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Leadership and the Power of “Oui”

By Verity Creedy

Verity Bissett-PowellI recently took part in a chef’s table experience at a double Michelin star restaurant in the UK. For those of you who might be new to the chef’s table phenomenon, picture the kitchen of a busy, 120+ seat restaurant with the main cooking area, and then two nearby rooms for pastry/dessert and coffee/tea. In the midst of these three culinary hubs, place a wooden table which can fit no more than four people. That’s where I am sat.

Power of “Oui”Despite being very average at it, I enjoy cooking and hosting friends and family. Just like many people, however, I am not a calm chef and find the juggle of managing time, quality, and unexpected challenges quite stressful. I have also seen many “behind the scenes” kitchen shows, including Gordon Ramsay and his strong-worded tirades. So I was thrilled to be at this table in the heat of the action, and it did not disappoint. I was mesmerised throughout the entire 2.5 hours. Instead of covering my ears at anticipated four-lettered rantings, my primary audio was a gentle but confident cacophony of one single word—oui. The “yes” demonstrated understanding of task, clarity of expectation, and showed respect. The receiver of the affirmations, Head Chef Tom, was the master conductor to these positive statements. Tom is, in my opinion, one of the most effective leaders I have ever had the joy to observe. Let me share with you just four leadership lessons we can all garner from Tom:

  1. King of Communication: “Table three are going to enjoy the bream and foie gras,” “Table six starters are gone—10 minutes,” “Table one sitting, four guests.” Every associate benefits from knowing what the short-term and long-term strategies are for their organisation, and the kitchen is no different. Tom calmly communicated the activity of the business with suggestions for the team’s execution priorities. Those on starters could get working on table three, those cooking the mains had 10 minutes until they needed to begin on table six, and all were aware of the newly sat table one with warm bread floating past just two minutes later. The communication was clear, precise, and targeted. It left no room for confusion or ambiguity of the strategic aims, and each time a table update was made, Tom received the anticipated “oui” acknowledgement.
  2. Champion Coach: “Egg under by one,” “More mushroom in the stock from now,” “Nice basil mix,” “Right hand finish for the lamb,” “Meringue looks good.” This was a high-performing feedback culture at play. Tom’s guidance was balanced, specific, and delivered in the exact moment that he evaluated the performance. In certain cases, such as the presentation of the lamb, Tom made hand gestures on the plate to indicate how things should look going forward, and he waited for the “oui” of employee understanding before moving on. Interestingly, Tom’s feedback, although constant, was never demotivating to the team, and I never once heard him repeat a statement—the change was made, immediately, and without fuss. Fortune 500 organisations dream of this sort of feedback environment, and the model was clear: feedback should be often, accurate, and reflect success as well as improvement.
  3. Quality Guardian: “Happy,” “Nice,” “Excellent,” “Good.” Not a single plate went out to the restaurant without Tom’s review. Sometimes it was a simple nod, and other times he gave a verbal confirmation of satisfaction. It was his primary role, and one that he took very seriously—he tasted new batches of sauce, he placed finishing touches on every starter and main course, and he asked the waiting staff for guest reactions. During my time there, I saw Tom turn three plates back to his team with subtle revisions. The guest would never know the misplacement of the dressing or the angle of the chicken, but the Head Chef would, and Tom strived for absolute perfection, nothing less. He modelled integrity for his team and clearly had their respect as a consequence because: 1) the “oui” response to replacement requests never once sounded irritated, tired, or frustrated, and 2) the three replacement plates came quickly and received broad smiles from Tom on their way out the door.
  4. Customer Obsessed: “Birthday—table nine,” “Reminder—rare steak table 12,” “Gluten free, table two”. Tom’s customer focus was a work of art. He kept up with every nuance of the guests joining that lunchtime and put their needs at the forefront of decisions. He made the dining experience as memorable as possible with careful timing between each course, and he acted on guest requests immediately and as standard. With our table he generously explained his thinking behind the combination of certain flavours on a plate, but graciously refused to answer questions regarding dishes that we would shortly receive so the impact of the taste would not be lost for us. On only one occasion was a plate returned to the kitchen from the restaurant—it was beef and the waitress shared the feedback that it was cold. Consulting his table orders, Tom shared with his team, “This meal went out 18 minutes ago, our guests were enjoying each other’s company, new plate please.” This was in no way Tom or the team’s fault as clearly the diner had let the beef go cold during conversation, but the customer came first and Tom wanted them to have a fresh new meal to enjoy the full experience. He motivated the team towards this vision and the customer later popped their head into the kitchen to ask for an autograph—100 percent satisfied.

Tom gave me some serious food for thought (pun intended). I have considered where I might be performing against these four areas and how much more effective I could be by modelling these behaviours more frequently. Most importantly, Tom has taught me that the combination of these skills means that even during the fast-paced and unpredictable rush of a Friday lunch, the echo of “oui” evolves into the power of “we.” And it feels like magic.

Verity Creedy is UK sales leader with DDI in the United Kingdom.

Posted: 06 May, 2015,
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