How to improve leadership to create sustainable change


The foodservice industry is currently facing a problem so large that if not acted on, we’ll see most restaurants lose money or possibly close their doors this year. Recently, while attending the Restaurants Canada show, one of the statistics showed that 17 per cent of hospitality jobs are currently vacant. The news of the labour crisis is not new; the news of the great resignation is not new. The challenge for many is this crisis is getting to the point where many operators are considering reducing their operating hours and closing certain days of the week because if they don’t, they run the risk of burning out their teams.  

What is the real problem right now for our industry, for operators, or for you, the person taking the time to read this article? Do we have a staffing issue, a management challenge or a leadership gap? Or is the problem a labour crisis or the fact that most operators are approaching hiring the same way they did pre-pandemic expecting the same results? If that last sentence triggered, annoyed or frustrated you, keep reading. My job as a hospitality leadership coach is to help find the real problem so that it can be addressed to ensure we find the correct solution or change to move the business and its team forward. 

In order for your hiring, retention or culture to improve, what do you need to change or improve as the leader? If you have read previous articles or my book You Can’t Do It Alone – Focusing on people to scale, develop and lead your restaurant, you have heard me ask this question before, but it’s worth repeating. 

In order for your operations to change or improve, what do you need to change as the leader?

In this article, I’m not going to focus on the tactics to fix your hiring situation. You will find a link at the bottom of the article to a one-hour webinar on the Foodservice and Hospitality magazine website that will take you through the most powerful solutions and actions I’ve developed through the last decade with my clients. What I want to focus on are the behaviours that lay beneath the tactics that will help leaders approach the challenges they’re sure to face in the coming weeks and months that will allow them to create consistent and sustainable change. 

As a leader myself, I’ve made more mistakes than most, I have failed more than most and I have been wrong more than most. But I don’t let my negative experiences define the leader I think I am. We all know that the person who is the hardest on you is you. I’ve continued to focus on which patterns consistently lead to my success and which areas need to be tweaked to make the most of the opportunities ahead. For all of us, the last two years have been incredibly hard, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The upside of situations that cause extreme challenge and change is that there is success for those that adapt, innovate and grow. 

Everything Starts with How You See Your Identity: If we don’t change our identity or how we see ourselves, we will more than likely fall back into old behaviours or patterns. For decades, my weight has gone up and down significantly. At times I am extremely healthy and in great shape, and at other times I am stress-eating Big Macs in my car. It wasn’t until I read the number-1 best-selling book Atomic Habits by James Clear that I made a fundamental change in my approach to self-care. In the past, I believed I could be healthy for a period of time but deep down I did not believe that I was a healthy person. I now see myself as a healthy and active person. I have committed to this belief and have created sustainable change in my selfcare.  

What type of change are you looking to make for yourself or your business? In order to achieve those results, you need to change how you see yourself so you don’t get short-term focused effort but rather sustainable change.  

Do you want to be the number-1 restaurant in your community? If you do, you need to believe it in your core and share your vision and this goal with your team. Do you want to have the best fully staffed team that is fully staffed? If so, you need to claim that space and make your business the best place to work for your existing team. You need to talk about it daily and discuss how you will continue to improve through collective feedback and co-creation.

Change happens internally, it happens in your core and it needs to become a reality in your mind before it is consistently delivered through your behaviours.  

Your Language Creates Your Reality: As a coach myself, I have worked with many different coaches over the last decade. And regardless who was the coach, one thing that was always made clear is how powerful our language is. In the hospitality industry, I feel this is a major opportunity. So many of us in the industry have been trained to use a scarcity mindset or language.  

Currently, finding staff is a real challenge versus ‘We’re going to approach hiring staff differently to ensure we have the people we need.’

Often, I have seen a restaurant do 200 covers in a night and focus on the three that had challenges or complaints. If we are using language that looks at gaps or focuses on the challenge, that is all our people will focus on. They will not see the good in what they are doing each day. Leaders, managers and staff will constantly be left with a feeling of underperforming.  

I’m not telling you not to provide constructive feedback to your team, I just want to make sure you focus on your language. How can you create a routine for yourself that allows you to share positive language with your team, give positive feedback and recognize your people more often? If you’re programmed to see the problem, I fully understand. Many of us grew up in the industry where we were taught to do so. But I’m telling you, you can change your results, culture and engagement with your team by focusing on your language. If you you take a healthy and positive approach, it will change your connection to your team, and ultimately your results.

If you’re going to start with one simple change, replace the word ‘problem’ with ‘opportunity’ and watch how it moves people from shutting down to working together towards a positive solution.

Be Human, Not Perfect: So many leaders were put in a position to come up with answers they simply did not have during the pandemic. Everyone was looking to us to make sure we knew the way forward. As leaders, we have chosen to take on this responsibility and embrace it. But leadership does not mean having all of the answers. This year, I’ve been in workshops, and leading presentations and talks with more than 1,500 leaders and managers and it’s only July. When speaking with these leaders and managers, one of the qualities they look for most in the person leading their team is the ability to be real, not perfect. They’re looking for vulnerability-based leadership. When they come to you and say, “I have a problem” or “I made this mistake,” they don’t want you to tell them what you would have done to get a different result. They want you to stop and say “you know what, I fully understand how hard that must have been for you, I have made this same mistake more than once, what does support from me look like for you?” I have focused much of my learning from Brene Brown’s books and Ted Talks around vulnerability, shame and blame in the workplace. Statistics have proven that people don’t feel they work for the restaurant name. People feel that they work for, will do anything for, or leave the restaurant based on their relationship with their direct manager. Taking time to be more human, reminding yourself you don’t need all of the answers, and working on being present when speaking with your people will create the culture for you to tackle any challenge. 

To conclude, I’ll return to where we started. In order for your operations to change or improve, what do you need to change as the leader? If you identify the change you will make, share the change with your team so they can hold you positively accountable to staying consistent. With this, you can tackle any opportunity, even the staff challenges we are currently facing. If you’re looking for tactical support on attracting, hiring or retaining staff.

Matt Rolfe is a coach, speaker, bestselling author and entrepreneur. For support or more leadership insights, email [email protected]

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