Notes on the progression from waiter to manager

If you promote the average waiter to manager you will lose a good waiter and probably gain a poor leader.

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Recruiting skilled restaurant managers and supervisors has never been an easy process, but lately we have found it quite a bit more difficult than it used to be. Part of the reason for this is the increasing complexity of those jobs, prompted by deteriorating margins and larger restaurants with more staff.

In the past, we simply recruited people who could lead a consistent service culture, but now we have to find people who are comfortable and willing to create and lead a sales culture, while also maintaining consistent service delivery — oh, and did I mention controlling wage costs, staff turnover and customer perception survey results?

There is no doubt that the job of running upper market restaurants has become much more difficult than it used to be, and there are fewer and fewer people around who can do it well. The laws of supply and demand are firmly dictating the salary levels of those who have the runs on the board, and a good restaurant manager is an expensive bit of equipment.

We’ve noticed that whenever we advertise or put the word out for serious restaurant leadership roles, we get a lot of tired, out-of-work waiters applying. These people can be quite problematic and can cost you a lot of money. Most are running away from the relentless routing of waiting, not towards leadership.

The reason I was prompted to write on this subject is the fact that some of my clients have been experiencing a high rate of failure with staff moving up from waiting and bar service jobs into supervision or management. I think there are several reasons for this.

To be a good waiter I believe you either have to be a really good actor, or you have a genuine love of humanity. The best waiters I have worked with seem to relish the opportunity to please people and enjoy being of service. These very valuable attributes have a downside in that they tend to develop very unassertive communication skills, because the default behaviour is to say whatever you have to say to keep the customers happy. We call this service communication, and it is an art in itself.

The problem comes after you have had several years of this kind of communication, which has slowly developed into an unconscious, default behaviour pattern. Someone then promotes you into a leadership role where you often have to say things that are definitely not going to make someone happy — such as when you have to counsel a staff member for unacceptable behaviour, or when you have to deny an earnest request for a pay rise; or worse still, when you have to challenge those above you for the good of your team.

We’ve found that we have to make it clear that there are now two different dialects of English that are now needed in the repertoire: customer service language and leadership language. They are quite different. In customer service language you have to tell them what they want to hear, and in leadership language you have to tell them the way it is — and no means no. Some people struggle with this, and the ones who can’t master the two dialects and who try to lead with customer service communication inevitably fail to maintain a properly disciplined team.

Another aspect of developing FOH people into leadership roles that we’ve noticed, is that most good waiters and bar staff have what we call a ‘humanities’ brain. They were good at English and history at school and weak at maths and science. They often don’t like systems and shy away from administration work because they are not comfortable working with numbers, but they enjoy talking and interacting with people.

Good managers, however, often have a bent towards maths/science and are weaker in the humanities subjects. The maths/science people need systems; they generally don’t like chaos and seem to need clear boundaries. They are generally good with numbers and have less need to be liked. Somewhat paradoxically, they have often been fairly ordinary service staff earlier in their careers (they were probably the good actors, rather than the true humanitarians).

The ideal manager is half maths/science and half humanities, but they are hard to find; it’s like being mentally ambidextrous.

The question really boils down to: ‘Who would you prefer in charge of your restaurant: somebody who tells you what you want to hear, or somebody who tells you the way it is?’ You can’t manage a bunch of restaurant staff with only customer service communication; you need a bit of mongrel.

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