The 6 indispensable leadership lessons I learned working as a restaurant hostess.
The most salient lessons on how to be a better manager can be found in the most unexpected places. For me? I learned how to be a better leader, in part, by working as a restaurant hostess.
Before I was CEO of Know Your Team, I picked up a job as a hostess, working nights and weekends at a local restaurant in Chicago. This was seven or so years ago when I was building my consulting practice and software prototype to help CEOs get honest feedback. I needed some cash coming in on the side, while I was pitching clients and coding during the week.
I’d never worked in a restaurant before. And aside from a few summers in high school as a tennis instructor and a sales associate at a clothing store, I didn’t have much experience in the service industry, to begin with.
I had no idea what to expect with this job. All I knew was I was going to learn a lot. This proved to be exceedingly true.
What surprised me most was the amount of knowledge I gained. And it wasn’t about the service industry or restaurants. I didn’t expect to learn so much about well-functioning organizations and effective management in what some might see as the most “boring” job of my career.
In this “boring” job of mine, I learned so much that I wrote down my observations back then, and tucked them away in my private personal blog. Today, seven years later, I’d like to dust those lessons off on how to be a better manager, and share them with you….
#1: Everything is a system.
When something goes wrong at a restaurant, it’s easy to want to blame someone.
One evening at the restaurant, a table of guests had waited a long time for their food to come out. As I passed them, they gave me an earful (understandably so). In my head, I wanted to fault the kitchen – they didn’t fire the orders fast enough. But the kitchen likely would want to fault us, the hostesses, and say we’d sat too many guests, and the kitchen couldn’t keep up. Well, we’d sat the number we did because the managers had pushed us to seat parties faster – the tables were turning quickly that night.
But then, all of a sudden, the tables stopped turning. So, hmm, I guess it wasn’t the managers’ fault. Wouldn’t it be the servers? If the servers had turned tables quicker… Oh, but the servers would probably say that they tried to turn tables, but people were lingering longer during dinner that evening…
You get the picture. Rarely is it one person’s fault. The blame game does not work. A problem originates from an interrelated chain of events, with several obscure forces at play. Despite this, we swiftly declare what went wrong, why it went wrong, and whose fault it was. We focus on the symptoms of a disease, not the virus itself. We don’t always see the system.
In leadership, this couldn’t be more true. Our natural inclination urges us to figure out what the problem is fast – so we often misidentify the problem. No wonder the solutions don’t work. The best leaders understand this: They never access a problem at face value.
For example, as a manager, you might wonder, “Why does my team move more slowly on a project?” It might be tempting to assume they’re just not motivated enough. But is that really the case? Perhaps they’re unclear what the true priorities are, so they’re not making progress on the right things. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, another department keeps requesting things from them, so they’ve been tied up more than usual.
Your consideration of the entire system, rather than an isolated part, will determine how well you’re able to solve problems as a leader.
#2: Confidence is why you execute well.
I remember the first night my manager asked me to “run the door.” The usual head hostess was out that night, and so I was going to be the one assigning tables and dictating who sat where and when. If you’ve never done it before, “running the door” can be a terrifying task. People stream in: Reservations, walk-ins, different size parties, some late, some early, special requests, VIPs…and you’re the calm, collected, friendly air-traffic controller, amidst it all.
My face must have given away how petrified I was because my manager turned to say to me: “It’s fine, just shake it out. Be confident. You got this.”
It’s funny how a simple self-affirmation of “you got this” can make a difference in your performance. I recall how when I would seat people smoothly that evening, it’s because I’d gathered my confidence in my interactions with the guests. And when I stumbled – frantically poking around on the OpenTable floor plan – it’s because, at that moment, I doubted my own ability to find the right table. My execution came down to confidence.
As a leader, our insecurity causes us to overcompensate and perform poorly, as well. When we’re worried about being seen as “weak,” we rush to give answers, even when the answers aren’t always well-thought-out. When we’re sensitive about being seen as “likable,” we avoid giving our team honest feedback, even when they need to hear it.
If instead, we can believe in our capabilities and intentions as a leader, we can support our team in a more steady way. Wondering, “Am I good enough?” or “Am I sucking at this?” can be debilitating, otherwise.
#3: Our assumptions are often negative.
I had a friend say to me once: “I would never work at a restaurant because I never want someone to think less of me.” Unfortunately, I don’t think my friend is the only person who has ever thought that.
I’d encounter negative assumptions like this almost every time I was at the restaurant. You receive some snootiness from a few guests as you take their coat. And as a hostess, you find yourself inadvertently price-checking in your head how much a guest’s Hermes belt might have cost.
