The more I watch Gordon Ramsay‘s UK-based shows, (not just Kitchen Nightmares but The F-Word as well) the more I notice similarities between the types of problems that plague struggling restaurants and the types of problems that plague struggling businesses. The problems are always the same (and by default, the solutions as well). Here are four of the most common parallels I have found exist between what I have watched him deal with on his various shows, and what I run into in the business world:
1. Without exception, poor leadership is at the heart of every business problem.
The Navy SEALs have a saying: “There are no bad boat crews, only bad leaders.”
We are social animals, like bees, ants and wolves. In order to function properly in crises, we need a leader. Forget about the notion of flat organizations for a moment, and of theoretical “everyone is the boss and no one is the boss” ideals. Sure, it’s a nice thought and in some instances, that sort of perfectly flat structure can work. But eventually, circumstances will call for leadership. Why? Because for better or for worse, we are wired that way. In crises, we crave structure. Without it, armies cannot function on a battlefield, restaurant kitchens cannot function, businesses with more than 5 people cannot properly coordinate purchasing, inventory, marketing, budgets. Someone has to own certain functions. Someone has to steer the ship. Someone has to say “let’s do it” and “no, we aren’t going to do that.” Someone has to be lead the way.
Look at the US. Free country, right? And yet its citizen willfully elect leaders, give them the power to make policy decisions that will affect every aspect of their lives, from the amount of taxes they pay to what they are allowed to smoke in their own back yards. Instinctively, human beings know that without leadership, without an authority structure, there can be no organized society, no functional organization, and perhaps more importantly, no forward momentum.
Look at any stalled organization in the world, from a small mom & pop restaurant in Devonshire to a nation the size of the US: Stagnation, uncertainty, lack of direction, these always stem from an absence of clear leadership. It doesn’t matter whether the catalyst for the problem was a new restaurant opening down the street or the economy or a hurricane. Obstacles and challenges are just part of the landscape. What you do to get through (or around) them starts and ends with adequate leadership.
Watch enough Gordon Ramsay shows and you will notice a universal constant: Every restaurant in trouble has a leadership problem. The owner might be too busy trying to be everyone’s friend in the front of the restaurant to actually run his business, or the chef might be an incompetent bully. It doesn’t matter. Whatever problem exists stems from that. Dirty bathrooms, brought-in food, rancid meat in the fridge, lousy service, burnt desserts. Leadership. Or a lack thereof. The same is true of every other type of organization and business: A boss who skirts his responsibilities and expects things to happen on their own isn’t leading. He is just playing a part.
If a new hire sucks at their job, whose fault is it? (Who hired them? Who hired the person who hired them? Who hired the person who hired the person who hired them?) If a project team is stalled and things aren’t moving forward, whose fault is it? Who owns that project? Who is holding them accountable?
Who sets the example? Who makes sure things get done? Who makes sure things are done right? Who sets expectations for the entire business? Who is in charge here?
Before an organizational dysfunction can be resolved, hierarchy has to be clearly reviewed for imbalances. Leadership at every level has to be established, starting from the top. Leadership has to be clarified, expressed and put into action. Not just once per month or quarter, but every moment of the day.
Until you fix the leadership piece, nothing else matters. You can pump funding into the organization, give them new equipment, new marketing, 25% new customers overnight, it won’t matter. 2 months from now, the same problems that existed before the upgrades will still be there, and they start at the very top. Either the wrong person is steering the ship, or that person doesn’t really have what it takes to be there. Tough decisions ahead.
Things a leader has to be able to do on their own:
- Give every action purpose.
- Articulate vision into strategy.
- Transform strategy into action.
- Get employees to completely commit to their responsibilities.
- Make employees want to give their absolute best.
- Stand for something. (It inspires loyalty.)
- Lead by example.
- When something isn’t working, step in, roll up sleeves, and fill the gap in the chain.
- Show people who don’t want to be there the door.
- Give people a reason to be proud of what they do, no matter how far they are from the C-suite.
- Choose work over golf.
- Take a pay cut before laying off good employees.
- Take responsibility for every failure.
- Understand that delegation is only a short walk from abdication.
- Give truth a platform, no matter how inconvenient it may be.
A leader in denial isn’t a leader. He’s a drunk driver pretending to be sober, driving his car and everyone in it into a ditch.
2. Passion is the fuel of excellence. Whether tanks run on full or on empty, this is the stuff that’s in them.
Fuck “motivation.” Motivation comes and goes. I can motivate a team of salespeople with a cash bonus. I can motivate a bored subordinate with the threat of being demoted or fired. I can motivate someone with a kind word or a pat on the shoulder. Sure, motivation is needed at regular intervals, but at some point, if people don’t learn to motivate themselves, “motivating” people in an organization becomes a full time job.
