Business Management and Leadership Lesson, IHOP Style!

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The title of this quite likely would sound really really weird to a lot of you — you don’t necessarily associate IHOP with business management (or leadership lessons)! However, I wish all of the “pedigrees” I see strutting around the Silicon Valley would take time off from their usual brushing up their resume and trying to dress up why their previous start-up collapsed and look around at a basic establishment like your average diner and see there is a lot to learn in terms of how to run and manage a team and a business. Because from what I see around nowadays, I got the feeling that Yale, and Stanford and MIT (and the list goes on, as you know) doesn’t teach such simple principles as the ones that I have just witnessed today — which would definitely help 1,000’s of the wanna-be CxO’s around the Bay Area (and elsewhere) I see on a daily basis.

In fact, if you are one of those I and you’re reading this, look back at one of your previous failures (it could be your failed start-up, missed delivery dates, downsizing teams and lots of others) in the light of this: I know you have previously already found an explanation for that failure (the VC’s didn’t cough up in time, market wasn’t ready, team didn’t have enough expertise — I know, I know, it wasn’t your fault, right?), but read this and think for a second whether really was the failure due to external factors or not? Could you have prevented it, ultimately?

So as you  might be aware, having read the first couple of paragraphs already, all of this has happened in real life: I make a point of going at least once every couple of weeks to an American diner — somehow I feel they are a bit like the English pubs, in the sense that it facilitates basic human interactions (read “conversations”), whether it’s with the servers or the other people around you having their all-day breakfast or what-not. (If you know me enough, you probably know that I always prefer this “real” interaction and discussions to chatting on facebook or exchanging emails — I wish people did more of that nowadays, as there is a lot we are losing from a communication point of view when we abandon face-to-face discussions!) Anyway, if you like the idea, or just simply like IHOP as a diner, I urge you to take a sit at the counter (rather than at a normal table): you get to chat to the whole staff while sitting and observing the whole production chain involved in getting your order on the table.

This is precisely what I did yesterday — coming back from a long weekend, about lunch time on a Labor Day I thought it’s time to check out a diner get some food, read some newspaper and talk a bit. (If you’re really interested, the IHOP on Steven’s Creek Blvd is my favourite — love the staff and the food!) Sitting at the counter, as I said, it’s quite an experience: you get to see what a complex task it is to get your diner food on your table, even though to the untrained eye might look as simple as placing your order, waiting 10 minutes and having it in front of you! Sitting there you start noticing the “back room” — which is your production line if you want, you get to notice the fact that this comprises of many things itself : you need to have stock for your ingredients, you need to have clean utensils to prepare the food on, you need someone to chop the vegetables, refresh the eggs in the refrigerator, the juices, the oil and the condiments, someone who needs to supervise the frying to make sure your eggs are only over and easy and not well done, then have these put on the plate, make sure they look presentable then pass them over to the servers. From there on the “front room” — which are the servers really — need to match the plate to the order number to the table and then make sure that any extra sauces, juices, bread, etc you ordered come with your plate and have that delivered to your table. Also, they need to make sure tables are cleaned right away when someone leaves (this is Labor Day weekend and believe it or not there are queues of people waiting outside, even at IHOP!) so the next group can be seated right away by the hostess. Dirty plates need to be returned for washing and sorted from dirty glasses, cutlery, trash needs to go to trash (and then thrown out). Ice bags need to be refreshed, condiments on the table need refilled, and so on and so on. If you’re sitting at the table it’s unlikely you get to see all these details and get to appreciate what it actually takes to get your food ready — which is why I always prefer the counter seats in a place like this.

This is a busy day, no doubt — place is packed and people are waiting to be seated. Right in front of me there’s the continuous to-and-from of servers picking up dishes and having them delivered to the tables and chefs calling out orders. You can also see right in the back kitchen where everything is prepared and can guess based on that alone that this is no ordinary day! Unfortunately my Spanish is not up to scratch so I can guess mostly what the chatter is about, but even so, it’s a pretty impressive operation I’m witnessing. Somewhere in the back, a lady fills up the dishwasher with plates. She then proceeds to sort out the fridge and finally joins into breaking eggs, slicing vegetables and cleaning the dishes used by the cooks. She doesn’t stop for a second and she seem to know precisely where everything is in the kitchen when she is asked for various things by the cooks. While this is going on in the background, the “front office” seems to be struggling as an increasing pile of plates waiting to be taken to tables is mounting up. Judging myself by what is going on it seems one of the server is relatively “fresh” and as such struggling with keeping up with the orders coming from the kitchen and have them taken to the tables. This leads shortly to a whole swarm of servers piled up trying to make sense of the dishes and figure out which goes where — on a day like Labor Day this can spell disaster as customers end up waiting for too long for their dishes, which means you won’t be able to sit the newcomers, which means you won’t be able to work at your capacity and as such your business will incur less revenue from (otherwise profitable) a day like this! I’m sitting there sipping my tomato juice observing this and thinking the above waiting for the disaster to strike and tables to be told that their orders got mixed up and there will be some extra waiting involved.

