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Leadership Lessons from the Kitchen: What Mother's Day Brunch Can Teach Us About Teamwork

05/07/2015 04:08 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Today, I'd like you to join me at brunch, my favorite meal. Before you start salivating over the idea of a Croque Monsieur, I should tell you that you'll be joining me in the kitchen. Not just any kitchen--the kitchen of a busy restaurant.

If you've been read my series on leadership lessons I learned in the kitchen, you already know that I left the Ivy League to go to culinary school. If not, I was a chef for nine years and can now look back on my experiences and identify important leadership lessons I learned in the process. Last week, I talked about making fresh fruit pastries--and common communication pitfalls. This week, let's go to brunch, and learn about GRPI- the importance of each team member knowing their goals, roles, and processes, while maintaining positive interactions.

Now, back to brunch. Today is Mother's Day (not actually, but bear with me.) With Mother's Day often comes the tradition of Mother's Day brunch. What that means to the kitchen staff is that hundreds of people, and their mothers, all want to eat brunch. Both the preparation and the execution required for this holiday bring the kitchen to a fever pitch.

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As the masses of mothers take their seats, only to leave them so another mother can take hers, the kitchen goes into hyper drive. Our goal: To serve delicious and gorgeous meals to upwards of 250 people, all within a 120-minute time period. Everybody always wants to eat at the same time.

Today is my first day being expeditor--quite a role to take on during one of the busiest days of the year. As expeditor, I get to be the conductor (i.e. on top of everything). It's a lot of responsibility and we are slammed.

One minute I am reading a ticket to a server, the next I am yelling out orders to the chef. Before I can breathe, I am scanning the kitchen to make sure everyone has enough mise en place. No more basil leaves at the garnishing station? I find someone to prep it, and prep it in the speed of light. Garde manager doesn't have enough salads prepared? Pop over and help him or find someone who can. If I see waiters standing around, it's my job to find their orders. The orders for each party need to be out at the same time, which means one minute I am slowing some tables down and the next speeding others up. The plates need to be wiped clean before they go out the door. Is that a stray spec of misplaced cream? That is very poor form; I need to wipe it off. And I can't forget that at any moment, someone could get burned, or the refrigerator could go out. Is there an emergency? I scan the room.

Never mind who might be getting burned, I feel like I am on fire! My eyes are watching hundreds of details and my mind is keeping track of them, all in a 90-120 minute time period. I don't even know if I am breathing, but I do know that there is an eggs benedict plated that needs a side of fruit, which needs to be cut.

In what feels like minutes, the last ticket is closed. When I realize the very last Mother's Day brunch order is gone, that no one is hurt, and that we didn't ruin the day of any celebrating families, I literally let out a whoop of joy. What a rush! This is now my favorite role.

What's GRPI Got To Do With It?

How did we pull this off? Stepping into the kitchen, the untrained eye may see total and complete chaos. There is yelling, scrambling, sometimes evening very fast walking. While it is definitely chaotic, a well-oiled kitchen team manages to execute meals effectively. How they do it is the same as how a successful team in any organization works--by adhering to the principals of GRPI. They don't know that is what they are doing, but they are an excellent example of how GRPI works.

How GRPI Works

The GRPI model is an approach to team development created by the Systemic Excellence Group. I will use the execution of Mother's Day brunch to show you what I mean.

GRPI is an acronym that describes team characteristics, in order of priorities towards performance.

Goals

In the scenario above, the goal stated was to serve delicious and gorgeous meals to upwards of 250 people, all within a 120-minute period. If we weren't all on board with this goal, someone would definitely slow down, or foil, the process. All members of a team need to know the goal they are working towards. Identifying and communicating this goal is the responsibility of the leader.

Roles

Everyone in the kitchen has to know their role. The Garde manager preps salads, the saucier creates sauces, the poissonniere makes the fish, the food runner runs the food to tables, and so on. In the story above, I was the expeditor. If I didn't know what role I was playing, I could have very easily spent the brunch focusing my energy in the wrong place. What if I thought that as expeditor, I just needed to make sure the plates looked nice? A lot of things would have fallen through the cracks, including my accountability.

The same goes for any team. Leaders are wise to communicate clearly with each team member what their specific role is. If a leader can see how the team will succeed, she must create the environment for that success by letting everyone know what role they play in achieving it.

Processes

The goal of having a process is to prevent inefficiencies. With a good process in place, and understood by all, the quality of output is repeatable, yet there is enough wiggle room to not take away the individuality of the people doing the work. In this case, without a clear process in place, the kitchen would truly become a disaster. Everyone on the team needs to know how to get from A (spotless, stocked and organized kitchen) to B (messy kitchen that is efficiently serving 250 meals in a short amount of time) to C (spotless and organized kitchen that needs to be restocked.)

An effective process takes time and flexibility to create. It is the framework within which teams can reach their goals. A great leader respects the creation of an effective process, and understands the need for flexibility to create more opportunity for success.

Interactions

Successful teams need to have positive interpersonal relationships. Can you imagine how tense an already tense kitchen would be if two people don't get along? Everyone on the team is better off when others honestly seek to understand and respect their teammates and their individual roles. In addition, a high functioning team needs to be able to trust each other. For example, things in the restaurant can crumble quickly if a server doesn't trust a chef to take special dietary requests into consideration.

Leaders need to be mindful about creating an organizational culture that promotes positive interpersonal relationships. They can start with themselves by performing small acts of kindness, keeping promises, making expectations clear, showing integrity and being willing to acknowledge and apologize for their mistakes.

Unexpected Example of GRPI in Action

This video is a beautiful example of the importance of GRPI. Itay Talgam, a former conductor who reinvented himself as a conductor of people in business, introduces the importance of harmony in team dynamics with an exploration of six great 20th-century conductors.

As you can imagine, my culinary career included more than one brunch, and not all went perfectly. In retrospect, I can see clearly what controllable factors contributed to the success of the kitchen team. I may have guessed that GRPI was an Icelandic fish dish at the time, but now I know how valuable this acronym is in the creation and maintenance of positive, productive and efficient teams.

Unfortunately, some teams aren't set up for success. Have you had this experience? What do you think was the aspect of the team that was at the core of preventing its success? I'd love to hear about it. Leave a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter, and share!

Anne Loehr is a sought after keynote speaker, writer, consultant, and trainer. She helps leaders in large organizations connect their everyday decisions today to the future workplace. Her end goal is to help organizations retain their top talent and not only survive, but thrive. To learn more about Anne, check out www.anneloehr.com or follow her on Twitter.