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Lessons in leadership from a terrible manager

I had always prided myself on being a great manager by the book. My key performance indicators included online reviews, employee punctuality, compliance, and retention. Our culture was one of accountability and structure. 

What was that worth? As it turned out, very little. The dream was for Preux & Proper to become a community hub. With a barroom on the first floor and a dining room on the second, we were hoping to meet all needs. We wanted it to be the place you went to for a lavish dinner and a quick bite and drinks with friends. The goal was to serve the community in a way we had not seen done before. Yet, we had fallen very, very short of that goal. Realistically we were a dining establishment serving good food in a prompt fashion within a pretty building. What felt like moving mountains turned out to be the bare minimum relative to the goals I had set for myself and my business.

I decided to chart a new path. I read every management book I could find and came to a startling conclusion: It was time to stop managing and start leading. Through trial and error, I set a new course with a destination in mind: a warm, familial experience that was felt by both the staff and patrons. It wasn’t easy, but here’s how we got there.

Look to the team

The first step was ensuring that everyone who worked at the restaurant was capable of self-management and self-motivation. I was no longer in the business of convincing members of the team to show up on time, show up in uniform, and stay off their phones. My job was no longer to motivate them to work hard or be enthusiastic. 

My only job was to communicate my expectations effectively and ensure the staff had every tool they needed to succeed. I met with every member of the team individually, explained the way things would work moving forward, and gave everyone the opportunity to quit. If I was going to change the rules of the game, I had to give them the opportunity to stop playing. 

Let our values set the path

The next step required looking internally. 

  • Why did I start this business? 
  • How do we define success as a company? 
  • What do I want my colleagues to say about me and this company?

To answer these questions for myself and my team, I came up with five core values. These values—once listed and explained—provided the only pillars my team would need to excel in their work. 

  1. Southern hospitality: We exceed every guest expectation and work to make them feel welcome and valued.
  2. Enthusiastic about the details: Attention to detail is the difference between a guest feeling serviced and a guest feeling cared for.
  3. Clear communication focused on mindfulness and empathy: We are present in each moment and looking for those small opportunities to contribute.
  4. Strong work ethic: This job is hard work. If you don’t love hard work, this isn’t the job for you.
  5. Focused on growth: We are all looking for new ways to grow this company, both culturally and professionally.

They never had to ask whether to pull a dish off of a bill, comp a drink, or drop bubbles to a guest celebrating an anniversary. Our values clearly laid out our hopes and expectations for every customer service interaction: “Everyone leaves happy.” 

We took our restaurant to the next level by employing motivated, responsible individuals and giving them clear ideals to follow.

Josh Kopel and bartender

Play the fool (and sometimes the genius)

The next step required courage—the courage to be honest and transparent with the staff about my own successes and failures. I wanted to give them the opportunity to learn from my mistakes. I wanted to teach them that resilience is the greatest virtue, not luck or intelligence. 

The goal was not only to teach but to reinforce my belief that we’re all on this path working toward something together, and we’re all growing and learning along the way—and that especially includes me. Being vulnerable and honest about your own fallibility empowers others to do the same with you. 

Practice gratitude

At the conclusion of every staff meeting, each person would mention something they were grateful for that day. It had to be heartfelt, and it had to be different from the day before. 

Why do this? I was attempting to rewire their brains, making them focus on the good instead of the bad, positively impacting every facet of their lives. When you know you have to mention something you’re grateful for every single day, you start focusing on gratitude throughout the day. 

Did it work? Absolutely. Not only did it give the staff an opportunity to share a piece of themselves with their teammates, it also created a positive energy on the floor that the patrons could feel.

These efforts gave us a single metric to track moving forward: the happiness of our team and our guests, graded on a moment-by-moment basis. 

To become a true leader, I had to figure out where I was leading the team. We made our jobs an escape from the daily grind, not a part of it. We established a human connection with each other and our guests built on vulnerability. I worked to inspire them and created an environment where we could inspire each other. I invested in their dreams in the same way they were investing in mine.

Where are you going to lead your team today?

About the author: Josh Kopel is an entrepreneur, restaurateur, and host of Full Comp, a new podcast for the hospitality industry.

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