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From waiter to supervisor or manager — be careful!

The progression from waiter to supervisor has some hidden traps for the unwary.

How many of you have tried to promote waiting staff to supervisory roles? How did you go? What’s your success rate? This subject has come to the fore recently after discussion with a variety of restaurant managers in my training workshops, and calls for business assistance from a variety of large restaurant and café owners.

They are all wrestling with the same problems — upgrading their service standards, reducing wage costs and increasing their customer average spend, in order to insulate themselves from unfavourable economics and intense competition. Sound familiar? I call them the hospitality ‘management trifecta’.

Who controls these things day-to-day?

The people in your business who control these issues in your business are your supervisors; they are the ones who actually control your staff on a day-to-day basis. Managers (or owners) may think they control these things, but they don’t directly control the staff. Commonly, the manager receives a report from the accounting system which that there is a problem and then they try to get the team to react.

If they have effective leaders in supervisory positions they can negotiate goals and targets with each in the knowledge that they will convey the message to the staff and work towards a solution, secure in knowing that their supervisors will take it upon themselves to drive any changes through to action on the floor. This how it should be.

You are at the mercy of the skills of your supervisors, because they lead your staff.

A trap for managers

In practice it seldom seems to work that way, because a surprising number of managers and business owners fall for the trap of promoting their best waiting staff to supervisors, without realising that the skills of a good waiter and the skills of a good supervisor are quite different. If you don’t understand this you run the risk of losing your best waiter and gaining an ineffective supervisor.

A brilliant waiter, but he may be unlikely to make a good leader.

The reason this step-up is quite problematic is to do with communication skills. If a staff member has spent a reasonable time on the floor, they invariably pick-up and adopt what I call ‘customer service communication skills’ — this is the language of compromise and conciliation — say what you have to say in order to keep the customers happy.

If you want to lead staff effectively, you have to be aware that there are going to many times when you have the responsibility of getting staff to change their behaviour when they are hell bent on doing their own thing or evading accountability. This requires quite an assertive approach and strict follow-up or you will get lip service but no action. We call this ‘leadership communication’.

Different dialects of English

So we really have two different dialects of the English language used in the hospitality industry. We have customer service language and leadership language. The former is generally gentle, pleasant and aimed at keeping the receiver happy, while the latter is direct and assertive and often results in someone knowingly being less than happy.

Once a person develops an ingrained behavioral trait it can be quite hard to get them to adopt a new behavior pattern. This is where we run into tricky problems as professional management and supervisory trainers. Someone with ingrained customer service communication, combined with a need to be liked, can be quite a problem if placed into a leadership position, and will often prove to be quite ineffective at leading a team throughout a period of change.

We often get them sent to us for training because their managers are having problems with their performance and within a short time in a training room it becomes apparent that we’re dealing with a problem child. The frustrating thing is that they are mostly really nice people, which in most cases is an asset but in the particular case of leadership they need to have enough of the mongrel in them to not care if people don’t like them for a while, in order to get the job done.

Rarely does a person have strengths in both kinds of communication

The step-up to management can be very problematic

This whole issue compounds when a waiter is promoted and just scrapes by as a supervisor while they have someone above them giving them direction and impetus, and then they are subsequently promoted again into a management job which lacks full time direction from above. Anarchy, chaos and rapidly escalating wage costs soon result as the hapless victim struggles to punch above their weight, so to speak.

A submissive communicator, promoted to manager, can do a great deal of damage

In past years we didn’t see the problem of the submissive leader as often as we do now because in the good ‘ol days we only needed good service skills on the floor while now, because of different economics, we require them to still deliver good service but they have the added responsibilities of delivering that service at a strictly controlled cost, and ensuring maximum customer average spend through effective sales management at the same time. To meet this requirement we are now training supervisors to the same standard we trained managers 10 years ago. That’s how quickly things have changed.

Food for thought

So, the next time you are wanting a new front-of-house supervisor, resist the temptation to give a gong to your best waiter and think carefully: ‘Who among the team has the strength of character, self-confidence and self discipline to lead?’ Really good waiters are possibly rarer than good supervisors so it might pay to leave them alone if you have them and there is any doubt about their leadership ability. You can always pay a senior waiter more than a junior supervisor, in order to hold on to them and in recognition of their revenue contribution to your business.

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