struggling through books which don’t interest me. Mr. Meyer is a restaurateur so what can he teach me, an executive in the High Tech field? I always chuckle when I reflect on my little ego moments like this. Once I started reading the book I couldn’t put it down. Here’s a guy that understand what business is about – relationships.

Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that there has been much discussion about civility. Dr. Robert Sutton wrote “The No Asshole Rule”, which deals with difficult people in the workplace. Dr. P.M. Forni is the Professor of Civility at Johns Hopkins University, evangelizing “gracious goodness” (The Civility Movement in Maryland is Dr. Sutton’s reaction to Dr. Forni). Clearly there is concern about the general tone in our society and workplace. These works caught my eye because of some issues I’ve had to deal with. The concepts helped me to understand how to recognize poor behavior and how to deal with it, but Mr. Meyer’s book talks about how to build a work culture that doesn’t allow it to begin with. He calls it “enlightened hospitality”.

I really don’t like the title of Dr. Sutton’s book but it does catch your eye (he also has a blog). The gist is that there are jerks in the workplace and either the behavior is dealt with by management or accepted. A few years ago, we had an employee that I thought was irreplaceable. He was very smart with fantastic creative ideas. I just couldn’t understand why the people around him were having arguments with him. It looked like they were resistant to change and resentful of his ideas. What I didn’t know was that this person was abusive to anyone that didn’t immediately help him be successful by pursuing his ideas and that he was completely closed to suggestions from others. Eventually, I learned that he was very good at managing my perceptions and that he was creating a very difficult environment for the rest of the team. Since I didn’t understand what he was doing to the team members around him, we lost some very good people. It’s not just what you do, its how you do it. Mr Meyer has a chapter on 51%, which says that technical skills of a job can be learned, to some degree so he views that as 49% of what he looks for. The other 51% is attitude, work ethic, and graciousness (my interpretation).

When thinking of the leaders that I most admire, I notice the graciousness. They seem to always identify the positive side of situations. One former manager taught me to judge situations by remembering 2 things: 1) People are trying to do the right thing, and 2) people that I meet are intelligent. If I get angry with someone I try to think about why an intelligent and positively motivated person would create the situation. I’m usually proven correct. The high road is really the only path.

I sometimes see leaders that pride themselves on being “tough as nails”. They ask the “hard questions” and drive for excellence. I appreciate and admire accomplishment but they run the risk of turning meetings into reenactments of the Christians and lions. Hard questions can be asked respectfully. “I don’t know” is a fine answer, especially if its followed with a commitment date for an answer. If we keep our focus on goals, even urgent conversations and situations can be handled with graciousness. With this approach, you’ll be someone that people enjoy working with and trust.

Danny Meyer’s book is an outstanding roadmap for a business person. He follows so many best practices, such as follow your passion, become an expert, create a detailed plan, get other people’s perspective, be realistic about what can be accomplished in relation to how long it may take, build a foundation, always improve, and take calculated risks. The most important lesson, however, is to build a culture of “enlightened hospitality” Mr. Meyer says that hospitality should be extended to your team, the customer, your suppliers, and your investors, in that order. It seems that this approach builds respect from the inside and should radiate through all aspects of the business.

2 comments to What Can the Restaurant Business Teach Me?!?

  • Eugenie

    Bravo! What a refreshing concept – positivity, civility, graciousness, hospitality – in the workplace? Towards our own team members? Who knew? The biggest caveat is that the sentiment must be rooted in honesty. I can’t tell you how many managers I’ve observed “appearing” gracious and hospitable with their staff or peers, only to back-stab behind the scenes. Maybe that’s part of the “managing up” playbook. Sadly, graciousness tends to show up in the workplace only when you need to deflect blame to others or distract someone while undermining their position. (Think the waiter who smiles and then spits in your soup, or the schmoozing politicians telling you what you want to hear and proceeding to do the opposite.) Undoubtedly, when applying the concept of hospitality and graciousness in the workplace, I fear it will at first be met with some incredulity and misgivings. However, from my experience, I completely agree that given respect and the benefit of the doubt when faced with mistakes or problems, will almost always turn the situation around, even in the most difficult situations. Spread the word! Ever the optimist, e

  • JB

    The term “enlightened hospitality” does indeed conjure the image of an unflappable gracious individual. The balance is as you mentioned Devin, balancing results and creating a consistently safe and hospitable environement.

    Let’s face it, without some threat of repurcussion over chronic poor results, performance may slip even further over time. The flip side to that is, leaders and ICs who treat folks like fuel cells and motivate soley thru intimidation and politics.

    A results oriented individual who puts people and relationships first is a refreshing experience indeed.

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