These assumptions don’t just circulate between guests and the restaurant staff, but within the staff as well. Chefs ask you to call them “Chef” instead of by their first name. There are specific “codes of conduct” that vary between line cooks, servers, server assistants, and dishwashers – and you can bet there are a lot of assumptions are made based on which role you fill. I even recall a moment where I mentioned I’d attended Northwestern University for college, and the reaction of a fellow hostess both shocked and saddened me: “Oh my gosh, you shouldn’t be here! You totally are, like, better than me.”
While our negative assumptions as leaders may not be rooted around social class or organizational role per se, we have a strong tendency to make negative assumptions about our team when things aren’t going well. When someone is always late to meetings or gives overly harsh feedback to you, our mind jumps to the negative: “That employee seems lazy” or “That person is out to get me.” Good leaders recognize this temptation – and resist. They seek out greater understanding. They ask questions to learn the other person’s position. They acknowledge there is more they need to be doing as a leader. Never do they assume the negative.
#4: People notice details.
“Details matter” – I’ve always tried to heed that notion. But I’ve never quite seen it so consistently put into practice as I have at a restaurant.
One weekend, I was setting up tables before guests were sat and was wiping down one of the tables. I’d noticed my rag had left a slight sheen of moisture on the table’s surface. You could barely see it. It would dry by the time the guests would sit down… right? I placed the rest of the table settings down.
As I walked back to the host stand, I then saw something out of the corner of my eye. One of the servers had walked by that exact same table – she was drying off the ever-so-slightly damp surface with her rag.
I took note: To her, that detail mattered. And it should have mattered to me too.
The best managers care about details to this magnitude. When you have an eye for details, you can pick up on problems before they become problems: “James’ chat seemed very abrupt, I wonder if he’s stressed. I should talk to him about the workload.” Or, “Katie’s body language appeared dejected, I should ask her if she’s stuck on any decisions with the project.” For good leaders, the “small things” aren’t small things. They know they add up, so they put in the extra effort to notice them.
#6: Err on the side of over-communication.
One Friday evening, we were particularly busy at the restaurant and the lead hostess had to leave our post for a few minutes. “I’ll be right back,” she told to me, “but, make sure you keep tabs on everything.”
While she was gone, a woman in a red sweater approached me. “I think we already checked in,” she remarked. “But we’re just going to stand over there while we wait for the rest of our friends to show up.” I let her know that wasn’t a problem. A minute later, a party of three came through the door. Then, a young couple. Cool, nothing crazy, I thought to myself.
The lead hostess returned, and I promptly told her about the party of three and the couple that had checked in. I purposefully left out mentioning the woman in the red sweater – she said she’d already checked in. So we were good there. No need to share that.
Oh, was I wrong. About 15 minutes later, the woman in the red sweater approached us. “So we’ve been waiting for like 20 minutes already for our table, and I just wondering why we haven’t been sat yet.”
Shit. I should have said something.
I thought I was communicating “just enough” – but “just enough” isn’t good enough if you want to run an effective organization.
We assume that “people don’t need to know things,” and we’re doing them a favor and saving time. But in fact, we’re delaying what needs to be communicated eventually. Not doing so immediately only causes an eventual flare-up.
After all, people only know what we tell them. And we usually don’t tell them enough.
This isn’t unique to a restaurant. Our tendency to communicate “just enough” causes breakdowns for us as leaders all the time. Whether it’s hiring plans or explaining a decision or sharing the company vision, the best leaders are rigorous about communicating the same thing over and over. As leaders, we should err on the side of over-communication, not “just enough” communication.
#6: The incentive is the impact you create.
One of the bartenders I worked with had been promoted to a managerial position at the restaurant. I remember asking him how he’d been liking his new gig so far.
“It’s fewer hours,” he joked.
But then he replied seriously. “I like it more because now I have something to show for my work.”
“Something to show for my work.” That’s the core of what motivates us humans: We want what we do to leave an impact at the end of the day. Whether we’re in the restaurant industry, working at a law firm, or running a software company, we want our work to matter.
Perhaps it’s an obvious, overplayed epiphany – but for me, it’s a foundational reminder of why we do our work in the first place, and how managers can think about leading their teams well.
Job perks, bonding events, employee recognition… surely, all those things boost morale on the surface. But what gives a team fuel to overcome tough challenges is if they can visibly see the impact they’re having.
Does your team have “something to show for their work”? It’s our job as leaders to answer that question for our team clearly and in a meaningful way.
Seven years later, those lessons from my hostessing gig have still stuck with me. As a CEO, I have a penchant for viewing problems systemically, caring about the details, and over-communicating. I remember what happens if you don’t.
It’s a funny thing to reflect on. When we want to learn how to become a better manager, we seek out roles that appear to have the most rigor or perceived clout associated with them. The manager role at X fancy company, or the Y job with the impressive title. But it’s potentially more sensible to reexamine what we gain from the most conventional or “boring” job experiences.
Have you encountered similar lessons from the “boring” jobs you’ve had? To become better leaders, we should zoom in on those experiences more.
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