Those inspirational posters and smarmy motivational calendars with their quotes of the day, rip them down, walk out into the parking lot and set them on fire. They’re shit. Not only do you not need them, they’re holding you back. They’re teaching you that motivation comes from cliché wisdom and that it can be purchased like a get well card. If you have passion for what you do, you don’t need someone to motivate you. The minute you start believing it, the minute you start putting your faith in “inspirational” products (and that is precisely what they are), is the moment you decide to let go of your own future.
I was asked not long ago to give a motivational speech to a team of executives. The mere notion of this blew my mind. A motivational speech? Me? It isn’t what I do. And to deliver this “speech” to people who make an incredibly good living working for a successful company when millions of people can’t find jobs seemed all the more absurd. I told the event manager that I had no idea what to say to these people, that I am not a motivational speaker, that he had the wrong guy. But the more he explained the predicament they were in, the more I felt like I needed to find some way to help them, even if it meant finding a way to “inspire” them.
This was new territory for me. My first instinct was to drag them by the ear to a soup kitchen or a social services office and tell them to take a good look, then thank their lucky stars that they had the option of needing someone to help them become motivated. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Why did these “leaders” need someone to infuse them with motivation? It pissed me off. Fortunately for everyone, I got over it.
Long story short, I didn’t give them a motivational speech. Instead, I taught them how to do stuff. I laid out some of the puzzle pieces for them and, together, we put them together. Then I showed them how to finish the puzzle on their own. I gave them something to do and gave them a reason to do it. I removed “motivation” from the equation completely. The motivation came from doing things that yielded results. In other words, we did the work that needed to be done.
The point being this: If I have to motivate someone to do their job every day, why are they here to begin with? Teach someone how to make a living doing what they love (or to give them a reason to love what they do for a living) and you will never have to motivate them again. Ever.
Watch enough Gordon Ramsay shows, and you will start to notice that many restaurateurs in trouble suffer from a certain form of defeatism and apathy. Sooner or later, if Gordon asks them the most pitiful question in his repertoire – “what happened to you?” – they will admit that they have “lost their passion.” They’ve gotten so caught up in the details, in the negatives, in the seemingly challenges of their profession that they have forgotten how to love it. If he can reignite that passion, they stand a fighting chance. If he can’t, they’re done. The restaurant won’t survive.
There is no gray area here. Passion vs. no passion. Success vs. no success. (And by ‘success’ I don’t just mean a fat paycheck.) It isn’t rocket science. The two are indivisible. The more child-like and visceral the passion, the higher the octane, the farther it will drive you, your project, your idea, your company.
There’s an honest conversation that needs to happen between a boss and an “unmotivated” employee (or between a consultant and a client), and it centers around passion. The question is this: Why are you here? “The pay is good” is an honest answer, but it is not a good answer. Same with “beats the hell out of working at Orange Julius” and “Too many content strategists and social media gurus in the marketplace already.”
Imagine asking your spouse “do you love me?” and having her answer “you make a good living, I feel financially secure, and I like living in our house.” Good luck building something worthwhile out of that. It isn’t so different in business.
If you don’t understand what someone is passionate about, you don’t really know them. Sure, when you hire them, you can take a look at their resume and see where they have studied and worked, but you have no idea who they are. Too many companies hire resumes and CVs, bullet-list snapshots of someone’s past. Not enough companies hire people based on who people are and what they are passionate (and not passionate) about.
A few years ago, I was asked to hire someone for a newly funded position. For the next few months, I found myself suffering through a battery of applicants, each one more full of shit than the next. They wanted the job because of the pay and security. No one wanted the job because it was interesting or fulfilling (at least to them). I remember one woman in particular, when I asked her what she was passionate about, giving me this for an answer: “I am really passionate about people.”
What does that even mean?
I asked her. She nervously repeated her answer: “I am really passionate about people.” I asked her to elaborate. She had a hard time. Finally, she managed to articulate what she meant: “I love helping people, making their day, making them smile.”
“And you want to cold-call SMBs all day and try to sell them software?”
Wrong job for her. Wrong direction. She was never going to be happy doing this. She would be burned out inside of six months, desperate for a new job somewhere else.
