Leadership with Ultimate Awareness: What a Top Chef can Teach You
For a special anniversary my wife and I spent the weekend at the Ritz Carlton, Amelia Island. As part of that we had dinner at the “chef’s table” where you eat inside the kitchen and get to watch your meal and everyone elses come together. The kitchen is a regular beehive of activity and members of the kitchen staff would occasionally pop in. They would tell us what their role was and what they were doing at the moment.
What struck me as interesting about the experience was the head chef, who orchestrated everything, also tasted everything that left the kitchen. Even though the other chef’s were obviously capable and he trusted them, every sauce that was made, every dressing that was created, etc. he tasted for himself. No patron could come to him and say "this wasn’t right' or "wasn’t like last time' without him having prior knowledge of what had been consumed. No chef under him could say based on the availability of “this” or the quality of “that” I had to alter the recipe without him knowing the actual impact of that alteration because he tasted it.
Too many leaders today are unaware of how things are actually accomplished at the working level.
Some leaders regularly hear PowerPoint presentations, receive special briefings and if they go on a “field trip” into the working level it is highly orchestrated. There is no substitute for seeing reality at the working level and talking to people at the working level. This is a necessary obligation for all who are in leadership.
I am continually amazed at leaders who park in private locations, get on a private elevator, attend meetings in their private conference rooms and then eat at the executive cafeteria.
When these self-isolating leaders want to know what’s going on (usually after poor organizational performance or a bad event) they hire consultants. What do consultants do? They use their consulting brilliance and talk to the people at the working level where often the problem and solution already exist. They then translate that working level information into slick PowerPoint slides and combine it with their own company’s fancy proprietary method into a proposal that can be implemented over a multi-year period at a fraction of the cost of the problem. Executives happy, consultants happy, workers perplexed as to why their leaders didn't ask them in the first place.
There has been a lot of recent news in the United States about the poor performance of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, especially regarding faked waiting lists to see a doctor. How long do you think it would take leadership that was in tune with the working level to sniff this out? A change in leadership was made. Robert McDonald, former Army Ranger and a 30 plus year career at Proctor and Gamble is the new head of the Veteran’s Affairs. I don’t know anything about Mr. McDonald. I do know if he does not spend 30 to 50 percent of his time visiting hospitals, suppliers, talking to patients and staff at the working level, he will not be able to effectively fix what needs fixing.
As the truth bubbles up through the filters of the organizational leadership, it rarely accurately resembles or has the context of what is actually taking place, no matter how many metrics are in place.
In some organizations the “m” in metric stands for manipulation.
A leader I highly respect told me he has never spent time at the working level where he didn’t come back with something that made him a better leader or better able to address a specific situation. This is not revolutionary or surprising, but it does take time and discipline on the part of the leader to do it. Many could take a lesson from the former CEO of Costco, Jim Sinegal famous for visiting each of his close to 600 stores every year to get direct feedback. Contrast that with some of the leaders who appear on the television show Undercover Boss who are absolutely clueless about how their company really operates.
Look at your calendar for the upcoming weeks. How much of your time is spent at the working level, where the deliverables are coming together, tasting it for yourself to make sure it is high quality. I know you are thinking your calendar is full, but heaven forbid you have to miss a meeting or two to stay in touch with what goes on at the working level. This is every leaders responsibility regardless of level.