12/15/2014 12:00 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

5 Ways Dining Out Can Improve Your Management Style


With an open mind and a taste for humility, powerful leadership lessons can be found in simple, everyday experiences. Despite almost 20 years of experience helping to facilitate communications for corporate clients and my acknowledgment that I'm a recovering addict of management tomes, recently I've found some of the most clear management lessons are right in front of us. To show up differently as builders and leaders of successful teams, we need to open our eyes to success in other fields. For example, can we learn leadership lessons from an average night out on the town?

Well, when you find yourself dining at a restaurant that's at the top of its game, ask yourself: what makes your overall experience so satisfying? When you start to observe the care that goes into each intangible customer touch point, you'll realize that it's so much more than just how the food tastes. These details are precisely the great restaurant secrets we need to learn from and respect in order to craft our highest-performing client teams.

Here's my take:

1. Ingredients alone do not a great meal make. Just like a soufflé, you can have all the right ingredients - but it's likely to flop if you don't get the proportions right. Same goes for teams: you can have all the right people, expertise and capacity, but if you don't get the right proportion of each, the initiative can quickly become a disaster. You may need that expert of some esoteric subject matter, but what if they dominate every discussion? Certain ingredients and individuals can be overpowering, despite how crucial they are in making a meal or program shine. Balance your proportions accordingly!

2. Master the fundamentals. Sure, a signature dish may be delicious, but if you have to ask for silverware and water refills, or continually flag down your server, you're far more likely to tell your friends about that negative experience rather than the positive parts. Same goes for your teams - they can be "strategic" all day long, but if they can't deliver on the fundamentals, few clients are going to stick around or recommend them to others. Brilliant moments are just that: moments. Team members who consistently deliver are what breed loyalty and trust.

3. Timing is crucial: A well-paced meal matches the diner's needs at the time. In order to savor the goods, you can't be rushed. Conversely, when you're on your lunch hour, you should never endure painfully slow service. That said, it's important to time your pitches accordingly. If your boss is in the midst of answering an urgent request from the CEO or the board, that isn't the time to wow them with your next big idea and a 40-slide presentation of amazingness. Deliver on their immediate needs first and they'll be far more open to hearing about unearthed opportunities that you and your team can offer later.

4. Play your position. There are distinct staff positions in great restaurants for a reason. The high performance of the chef, server, sommelier and dishwasher are all important. But, true success only occurs when they work together. No leader should ever be above collaborating and jumping in to support any role if that's what the organization needs most to succeed. In fact, all team members should be aware of their ability to collaborate. While a dishwasher can't always act as a chef, they can alert a problem to the general manager, allowing the manager to jump in. Even if a junior team member can't pick up the workload, they can admit to needing help so that the team can course correct the end result, making it imperative that no one be above their role in order to deliver.

5. Real-time feedback is key. If your soup is cold, tell your server in the moment so they have a chance to correct it right then - saving yourself from logging onto Yelp to complain when you get home. This also applies to your business: if you didn't get what you needed from a client assignment brief, tell the client in the moment. Or, if you didn't get what you asked from your team, tell your team first and give them a chance to correct it. When leaders and teams both engage in continuous feedback, the result is better work, more engaged teams and lasting relationships. Things will go wrong - it's what you do about them in the moment that matters most.

If nothing more, consider putting aside the latest management article from a leadership guru du jour and head to your favorite neighborhood café or fine-dining destination. How do they do what they do, and how can you learn from their talent?

Do you agree with this approach? How might I have gotten it right or wrong? What other unexpected places offer lessons in leadership?

I am looking forward to your observations. Feel free to share your list of must-visit restaurants, too.