Remember the Navy SEAL saying about boat crews and leaders? Here’s the detail that makes it work: SEALs are all volunteers. They want to be there. BUDs‘ (the grueling series of training evolutions during which future SEALs are selected from a pool of volunteers) primary purpose isn’t to train. It is to test. Not to test in terms of scores and aptitude, mind you, but to push volunteers to ask themselves how much they are willing to endure to do the job. If anyone isn’t truly passionate, desperately passionate to be there, they will allow themselves to fail or they will ring out. If all they want is the prestige of displaying the trident on their pretty uniform, they won’t make it. The selection process is designed to weed out the volunteers who are there for the wrong reasons. The real reward for surviving another day isn’t status or high pay or prestige. It is more pain, more hardship, more discomfort. How much are you willing to bleed for what you are passionate about?
Official US Navy Photo
While the SEAL example lies on the extreme edge of the spectrum when it comes to pursuing your passion, the principles it illustrates apply to every occupation in the world. Yes, you can be passionate about being a fry cook. Yes, you can be passionate about picking tomatoes or being a cashier or shoveling turkey shit on a farm. It’s a mindset, nothing more.
Here’s another little secret: Whatever you end up doing, whatever profession you end up pursuing, it’s going to be hell. Being a Navy SEAL isn’t about jumping out of helicopters and being movie-cool. It’s about freezing your ass off on the butt end of the world and going days without sleep or food. It’s about enduring hardships and discomforts that no other human being would be crazy enough to put themselves through. It’s miserable. Likewise, being a writer condemns you to a life of psychological and emotional hell. Whatever self doubts you have, multiply that by a thousand and you still won’t come close to understanding how difficult it is to sit there day after day and fill up blank page after blank page. It doesn’t matter what the job is: Actors, musicians, copywriters, photographers, salespeople, product managers, engineers, chefs, firefighters, EMTs, if they’re worth a damn, they all bleed for their passion. They suffer for it every day.
The more passionate you are about something, the more you are going to give up for it, the more it’s going to make you bleed. And here’s the key to it all: The more you’re willing to bleed for it, the more you will. It’s just how it works.
Last night, I was watching an episode of the F-Word (Season 5, episode 5) in which the UK’s two best local Thai restaurants went head to head in a 3-course contest. One of the two chefs, Chef Patria, talked about what she does. Check it this out.
Here it is on Youtube if your device can’t read BBCAmerica’s video. Fast-forward to 3:23 and listen to how Chef Patria talks about what she does.
“I cook with my love, my care, my passion. Everything, my heart, I put into every single dish.”
Fresh ingredients. A passion for perfection. An obsession with quality. It isn’t just a job. It’s a calling.
Is she an extreme case? A woman who has no time for a husband, children, a life outside of her work, whose last day off was Easter a year ago, who only sleeps 5 hours per night? A dragon lady whose energy in the kitchen would probably drive away 99% of foodservice workers in the US?
Yes. She is an extreme case. And that is precisely why she is exceptional at what she does. Does she truly need to work that hard 24/7 to be as good as she is? Probably not. But she loves what she does so much that she chooses to go all-in. This is commitment. This is passion. This is what complete commitment to one’s art looks like.
The world’s best fighters train and work that hard. So do the world’s best surgeons, athletes, musicians, actors, artists, and warriors. Why? Because distraction is weakness. Distraction is resistance. Anything that doesn’t strengthen them in their craft makes them weaker. For people in pursuit of excellence, working at it 8 hours per day then going home amounts to 1/3 commitment. To them, being 1/3 as good as they want to be amounts to engineered failure.
How hard are you training to become the best at what you do? How hard is your boss working at being the best at what he does? (Or should I be asking about his golf game instead?)
Later in the show, when Gordon jokingly asks chef Patria if she is as demanding with men as she is in the kitchen, her answer is simply this: “No compromise.”
Her restaurant wins the day’s contest and jumps to the top spot in the overall competition.
If you truly love doing something, doing it half-assed doesn’t cut it. You want that Superbowl ring? Work harder. No compromise. You want 6-pack abs by next June? Work harder. No compromise. You want to make consumers choose you over the competition? Work harder. No compromise. You want to be the best CEO the planet has ever seen? Work harder. No compromise.
That’s passion. Passion knows no middle ground. There is no such thing as a warm flame. It is either hot or it is out.
The death of passion in any business, from a small restaurant in Devonshire, UK to a global super-brand means the death of forward momentum, the death of quality, the death of every single competitive advantage fought for in the past. If you cannot reignite passion in a company’s leader, nothing else you do will yield results. Just like a chef who isn’t passionate about food can’t make a restaurant be successful, a CEO who isn’t passionate about what he does cannot make his company kick ass.
