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What managers can learn from cooks

“Oh no.”

A home chef is having some guests over, whom she has promised a hearty meal and some great conversation. She has had this dish in mind for quite some time and as she brings out the ingredients to do the cooking, she realizes she’s missing a few. She feels a slight sense of panic come over her as the guests will be at her doorstep in two hours. But she thinks to herself, “a promise is a promise” and gets to work. The guests came, enjoyed a great meal, and had a great time.

With all the cooking shows on Netflix and TV, we can take a good guess at what this chef did. She improvised. She abandoned Plan A, looked at the ingredients and asked the question, “how can we make something awesome out of this?” and then she got working on awesome. Nothing special here, this happens every day – in the kitchen.

“We do not have the resources. Person A is not assertive enough and does not do presentations well. Person B does not think strategically and does not build a network. The plan won’t work under these circumstances.”

Even more commonplace than cooking shows are managers all over the world complaining that same way every day. Being in management has taught me many good things but one thing it taught me that I still need to unlearn is looking for what is not there. Average managers will fixate on what is missing. They will tell you with the precision of a surgeon where things fall short.

Now, while there is a place for that, focusing on what is missing takes focus away from two very important things: what you have and delivering on your commitments.

What if managers adopt the mindset of cooks, who routinely ask themselves, “how can we make awesome out of this?”

It begins with looking at the intrinsic value of what you have, not what you expect it to be.

When a chef looks at the ingredients in front of her, she is looking at the best case scenario. “How can garlic make this dish shine? If I add some wine, I can really make this meat burst with flavor!” And she will never look at ingredients and complain about not being able to make a pasta dish because there aren’t any noodles.

Managers should do the same with the company’s resources, most especially the people. “Where is this person the absolute best at a given task? Where does this tandem work in harmony and achieve significant results? How can I put them in situations where they continue their best and help the team win?”

It is not uncommon for a manger to find herself in a situation where she cannot change the people on her team. It is also uncommon for people to find themselves in positions where they can do what they do best everyday (just think about your own situation). Once we give enough respect and value to what individuals on our team can contribute, creative solutions to our business problems will emerge.

Don’t lose sight of the main thing.

While cooks understand what each ingredient brings, she is focused on delivering a great dish. The ingredients, when used well, allow her to do that. Managers need to focus on the main goal and that is delivering business outcomes. People and other resources, when used well, get her to deliver that.

If you want to create what you have envisioned, make sure you have all that you need and make sure you know how things work together. In the Netflix series “Salt Fat Acid Heat”, chef and food writer Samin Nosrat deeply understands not just the individual characteristics of each element and how it enhances food but she also understands how they “play together” and how these elements, when used properly, allow for great food. Do we need heat? How much? What will give us that? How will it complement the other ingredients?

Managers should do the same. If your vision is clear, then select for the talents you need to make that happen. Are you starting a customer service business? You better have people who are good at listening and offering solutions. Is it your first time to start this? It would be good to have people who can adapt to changing conditions. Reflect on how you hire people. What exactly are you looking during the interview process? Are you looking for pedigree (He worked for great companies so he must be good) or are you looking for a specific set of things he or she brings that are incredibly valuable to your vision? How will he or she mix with the others?

These insights are not new, they only hardly ever leave the kitchen.*

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November 2022

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