Over the past thirty years my company has been engaged by a number of hospitality owners who wanted our assistance to restructure their businesses. I guess I could summarise our involvement as: ‘Helping them make the transition from a small business to a properly structured company’. I’m sure some of my observations about the process may be interesting to many of you.
Imagine you’d been in the industry for some years and decided to go it on your own — perhaps you started with a restaurant or small cafe and went on from there. Through long working hours, hard work and creative endeavour you’d driven your business to grow, to the point where you wake up one day and realise you’ve created a monster. Financially, you’re OK, but your life is a mess — and you can’t escape.
Small businesses can become a prison
Unfortunately, this scenario is all to frequent, because the skills necessary to run a large business are quite different to the skills you need to run a small business — and well run small businesses have a habit of turning into large businesses. Small businesses need supervising, large businesses need managing. The transition from supervisor to manager is an interesting and sometimes difficult process. Simplistically, it involves stepping back, letting go and getting others to do what you once did, while you move on and concentrate on new and different activities.
In reality, it’s not that easy — it involves taking on a plethora of new skills and accepting quite different ways of doing things. Most importantly, it also requires a far higher level of self discipline.
I’d go as far as to say that you don’t have to be very smart to be a good manager, but you do have to be very self disciplined. You can get away with all sorts of bizarre communication and goal post shifting when you have a small team and you deal with them direct, but when you sit at the top of a sizeable pyramid this will prove very costly.
You are a big fish in a small bowl
If you’re a business leader, you may not realise that your staff watch everything you do. They take their cues from you and they tend to reflect the values and behaviour you demonstrate (and not what you say). If you are unclear or poorly organised, that lack of clarity and disorganisation will be reflected right down through your team, and will cause a huge loss of productivity and quality.
Being a good manager is a lot to do with being logical, systematic and thorough in your approach to things. For example, if you’ve got three waiters, you may get by without documented service procedures and still show consistent performance if you supervise them directly; if you’ve got twenty you can’t — you’ll end-up with fifteen different interpretations of what should be done. It’s the same for a Chef — you can directly supervise a small team and get good results, but if you try to supervise a large brigade without standardised recipes and procedures, you’ll end up in trouble.
We get two distinctly different results when we restructure businesses — if the business owner accepts our training, takes it on board and follows through with it, we get a very rapid turnaround in the business. If the owner won’t or can’t accept the disciplines we teach them, and chooses to leave it up to their subordinates to make the necessary changes, we still get a result but it can takes a lot longer and ends-up costing a great deal more than it should.
The fact that a sizeable proportion of the business owners in the hospitality industry are artistic in nature creates an added problem when we restructure their businesses. Their creativity mostly comes from a non-linear thought process, and what was their main strength when they were hands-on can be a curse when they have to work through others. They often have difficulty being clear, consistent and organised, the traits we think of as ‘self discipline’.
In contrast, I’m what is called a linear thinker — I think in a straight line: beginning, middle, end. I have a great deal of trouble being creative for more than short bursts, just as an artistic thinker has trouble thinking in a straight line.
I’m getting around to the point that we have great difficulty turning artistic business owners into disciplined managers. What’s easy and logical to me is sometimes sheer hell to them, yet they often don’t have a choice — they’ve usually come to us because their business has grown to the point where if they don’t gain control of it, they’re in real trouble, and their whole life is in danger of unravelling.
It’s like the problem I wrote about some time ago of turning artistic Chefs into effective kitchen managers. It’s the same situation, often with the same results — if they can’t change their behaviour they eventually burn out from the sheer effort of keeping it all together amid mounting chaos.
I do like working with artistic people though — in spite of the grey hairs and ulcers they often give me. We’ve had to learn to be very persistent, very understanding and very assertive with them to get results. The hardest thing is to convince them that they have to pair with a logical thinker and share power if they want to survive. I don’t mean they have to take on a partner or sell shares in their business, but they do have to consciously recruit a balance into their team and listen to the rational voices of reason — and they still have to drive the whole thing along — you can’t delegate that responsibility.