Is Your Leadership Creating Short Order Cooks?

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While on vacation you stop in a local restaurant for breakfast. You’re adventurous so you didn’t check the Yelp ratings before choosing this one. Seated near the kitchen, you have a birds-eye view of all the action. Cooks are working furiously to keep up with all the orders thrown at them, dropping dishes or utensils from time to time, and occasionally getting yelled at by the wait staff or manager for how long it’s taking to fill an order. The menu is extremely limited because the cooks have only basic ingredients and haven’t been trained to do anything except the quick stuff. Those apples and breakfast bars back at your hotel room are looking better all the time, aren’t they?


Does the hypothetical scene just described also sound like your team? People feel constantly behind, and “drop” details or a level of quality in their work in their rush to meet deadlines. Instead of trying to jump in and help solve the problems, managers resort to reminding team members how far behind they are and the consequences of not doing better. Meanwhile, team members are just hoping to maintain the status quo, since they are already working at full capacity with their skills and resources.

The goal for any leader or manager should be to make chefs out of short order cooks. Building capacity in them so they have a bigger “menu” of skills and are equipped to deliver “dishes” of the highest quality. Granted, not all people on your team may want to grow and will be content to cook up the simple stuff. But if you’re not making an honest attempt to invest in the ones who want to improve, they may eventually look for an organization that will… or at least one that pays more for a short order cook.

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Think about how much more effective you could be in your role if you weren’t having to spend so much time making sure your team wasn’t ‘burning the burgers.’

And reflect for a moment on the benefit to you as a leader when you create more chefs. While short order cooks are limited in their ability to be creative, successful chefs are always exploring what might resonate more with customers. They look for ways to use resources available in various “seasons” to create something different. Chefs are also more adept at running a kitchen with multiple complex dishes being prepared at one time. Think about how much more effective you could be in your role if you weren’t having to spend so much time making sure your team wasn’t “burning the burgers.”

“I get the analogy” you say, “But I can’t just close my “restaurant” and send my team off to culinary school for a month. We have customers waiting NOW!” You are correct. Luckily, there are a multitude of small steps you can take to begin growing your team members into the chefs of tomorrow regardless of your industry.  They include:

Focus more on the “Why” and less on the “How” when they are in the kitchen.

If you want them to do things your way, you’ll feel the need to more closely watch their work progress. If you invest the time to clearly explain an ideal outcome of the assignment, don’t be surprised when they meet or exceed your expectations in how they get the work done. As Dr. Henry Cloud writes in Boundaries for Leaders, "[Leaders] must not just give advice and 'tell people what to do.' You must create the environment, experiences, and opportunities where your best people can attend in order to innovate and think for themselves."

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Discover what's limiting their ability to really cook up something special.

Don’t rely solely on formal reviews or what you are observing about their performance. Be bold enough to ask questions like, “How can I help you be more successful?” or “How could I work with you differently to be of greater help to you?” Give them space to appropriately vent. But don't leave it there. Brainstorm with them about possible solutions using leading phrases like, "How might we...?" or "From your perspective, what might be a possible solution?" Use the moment as a way to sharpen their problem-solving skills.

Stop throwing orders at them all the time.

In the article, Being Busy Is Nothing To Brag About, Caroline Dowd-Higgins writes, “Some workplaces perpetuate the workaholic culture and praise the busy brag. This is not healthy or sustainable and often leads to a revolving door for talent that is neither cost-effective, nor morale boosting.” When possible, give people opportunities to slow down and more deeply reflect on how they are getting their work done. If there’s been a long period of a “lunch rush” pace, look for a way to relieve the stress faced by the team, even if for only a day or two.

When is the last time you gave a ‘stretch assignment’ to someone on your team?

Improve the ingredients available to them.

When is the last time you gave a “stretch assignment” to someone on your team or gave a team member a problem to solve with minimal input from you? What could you shift from your plate to theirs to grow their skills and understanding of how things get done? James Brooks powerfully articulates the value of stretch assignments and delegation in his blog, The Importance Of ‘Stretch’ in Talent Development: “Employees need regular opportunities to test their ‘limits’ – to see what they are capable of achieving when they use their strengths productively in different ways. This also builds what we call ‘agility’, or the crucial capacity to be flexible across different situations and operating environments.”

Create the menu together.

When making decisions, get input from all team members who will be affected. Your focus on the big picture may be blinding you to specific consequences that could result from making the wrong decision. In fact, Walter Frick writes in 3 Ways To Improve Your Decision-Making that "we should all be less certain-about everything." Involving others challenges your assumptions and ensures that you are choosing a course of action that has the desired impact. And then there's that insightful African Proverb: If you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, go with others. A quick decision might be easier, but could a more thoughtful one developed by more people be worth the time?

Cook with them from time to time.

In 10 Ways Leaders Limit Success, Paul Walker writes, “Your words will always go further if you are "one of them" and understand their hardships and opportunities. Do you hold yourself to the same standards and expectations as the rest of your team? Do you do similar day-to-day work as they do, or are you only there to "lead?” Being a part of the team, as opposed to the pseudo-manager, gets you more respect from the team and allows you the opportunity to inspire more.”

Take a day off.

You’re thinking, “Things would fall apart if I wasn’t here!” You might just be surprised. Letting your team know you trust them enough to step away for awhile fosters a level of ownership that can’t be duplicated if you’re always around trying to solve every problem for them.

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Let’s take a look at how that earlier restaurant experience might have been different if someone had invested time in developing the leadership capacity of their people. In the kitchen, the chefs are moving quickly, but there’s a level of respect and collaboration among the kitchen staff that didn’t exist before. The menu options have greatly increased, and the waiter even says, “If you don’t see exactly what you want, let us know. Our chefs love trying something new.” I don’t know about you, but I sense a memorable meal is on its way.

What are you doing to create chefs out of your short order cooks?


Jones Loflin is a global keynote speaker offering innovative strategies for individuals and organizations struggling with too much to do. He is the author of several books, including Always Growing and the award-winning Juggling Elephants. Jones is well-known for his solutions for individuals, groups and businesses on leadership development, work-life satisfaction, and change. To learn more about Jones, go to