3. Sugar-coating the truth is for suckers.
When a ship is sinking, every minute counts. This means that every interaction counts. Why sugar-coat the truth? Why perpetuate belief systems that have led to mediocrity or failure? If product quality sucks, it sucks. Say it, own it, try it on for size. Find out what it feels like to have allowed a crappy product to hit the market under your watch.
Remember when you were in school and you came home with a D- or an F when you didn’t apply yourself? Remember when you lost the game because you didn’t train hard enough or give your teammates 100% oeffort? There’s a brutal honesty that comes with keeping score. More empty seats than customers at your restaurant: That’s your way of keeping score. Bad reviews in the newspaper or on Yelp!: That’s your way of keeping score. Stalled market share quarter after quarter: That’s your way of keeping score.
When I ran track in high school, that quarter-mile oval was the ultimate arbiter of my dedication to the team. The clock doesn’t lie. When I was on the rifle range in Lorient, my groupings on the target didn’t lie. You’re either getting faster or you aren’t. You’re either hitting your mark or you aren’t. There’s no sugar-coating on the field of battle. You succeed or you fail. You win or you lose. That’s it.
If half the fun of watching Gordon Ramsay’s shows is to watch him rip restaurants apart and yell at incompetent chefs, the real value of his apparent meanness is this: Gordon Ramsay isn’t there to make people feel good about failure. His objective is to fix restaurants in trouble. You don’t do that by wrapping the cold hard reality of failure in a blanket of warm euphemisms. If something sucks, it sucks. If something rocks, it rocks. Honesty, even when it comes across as being brutal, forces people who are living in denial to face the truth. is it a shock to the system? Yes. It is meant to be.
To many TV viewers, it seems that Gordon Ramsay is nothing but a loudmouth, pretentious asshole. The reality of it is that he has figured out that success and positive results are infinitely more valuable to confidence, self esteem and professional pride than platitudes and bullshit. In that context, sugar-coating bad news only prolongs mediocrity, failure and pain.
You want the good news or the bad news? The bad news is, your business sucks because of you. The good news is, you can turn it around, but you are going to have to take responsibility and start giving a shit.
That’s reality, and if it needs to be brutal, then it needs to be brutal. Deal with it.
If your job is to carry out orders, you’re off the hook. But as a consultant, as a therapist, a coach, an officer, a chef, a food critic, a leader, you don’t help anyone by injecting the truth with little white lies. Is it often the politically sound thing to do? Yes. And if your job, your next promotion or your contract is more important to you than actually doing your job (assuming your job is to fix a problem), then fine: cover your own ass and become part of the problem. On the other hand, if you are passionate about what you do, if you want to see real results, if the interests of your client or boss or peer supersede your own (and they should since you are being paid to look after them), then you have to be willing to risk ruffling feathers and pissing people off. Your job, believe it or not, is to do your job. If the client can’t face the truth and wants to fire you, then guess what? Let them. It’s their company going down in flames, not yours.
Here’s a little lesson I’ve learned over the years: The moment you allow yourself to get sucked into a clients’ dramas, their inner complexes, their excuses, their dysfunctions, you have effectively ceased to be of any use to them. Your value as a consultant, as an expert, as an advisor, is now zero. The moment you start playing that game, you’re done. You have become part of the problem. You have become a paid, willing accomplice in that organization’s eventual destruction. Congratulations on your new role. The twelve year old you would be so proud to see what you’ve become.
You have to be willing to be blunt. If the only way honesty will get someone’s attention is to deliver it brutally, then you have to find the courage to be the guy who delivers bad news to the CEO without embellishing or minimizing the bad news. That’s your job. If you don’t have the huevos to do your job, you don’t belong in this line of work.
And if you’re a business owner, a manager, heck, an adult in the process of screwing up and you can’t handle reality, it’s time to reevaluate a lot more than the discomfort of this moment. Thick skin comes with the territory. If you can’t effectively deal with criticism, especially when it is on the nose, maybe leadership is the wrong career path for you. If someone who knows better than you tells you what you are doing wrong, shows you what you are doing wrong, and then teaches you how to do it right, shut up and listen. If the comfort of little white lies is weakness, outright denial, especially when it becomes institutionalized, is career suicide.
Here’s the lesson: The faster you get to the truth, the clearer your perspective of where you are and where you need to go will be. It’s that simple. Anything that slows down or otherwise hinders that process is a liability. Get rid of the bullshit. Cut to the chase. The more painful and unpleasant it is to hear, the more valuable it is to you and your organization.