Little did I know this wasn’t going to happen though! The same lady I saw chopping vegetables for the omelets steps out of the kitchen and joins the servers and takes charge of the whole situation! In a calm Spanish accents she starts calling out servers and handing over plate by plate to them with precise instructions of the table to be taken to. She does the whole sorting of dishes and matching them to orders and to tables herself and each server gets a set of plates with instructions to what table they belong to and what extras are needed — this as I said I’m reading from the few Spanish words I understand combined with some of the English words she uses for condiments, juices etc and by watching what each server does once they get a set of plates and instructions from her. She keeps doing this and working through the pile of plates that keep arriving from the kitchen, one by one, order by order she calls out each server points out the table and tells them whatever extras are needed looking at the orders. This goes on for 10-15 minutes at least — servers come and go quicker and so do dishes end up on the right tables. She seem to pay special attention to the young ‘un who was struggling in the beginning — at least she talks to him longer, probably providing extra instructions on this. After a while, all orders are on the right tables and everything goes back to normal and she finally steps away, leaving the servers now to carry on their regular tasks.

“- Very efficient, your colleague, isn’t she?” — I make a comment to Jessica, my server.

“- Yes, she’s very good and she’s nice to us — she didn’t need really to help us, she’s the manager!” — she says smiling while refilling my coffee.

At this point I’m checking my ears in the unlike event there’s something wrong with them, and just to be that extra bit sure, I ask again:

“- She’s your manager?”

“- Yeah, she’s our manager, she always helps us out when it gets busy like this!” — Jessica says and then heads off to her other tables that need attention.

I’m in total shock at this point: you have a person who can spend their time mostly in the back office, checking balance sheets, orders and stocks and adding up numbers and shouting orders to her staff, yet she’s out here, getting her hands dirty, making sure that the kitchen utensils are clean for the chefs to use, that the vegetables are chopped so orders don’t have to wait, and when the first problem strikes she’s there to take charge of the situation and guide and help her staff with dealing with the issue! I look around and there she is helping with seating customers to their tables while chatting to them, making them feel welcome — there is after all a long queue of them waiting for their seats and only one hostess, so if 2 tables have become available why leave it all to the hostess when she can help with it herself?

I had to wait there for a little while until Marybelle (as it turns out her name to be) went by and had a quick chat with her — there was no frustration in her voice about the fact that she had to get involved in sorting out the orders, or help with the seating (or any of the other tasks she got involved). She pretty much smiled when I complimented her on helping out her staff and simply said “We all have to help each other sometimes” as if it was such a normal thing to do.

I kept thinking about what I’ve just experienced after I left the place — Marybelle is actually so right: if you are a leader, you have to lead from the front. If you have a team on your hands, you have to be able at any point to replace any member of your team — people get ill, they have holidays or they are simply swamped with tasks! This is when pressure builds up and crisis starts developing — and this is where your team is looking up at you for help. Simply sitting in your ivory tower and barking order is not going to help! If I am to transpose this to the tech start-up world I’m familiar with, just going into a “post crisis” meeting and figuring out who did what wrong is not good enough — sure, you end up pretty much putting yourself in the clear by presenting some report to your bosses, the board, or whatever, where you explained the chain of events, the learnings from it and how is the team preparing for the next similar such issue and how much more efficiently you and the team will be dealing with it; the board gives you a big cheer for “dealing with the issue” and everything is honky-dorey, a bit of pressure on the sysadmin, or the database guys or the developers and you rest assured this won’t happen again. (Hell, you might even get a bonus out of it!)

Now imagine, in the same scenario, if you actually pull up your sleeves and get involved: database is slowly by surely getting overloaded, the database guy is not available and your sysadmins are not that versed into the database in’s and out’s. You do a “note to self”: need a bit more redundancy in terms of my DBA’s so at least one is available when needed, also need some knowledge transfer in between sysadmins and DBA’s — and with that stored on your to do list you jump in to solve this! Sure, your DBA knows the database product you use by heart — that’s why you hired him, right? — and you will quite likely never get to that level of knowledge, don’t kid yourself! However, you know the system, you know the architecture, you’ve been working on it with your guys on a daily basis and been involved in everything they talked about, designed and implemented — you know that simply restarting one of the (faulty) back-end servers will quite likely solve the leaking database connection problem without affecting your system stability. You know this, because you have to at any point be able to replace a member of your team — because you can lead from the front and jump in the deep end with your team. You know this because you have not been hiding in an ivory tower and only communicated with your team by simple PowerPoint presentations they sent to you once a quarter about the design and architecture, you haven’t just looked at Excel sheets summing up bug fixes per day per developer. You know this because ultimately you care about the product, you care about the team and you care indirectly about the business you are part of! At the end of this scenario, your bosses don’t get a memo about what happened and what actions will be taken in the future to ensure a non-repeat of this. Nope, your bosses will get a quarterly report of revenue which will show that the business is on the way up, your system can handle more clients and you can process more transactions (whatever transaction might mean in your business); in fact no one outside your team would even know that there was an issue with the database getting choked at some point! (And they don’t need to know that, to be honest — I doubt it a VC sitting on a board of a start-up really cares about what you set up in place to protect against the next denial of service attack! Though I bet you they do care about the revenue going up!)

