Waiter to manager — a troubled career path

Over the 25 years we have been consulting to restaurants and hotels, we have observed that there is a very high failure rate of waiters who try to step up to supervision and management. It wasn’t until a few years ago that the penny dropped for me and I began to understand why this was happening.

The normal and seemingly logical thing that many managers do when they need key staff is to promote their best staff to supervisor or assistant manager. This is occurring more often than it used to as the job market becomes very difficult, and managers seek to utilise their existing staff after failing to find the experienced person they were looking for externally. Choosing your best staff for promotion may seem logical; it often leads to a costly and disruptive failure.

The problem is that the skills that make a good waiter are largely service skills, which could be characterised as the skills required to keep people happy, no matter what. These are great skills to have, but they are far from the primary skills required by a leader. To be a good leader, you have to be comfortable telling people the way it really is, despite the fact that the listener may not be at all happy with the message.

The way we explain this to owners and managers as they come through our training courses, is that a good leader in a hospitality environment needs to be fluent in two distinct dialects of the English language; let’s call them Customer Service Language and Leadership Language. They are very different ways to communicate.

Good waiters are often concerned with maintaining cordial relations with the world around them and are frequently not comfortable dealing with conflict. In contrast, good leaders must be comfortable confronting those who don’t do the right thing (owners, staff, suppliers, and in some cases customers) and making them do what is required for the good of the business. Managing conflict and disagreement is a regular part of any leader’s job, and to be a good leader you have to be comfortable dealing with it. You must accept that assertive, direct communication is an inevitable part of the job.

Not recognising the difference between the skills required in a good service person and the quite different skill set required for leadership seems to result in the loss of a star waiter way more often than I am comfortable with. The natural desire for advancement and status seems to push a percentage of waiters upward, despite the fact that in many cases good waiters earn as much, or more than a manager on a flat salary.

Another, related issue that causes problems in the transition from waiter to manager is the necessity for a manager to plan, be organised and to think ahead. Waiters generally come to work, do their job and go home with only that day’s activities to worry about. After several years of working this way, it can be quite difficult to ‘re-program’ them into the routine of planning and organising such things as recruitment, training and marketing up to 6 months ahead. Considering that the primary focus of a manager’s job is working on the business, rather than in it, a person who has been trained to think on a day to day basis can be a distinct liability if they are at the top of the pyramid.

It’s also worth considering that a manager’s job requires high levels of numeracy and literacy, together with well developed computer skills, and while most waiters have no difficulty calculating 10%, by the time they move-up into management they may have become so used to existing by ‘the gift of the gab’ that the important administrative work required in a professional hospitality business becomes too much of a stretch for them.

Given the necessity for larger and larger sized restaurants as time progresses — a direct result of the need for economy of scale in order to make appropriate margins — the need for key staff who can manage large teams and strictly control costs becomes an absolute requirement. The big question is: ‘Where are we going to get them from?’

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that I am advocating back-of-house as a preferable path into management, but the promotion of Chefs particularly, also has problems attached.

If I were running my own restaurant right now, instead of assisting others to run theirs, I would be recruiting a certain number of waiters and cooks based on their aptitude to handle the rigours of management, knowing quite well that I might have to prop them up as a waiter until they learned enough to manage other waiters. I think propping someone up at the bottom is far preferable to propping someone up at the top.

It’s easy to find yourself between a rock and a hard place right now. Try advertising for a restaurant manager and you’ll soon learn what I mean. I can imagine the desperation some business owners feel when they have not been able to find the skills and experience they want on the job market, so they turn back to their own staff, despite the decision previously made to look outside, and effectively by doing so introduce the necessity to closely manage the manager or risk placing their business in jeopardy.

No wonder many older restaurateurs are saying: ‘It’s all getting too hard . . .’