4. Competence is key.
It isn’t enough to be a critic and point out what’s wrong with a business. Anybody can do that part. Once you identify the problems and make the brass understand what is wrong with their operation though, you also have to know how to fix them. That doesn’t just come from reading business books and looking stuff up on Google. You have to be competent. Eminently competent, even. You can’t just glimpse what the solutions might be. You have to be able to show them, explain them, teach them. You have to know what works and what doesn’t, what hurdles the client will have to overcome before they can implement them, what tools they will need during that process, and how they will gauge their progress during their transition.
Theory might be great on paper, but you need to be able to show people how to get shit done.
One of the things Gordon Ramsay does in every show is teach restaurants in trouble how to do things they don’t know how to do. Note that he doesn’t leave his “clients” with a strategic brief or a findings report. He doesn’t just recommend that they revamp their menu or that they improve the quality of their dishes. He gets in the kitchen and teaches their chefs things they need to learn how to do in order to move forward. He shows them stuff that works, stuff he knows will work because he’s used it before.
Competence here makes all the difference in the world.
What can a 23-year-old consultant with no business management experience teach an executive team about effective change management? What insights into cross-functional social business integration can an SEO blogger-turned-social-media-guru provide a Fortune 500 COO? The benefit of… theory?
Contrary to popular belief, attending a webinar doesn’t make you an expert. Neither does attending 18 webinars. Neither does paying $13,000 for the privilege.
Having stayed “at the Holiday Inn last night” doesn’t make you an expert in anything either. (But okay, the commercials are funny.)
Just like a food critic isn’t necessarily qualified to be a chef, a consultant who can’t shift from talking to demonstrating isn’t necessarily qualified to give advice to anybody.
Competence, defined in only 6 words, boils down to this: Don’t just tell me. Show me.
Who do you want teaching you how to clear a bunker: A guy who read about it in a book, or the guy who has 5 years of combat experience and personally cleared dozens of enemy bunkers? Who would you rather have teaching you how to land airplanes in emergency conditions: A guy who read the manual, or the test pilot who actually performs emergency landings in all sorts of emergency conditions to learn what really works and doesn’t work? You get the point. Competence and experience go hand in hand. Talent alone isn’t enough.
Consultants need to be competent. Head chefs need to be competent. Restaurant owners, bodyguards, accountants, auto mechanics, surgeons, marines, airline pilots, parachute instructors, chemists and CMOs have to be competent. Even social media directors have to be competent. Brains, creativity and imagination matter. When it comes to innovating, nothing beats the combined forces of imagination, curiosity and perseverance. But when it comes to making things work, nothing beats experience. Nothing takes the place of being competent.
Strange as it may sound, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares may be one of the best examples of how businesses succeed or fail, and why. Take away the setting (restaurants) and apply the themes and lessons of every episode to other industries and settings, and they work: Poor leadership, the slow death of passion, cultures of denial and the erosion of competence. Everywhere you go, you will find the same thing: The Post Office, your local bank, your favorite software company, a global superbrand, the local steakhouse. Each of these four factors will kill a business, any business, faster than you can say “no customers.” And while Chef Ramsay’s unorthodox style (unapologetically pointing out key problems, confronting those responsible, breaking them down, then dragging them – kicking and screaming – towards resolution) might seem inappropriate for “the real world” of business, while his body language and choice of vocabulary and confrontational style may seem out of place beyond the shock-happy world of reality TV, the guy is spot on. He isn’t there to apply lipstick on a pig. He knows that a new menu and fresh signage won’t be enough. He is there to perform an emergency intervention, to turn a failing business around in a week.
Imagine that: A week.
With only a week to turn things around, your timetable for change is accelerated. There’s no time for reflection, for endless meetings, for brainstorming sessions, for PowerPoint tennis matches week after week after week. Things have to happen now. The time for bullshit, for excuses, for fear, for misplaced ego trips is gone. With an accelerated timetable, everything gets concentrated into what matters most: Getting things back on track. Getting things right. If necessity strips away excuses, urgency strips away bullshit. That’s what makes his shows so fun to watch and his management style so fascinating. It’s a crucible, a concentrated version of what many of us do over a much longer time-frame. Every episode is a case study in personal dysfunction, operational dysfunction, and in the process of getting things back on track. As corny as it often is, it is still brilliant.
So ask yourself: How would your business hold up to Gordon Ramsay’s scrutiny? What would be the effective range of your excuses? How willing would you be to put aside wounded pride, accept his recommendations, and make things right today?
Why aren’t you doing this now?
Whatever ails you, whatever challenges your company faces, I hope this helped, even a little bit.
* * *
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