I have learned, looking at Marybelle the other day, that a leader does whatever is necessary to help his team — if they need clean utensils to chop off the meats, you need to be there and provide those for them, so they can concentrate entirely on the task you gave them: cooking, in this case. Yes, I’m sure you’ve already hired someone already for that task, but guess what? They might not be around all the time! Yes, yes, you can hire 2-3-4 more so you have in-built redundancy of this, but what’s the business cost of that, when really you will only experience this at peak times? Is it really worth it? (Sometimes, I agree, it is — if you work in a nuclear plant or similar, you will hire 10 of these guys so you make sure at least 5 of them, not just one, is available at any moment in time!) However, in your average start-up you don’t typically have this luxury — so having a leader who can help his team in every single possible way (even if that is simply chopping off vegetables, or cleaning utensils or taking charge of a crisis situation and guiding your team through it to make sure that the crisis is solved right away) is vital.

I experienced an avalanche of titles in the start-ups I encountered in my life — think about it and tell me if I’m wrong, but 1 person in 2 in such environments tends to be:

  • (S)VP of something
  • Director of something
  • Manager of something
  • Team Leader of something
  • C-something-O or Chief something-or-other

right? All of these denoting they lead a group of people in the organization and drive and assist this team in achieving their goals. (Bit worrying, I agree, if half of your start-up is made up of those — time to ask who’s left to actually do the work!) And in most cases I see people who see the “manager” title as a promotion who acknowledges that, well, simply put: they are better than the rest! Wrong: the moment you are managing, you are responsible for that team — that team fails only because you have failed them! You are not better than them, you are simply required to make sure that all the people in the team can carry out their work without any problems — YOU have to deal with those problems for them, you have to take all the heat for the team so your team can carry out with their work.

A team will follow you once you have their respect and trust — and to gain these you have to show them that you are one of them, that you will shield them of any issues that have nothing to do with their work and you will take charge of any situation coming their way and ensure that things get back to normal right away so they can do what you have hired them to do. Don’t expect necessarily your sysadmin to know all the database tricks your DBA knows — would be great if he does, but by the sheer different specialization of the 2 jobs it would be unlikely — instead, rather than require this from your sysadmin, let him do his job and ensure the DBA’s are near by to help him with the database “stuff” when needed. Your developers are not there to do your sysadmin work — they can step in, perhaps, but you don’t want that from them: you want them to do what you hired them to do: build your product. If someone needs to step in at any point, that someone needs to be you — you need to take charge of the situation and be seen as the first one to pull his sleeves and jump in; it’s only if you know that at some point you need person X to do their bit of magic to solve a certain issue you rely on them — and then let them go back to doing what you hired them to do!

History showed us many times that the leaders who were followed blindly pretty much were the ones who would go in the heat of the battle with their troops — if nothing else you must have seen “Braveheart” right? Must have heard of Achilles who lead his Myrmidons to the battle field, and didn’t just order them to march in! What about Richard the Lionheart — and the just as legendary, Robin Hood — both who were known to be in the heat of the battle with their armies? The list goes on, and as it seems to be the case with history, us humans just refuse to learn from it for some bizarre and unknown reason…

I’m going to end up now on the same note that I made in the beginning of this article: please jump out of the ivory tower that Stanford, Yale, MIT or whatever other pedigree you have might have built for you and observe a simple and effective lesson in business management and leadership from your average diner (though I highly recommend the one I mentioned above, I’m pretty sure that no matter how busy it is, Marybelle can find you a table quick!). Then look at your own self and be honest to yourself: are you really a leader to your team? Have you ever washed the dishes for them, cleaned the utensils and helped them in seating people at the table, or just simply hide yourself in the backroom and fiddle about with the balance sheets at the end of each month and send some all-singing-all-dancing report each time to the upper level about how great you did? Can you wash the dishes and clean the utensils for your team?

One Response to “Business Management and Leadership Lesson, IHOP Style!”

  1. Meg M.

    Liv this is an excellent article and I think- it ought to be something that you might consider posting as an OP-Ed to the SJ Merc. News. I am actually thoroughly impressed at your summation of the idea and the challenges.

    Well articulated, beautifully punctuated and nicely delivered.
    Thanks for sharing!