One of my team members is a former restaurant manager. After working together for several years, I’m now convinced that there is a food (and/or sports) analogy for pretty much anything.

When it comes to building an effective team, it’s sometimes hard to put into words what exactly we’re looking for besides “a good cultural fit” which we diligently focus on, but we sometimes struggle to identify the root cause underlying the friction that occurs when it’s not quite a good fit. Then I learned a little bit about the different types of cooks in a restaurant kitchen, and a thought occurred to me: “Are we cultivating a team of Sous Chefs or Short Order Cooks?”

What’s the difference between a Sous Chef and a Short Order Cook? I know they all looked the same to me.


Short Order Cooks are the type you find at Waffle House. They have strict recipes to follow, where every step is outlined from the way they butter a piece of toast to the right method for flipping pancakes. They are masters of execution whose speed and precision cannot be matched. They produce repeatable results that rarely fail to meet expectations…and they’re actually really fun to watch. 


But ask yourself: When was the last time you were blown away by a ham and cheese omelet at a diner? Sure, there’s comfort in knowing what you are getting every time, but nobody’s life has ever been changed by the predictably decent.


In business, someone with a Short Order Cook mentality can have a lot of strengths. When roles are clearly defined and repeatable results are required, these people really shine. 


However, no growth can occur in your business without creativity and innovation. When you ask a person with the Short Order Cook mentality to come up with an original, or even an improved recipe, well, I hope you’ve got good insurance, because that deer’s staring straight at your headlights all the way to bumper-land. 


What about the Sous Chefs? Sous Chef is a French term that translates to “under-chef,” and is usually regarded as second-in-command in a kitchen brigade. Sous Chefs carry a large amount of responsibility, and are continuously seeking the inspiration to hone their creativity while at the same time meticulously practicing their technical skills.


Sous Chefs do as much work with their heads as they do with their hands (and noses and taste buds). They play a key role in creating specials and elevating the recipes being developed by the Executive Chef to new heights. A Sous Chef mindset is one of continual growth, curiosity, and creativity.


As an entrepreneur or business leader, you are the Executive Chef of your business, whether you’ve chosen that role consciously or not. If you’ve got a team of only Short Order Cooks, then you will only get what you’ve always got. It’s up to you to create the recipe, test the recipe, and then explain exactly how to execute the recipe every single time…which works…until it doesn’t. 


It works until you go on vacation, until you burn out, or God forbid, you or your family face a health issue. It works until the market changes, until your customers’ needs change, until you wake up to find your business irrelevant, lying next to that deer on the side of the road.


It’s a whole lot safer and a whole lot more “empowergizing” to work with a team of Sous Chefs. I can start building an idea like a soup…a little olive oil, onions, and garlic…and my Sous Chef team members begin to add their own ingredients and ideas. Thyme, bay leaf, chicken broth…and then as the saying goes, we really start cooking with gas. 


In fact, I can walk away from that soup completely and trust that my team can execute it well (and usually even better). And it’s my job as a leader to allow them that opportunity to experiment, to fail and to learn…just like I did and continue to do on my journey. Instead of hovering over them micromanaging every step, I act like an Executive Chef, checking in consistently, but also waiting for them to tap me on the shoulder when it’s ready for me to taste and give constructive feedback. 


I took advantage of this freedom to step away earlier this year, taking a whole month out of the office with zero operational interaction or internal meetings. I focused exclusively on developing new recipes enabling us to add more and more value to our customers. During this month out of the office, I had the time and space to transform The Conflux from a single line in a (very) long document of ideas into an opportunity that will forever change the trajectory of the business and lives of those in our entire ecosystem.


A team with the Sous Chef mindset amplifies the abilities of everyone on the team, accomplishing new things and creating continuous improvement (more salt next time, please). 


So, have you built a team of Short Order Cooks, or have you cultivated a brigade of forward thinking Sous Chefs that will help transform your recipe…your vision…your life into something greater than you could’ve ever imagine?

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