Making the Mental Shift into Being a Leader

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

You made it. You got that promotion to that leadership role. You have the skills and your hard work has paid off,  right? Not so fast. While the skills might be there, the skills you need at the level of leadership are quite different. You may be in for a bigger challenge than you realize.

This is also the primary reason that most hourly employees promoted into a leadership role fail. They just have a difficult time making the transition since very few are trained or mentored on how to be a leader.

The Battle Field Promotion

It starts with the most common way people in the restaurant industry get promoted. The manager or chef who is their supervisor gets terminated or quits and the next thing you know the owner turns to you and says, “Congratulations, you’re the new GM/Chef/Bar Manager (or insert the appropriate title).” They give you some keys and a few passwords and off you go into battle.

The biggest issue with this type of promotion are the "assumptions." We assume the new person wanted to take over the vacant role. Assumptions are dangerous to your restaurant. Did you ever ask the person if they wanted the extra responsibility? Usually, they feel obligated to take the role and the lure of more money makes it easy to say “yes”.

Here is a sad statistic: A staggering 87% of managers wish they had received more management training when they first became a manager.

Talk about setting people up for failure! Most restaurants throw people into a leadership role without the skills they need to survive. It's like throwing a person into a den of lions with only a spoon to defend themselves.

With this in mind, it shouldn't really be a shock that turnover in management is so high.

Now, it's easy to sit back and blame the restaurant for not training. However, the "blame game" is a perpetual cycle of negativity, that will ultimately yield no results.

So if you find yourself promoted into a leadership position, how can you improve your odds to thrive and not merely survive?

Cross the Invisible Line

When you were promoted to leadership, there was a line you crossed. Not a physical line that you could see (that would be too easy), it was a mental line that took you from being “one of the gang” to now looking out for the brand.

It's a shift in mindset that many have issues with. Many are attached to a mental lease that keeps pulling them back to the side they were before. That ongoing back and forth mental shift is not helping develop their skills in leadership.

The best thing you can when you accept any position is to make a crystal clear declaration of commitment to perform the duties and embrace the core values that the position requires.

Make a written commitment with yourself that you print out and sign! Keep it where you can reference as a reminder of the invisible line you crossed when you accepted the position. True leadership moves in one direction: forward.

Know the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

Remember that invisible line you crossed. The main reason many have a hard time and cross back and forth is because of two words that are sometimes confused often in leadership: sympathy and empathy.

The biggest difference is the emotional depth you often bring. When you were just one of the gang, you had an emotional bond with your team and when things happened to others, you became sympathetic to their issues. By definition sympathy is, "an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other."

Empathy is defined as, "the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it."

The key here is that sympathy deals with the relationship one has to the feeling and empathy has to do with an experience one has to the situation.

When your deep emotions get involved in leadership decisions, you can do more damage to the team then you think.

Let's say you go from being the executive chef to becoming the general manager. The new chef has been working hard and asks you for a Saturday night off. You sympathize with the same emotions you had when you were the chef and how overworked you felt, so you allow him the night off. Then a bartender comes and tells you they would like to have Saturday night off. You decide to turn them down because you remember during your days as a chef that you didn't think the bartenders worked that hard (in your mind).

When you sympathize instead of empathize, you keep jumping back and forth across that invisible line. That creates a sense of favoritism among your staff. Think of all the imaginary divides that exist in restaurants that are purely based on emotions: front of house vs back of house, day staff vs night staff. All imaginary lines we created.

How do you stop this? Communicate your commitment to being a leader. Tell your team what you expect and what they can expect from you. Detach from sympathy and employ empathy in decisions. Be fair. Be consistent. That means looking out for the welfare of the entire team, not just the people you like.

Invest in Yourself

With not much more than internet access and a public library card, you can get the knowledge needed to help you into a leadership role. So why do so many just sit back and wait for their restaurant to train them? Lack of motivation.

Sure you might throw out the “I don't have time” excuse. Well, here's the cold hard truth. You have all the time you need. It's just not a priority. Investing in yourself means dedicating time to expand your knowledge base. You have the skills or you wouldn't have been offered the advancement into leadership. If your restaurant does not see the value in training you to become a leader than you need to take your career into your own hands.

Now having new knowledge is great, however, you need to learn how to apply that raw power. You need to seek out a coach or a mentor. There are experienced restaurant professionals out there that will give a portion of their time to guiding aspiring leaders.

But you need to keep two things in mind when reaching out:

  • You will need to handle rejection. While there are mentors out there, you might have to search for the right one. Try to find one in your town where you can meet for coffee or lunch on you (hey they are donating their time and experience, so you should offer to buy coffee or lunch.)
  • Have a plan and specific questions. After doing some work on your own, along with reading and taking notes, you want to use your mentor’s time the best. Prepare questions you have from your own self studies. If you sit down with a mentor and just ask, “Teach me to be a leader.” You will see the famous head shake of disbelief (otherwise known as SMH.)

A mentor can help you transition into leadership much faster than going it on your own and learning by trial and error. A true mentor will give you some of their time, they just won't allow you to waste their time if you haven't done the homework.

Earn Their Respect

However, you came into a leadership role you must understand that there are two kinds of respect: given and earned. Too many think that just because you are in that new role that the team will automatically just give out the respect like it's candy on Halloween. You might think you have their respect. The reality is that respect which is demanded is never given completely.

Here's a little test to see if you have someone's respect: ask them do to something that is totally outside their job duties. Ask a line cook to help with dishes. If you have total respect, then they won't hesitate. Any pause at all, and you need to rethink how you are getting respect.

So how do you go about earning respect? It’s quite simple, work side-by-side with your team. Nothing gains respect faster than a leader who is willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. If you are a chef, when was the last time you cooked on the line on a busy night and not just barked orders at the team from across the line in the expo window? If you are a general manager, when was the last time you threw on an apron and showed your team the art of hospitality by taking a table?

Now, this does not mean enabling the team and doing the work for them all the time. It means, jumping in at appropriate times to demonstrate the skills that got you into a leadership role in the first place. You want to hear a simple definition of what leadership is? Leaders lead the team by setting a example.

Bad Model of Leadership

The biggest mental challenge new leaders make is trying to find their own leadership style. Contrary to popular opinion that “great leaders are born,” it's really that great leaders are developed and molded by experience. Sadly, many aspiring leaders have to overcome the fact that they probably had bad examples of leaders in their past experiences. Just because you had a supervisor in the past that thought it was okay to be condescending and talk down to the staff, doesn’t mean it should be the way you should do things.

The bad news is most behavior and habits are learned. The good news is if it’s learned, you can change those things. If you have poor examples from the past of what a leader is, then it’s time to question those things that didn't sit right with you. Look back on the managers you have and make a list of the good, the bad, and ugly. Adapt and embrace a good. You have to consciously break yourself of the bad habits.

Your greatest challenge when moving into leadership is making the mental shift and deciding for yourself what kind of leader you want to be. Seek out positive role models. Make a conscious decision and commitment to become a better leader. Work next to your team to earn respect and above all, be honest with yourself if you truly want to be a leader.

Leadership is not for everyone. If you make the decision to embrace becoming a true leader then you have to go all in.