Pandemic challenges have forced leaders to re-evaluate their strategies


The past two years have been the most challenging and turbulent the current generation of leaders has ever experienced. I deeply feel for hospitality entrepreneurs, leaders and managers who have experienced constant challenges, dealt with relentless and rapid changes, all while being put in a position to navigate forward through the unknowns.

Now that we are navigating the next chapter, re-bounding and re-building from the pandemic, we as an industry need to ask even more from our leaders. That’s right, more now than ever before. Staff and management in restaurants are looking to their leaders for clarity so they can trust there is a path forward. Not just a path to re-opening our restaurants — but a path to having the team in place to properly operate our restaurants as well. 

I look at the pandemic like open-heart surgery. In the early stages, we knew something was not right, and when the diagnosis of COVID-19 was shared with the world, the initial closure of our industry, and repeated opening and closing, equated to surgery. They cracked open our ribs and reached into our businesses in a way that was incredibly invasive. The re-opening (as I write this, I hope this is our last re-open) could be viewed the mending of our ribcage, the stitching up of our chest, as we are now finally able to re-open our doors, and the restrictions are being removed.  The great news is, we are moving forward. The challenge is, many of us have brought our staff back quickly and jumped right back into operations. I get it, we have to get the doors back open to survive.  I do want you to be aware that most leaders, managers and staff have not had the chance to heal from the experience we just went through — both personally and professionally.  

Can you relate? If you take a minute and think about those questions, the chances are your breathing will shorten a bit, you might feel tightness in your body and you might have put your hands over your face. If you did any of those things, even just a few, you are not alone.  Leaders have been put in a position to have the answers, fight everyday not knowing what was next. It’s to be expected that we would fee a little wounded. Certainly I know, we did not come this far to only come this far.  As an industry, we have gone through challenges in the past, we will find a path to get through this and come out on the other side much stronger. I’m not trying to be your motivational coach in this article; I mean what I say. Those that choose to will come out of this stronger. If you agree with that statement, I’m excited for you. If you feel resistance to me saying it, that’s okay, too. I urge you to pay attention to your resistance though. If it’s showing up for you in your life, how else might you think your resistance is showing up to your managers and staff?  

However you feel, let’s get into how hospitality leadership has changed during the pandemic and what can be done to upscale your leadership skills to give you, your team, your guests and your operation the results you want and deserve in 2022.  

It Starts with You
Mental health and self-care have been thrust into the spotlight over the last two years.  Let me start by saying COVID-19 did not create mental-health or self-care challenges for leaders in our industry, it simply magnified them. In order for you to take care of your people, you must first take care of yourself. The role of a leader is to be at service in support of your people. How can you do that if your emotional or physical tank is empty?

I’ve spent the last decade in coaching programs with the world’s leading coach, Tony Robbins.  After all of the work I have done with Robbins over the last 10 years, one of his messages has always stayed the same: 70 per cent of our results as leaders and managers are driven by our physical state, meaning the energy we bring into every room. This refers to every conversation and every interaction with our staff even before we say anything. Another 20 per cent of our results are driven by our why or our purpose, and 10 per cent of our results are driven by our actual strategy. 

Your team can see your energy, your stress and the weight on your shoulders more than you would ever imagine. They’re concerned for you — an inconsistent leader erodes trust and is the number-1 cause of employee turnover. In times where manager and staff retention are the top challenge for most operators, we need to do everything we can to keep the people we want and need.

  • Block time every week for yourself: Study any celebrity leader from Mark Cuban to Sheryl Sandberg to Warren Buffet and you will find a relentless commitment to personal time and personal development. 
  • Move your body: Personally, I have lost 40 lbs since the start of the pandemic, and it’s not because I like working out. I looked at the leaders I admire most, and they all had a commitment to their self-care. Find ways to move your body every day.
  • Hire a coach and/or therapist: I am currently working with three therapists and one coach and it has changed my life. Having a proper support team is a strength not a weakness.
  • Make a commitment to consistent communication: I have worked with hundreds of leaders and managers throughout the pandemic and the number-1 reason people cited for why they were not engaged, why they were considering leaving their position or why they left their restaurant or restaurant group, was the leader or leadership team’s inability to communicate with them and the team.  

Top-performing leaders communicate when they have answers, when they have updates, when they have clarity and direction, but they also continue to communicate when they don’t. COVID-19 took away connection and community for most of us, which as humans we naturally crave and require to survive. Communication that is good, challenging or even unclear builds trust. Your people are not looking for you to be perfect, they want you to be real and the way to make them feel it, and the key word here is feel, will come from your commitment to communication.

What Can You Do

  • Pull out your phone and shoot a video: Shoot a two to five-minute video on your phone and share it with your team. Tell the team how you felt during the last two years, share your ups and downs, and most importantly, be real. Share how much you appreciate them and why you appreciate them, and be sure to use real examples.  Share your vision and/or excitement for 2022 and let them know that you need and want them to be a part of it.
  • Schedule a follow-up meeting: Bring your two or 200 employees together to go more in-depth into the message in your video; then allow your team in a safe and trusting space to share their pandemic experience. Don’t focus on what needs to happen later this week or this month; just create space for your team to share and be fully present.  
  • Commitment to regular meetings: Communication is not an event, it is a process, and for it to be effective you need to have a meeting rhythm that works for you. Weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings should all be mapped out for 2022. For direction on the ideal meeting frequency, shoot me an email for agendas, frequency and engagement tips.
  • Create an execution-focused strategy: I spend all day, every day, helping hospit- ality leaders and leadership teams build execution-focused strategies, goals and goals and plans, but this was not always the case. Early in my career, I worked with many teams that had great meetings, great discussions and great ideas but failed to achieve the results they wanted and deserved. This was not because they weren’t strong leaders and managers; it often came down to the fact that they were overcommitted. They had too many goals, projects and priorities that were all moving forward, but none of them seemed to be getting done at an excellent level. As a coach, I work with leaders and help them let go of over commitment, while moving away from the addiction of being busy. If you want to really move your business forward, you need to answer the three questions below.
  1. How does your team win in 2022? In one to three sentences, you need to have a clear and measurable statement that can get your team focused and excited.
  2. Identify your three core drivers. What are the three activities, processes or projects that when done consistently will allow you to win 2022?
  3. Measure, discuss, debate and celebrate progress. How do we know who won the football, baseball, or hockey game you last watched? There was a scoreboard that let you know exactly what happened. Not only did it provide the final outcome, the score, but in all areas of the game. Once we have a clear scoreboard, we can then discuss and debate what is needed to get better results in the next game. 

And don’t forget to celebrate when consistent execution or greatness shows up in your operation. People need positive reinforcement based on what we’ve all just gone through. To be a great leader, you need to create a culture of genuine recognition and celebration.

The evolution of leadership starts with working on yourself so we can show up and be the leader that our operations need us to be. Not only to survive, but thrive as we re-build and re-bound from the pandemic. We have intentionally packed a lot into this article but my wish for you is to commit to action the one idea or section that stood out most to you. If we want to change our results, we need to change our behaviours.

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

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