Coming into a floundering restaurant to be the new general manager left me with a million challenges and worries. Many of them were centered on leading my new staff. How would I command authority when I was younger than most of my employees? How would we all learn to respect each other and create a strong, effective team?
It has taken some time, some practice, and countless blunders. But I’ve learned a lot about building solid relationships with my employees. I’ve had to navigate between a casual, friendly culture—a hallmark of the restaurant business—and the need for clout and seriousness.
Here are five hints on how to be both liked and respected—both a successful boss and a kind person.
1. Fake it 'til you make it
At my first restaurant management job, I was nervous to deliver orders to my staff. I guess it showed. A nice waiter gave me a small pep talk: “Don’t feel weird about giving instructions. We’re all expecting direction from you!”
Her comment re-framed my insecurity: The whole thing was a play, and I had been cast as leader. The employees knew their parts, and were ready to play theirs and for me to play mine. Maybe I was the only one who questioned my rightful authority, my role as ship’s captain.
I vowed to embrace the part. If I felt comfortable as boss, the employees seemed equally comfortable. I’ve felt self-conscious being a young woman in charge, at times, of much older men and women. But nobody else has expressed that sentiment. There’s been conflict and drama, but never disrespect.
2. The clothes matter
At a management training program at a big corporate restaurant, soon-to-be managers worked as cooks, waiters, hosts and even dishwashers before donning the manager suit.
When I was in a chef’s jacket and an apron behind the salad station, the waiters chirped, “I need some vinaigrette on the fly!” When I was taking guests to table 23, the servers got mad because I didn’t fill their section with big spenders.
When I put on the dark suit, everything changed. If I tried to clear a dirty plate from a table, a waiter would swipe it from my hand. I was the same person, but an outfit change led to a big perception change.
I’m grateful to be business-suit free at my current restaurant, but dressing a bit managerially helps put me in an in-charge state of mind. When guests ask to speak with a manager, or my staff consults me for direction, I look the part. This helps me embody my GM title more confidently.
3. Be you
The biggest criticism I’ve heard about my management style is that I’m too nice. Severity and leadership are expected to go hand in hand. I am nice. I believe niceness can accompany seriousness, rigor, and tenacity. I will never be a yeller—intimidation is not my motivational tactic of choice. But I have a backbone, and maintain sky-high standards for my staff.
I manage the way I would want to be managed. I have clear expectations, and I want my employees to push themselves all the time, to grow constantly. I hope to do the same. At the same time, I am also unfailingly polite and respectful. When I was a server, host and cook I appreciated courtesy from my superiors, although I only occasionally received it.
Everyone thrives off challenge. Too much comfort is the enemy of any business—it leads to inertia and stagnation. A successful restaurant cannot rest on its laurels, not even if it is a wonderful restaurant, and not even for a moment.
Slow times are great opportunities to tackle projects. We’ve cleaned out closets, bleached down our service station, and led ad hoc computer or cheese training sessions because a night was unexpectedly mellow. It’s much easier to stand around playing word games on our iPhones, but a sense of accomplishment makes coming to work worthwhile.
Set up short and long term goals for your staff. I’m so self-motivated, I was surprised that my bartender requires an occasional verbal kick in the butt to work hard. I used to be nervous about delivering criticism and even ultimatums, until I saw real results. Different people respond to different incentives, but everyone need an atmosphere that pushes us to grow.
5. Be friendly but not friends
”No fraternizing with the employees,” was how the handbook of my corporate restaurant put it. My own policy is a little more lax. I think an occasional after work drink with your team can potentially bring everyone closer. There’s no problem with liking your staff, and you can stop working every once and a while and play.
Still, I’ve learned not to hire my friends. It’s hard for me to leave the friendship behind at work, especially if I must correct or reprimand. I also work to curtail my confessional tendencies. I’ve had bosses who’ve divulged with me the nitty gritty of their sex lives. Save the dirt, the gossip, and the personal stuff for your friends.
As far as your staff is concerned, laugh with them, enjoy with them, ask them about their trips to Jamaica and their classes at grad school. And then remember, they are your staff, and it’s job that they work hard, smart, and well.