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Leadership lessons from what the waitress told me

I was sitting in a restaurant looking at a sushi menu recently. There were many delectable-sounding options on offer, and I wondered what to choose. I decided to ask a waitress for advice. Here’s what she said.

“Please try the chef’s signature sushi roll. He thought long and hard about it and experimented with various ingredients and created some final options. He asked all the restaurant staff to try it out, and vote on a winner. We all chose this one, sir. Please try it – it’s really wonderful.”

I would like you to read her words again. In that paragraph are a whole array of leadership lessons – if only we can see and appreciate them.

First, there is the lesson of personalization. Chefs should indeed create signature dishes. They should move away from delivery of faceless menus, and add their personal imprint. So should all leaders. Let us not reduce leadership to the delivery of bland, impersonal messages and boring, boilerplate solutions. Jazz it up a little, folks. Impose your personality. Make it a little idiosyncratic, a little peculiar. Why should life be homogeneous?

Second, there is the lesson of experimentation. Too many of us are stuck in endless mimicry and relentless pursuit of some weird thing called “best practice.” We think everything that’s worth doing has already been done, and all we have to do is keep up and copy what the best are doing. A few of us, on the other hand, strive to be different and original. Those few are always dabbling with new stuff, never satisfied with the old, always ready to improvise and think up something fresh.

Third, there is the lesson of consultation. Top chefs are not renowned for their humility. They usually believe themselves to be geniuses who know exactly what’s best for lesser mortals. They don’t ask – they order. Top CEOs are usually no different. It is rare to find someone of accomplishment who believes in assimilating other opinions and in seeking feedback. Personal humility, regardless of station, is a great thing.

Fourth, there is the lesson of understanding the profit mix. The signature roll I tried out was actually one of the most expensive items on the menu. No doubt it had a commensurately high profit margin. By creating highlighted items and getting staff to promote them to guests, the restaurant is doing a clever thing: it is crafting products with higher-than-normal margins and oh-so-gently pushing them at customers. That’s how the best selling works – when it doesn’t even feel like you’re being sold anything.

Fifthly, there is the lesson of engagement. The restaurant in question had a battalion of waiters swirling around, all looking thoroughly engaged with their work. It was endearing to learn that the waiting staff work in tandem with the cooking staff; that their opinions are sought on the quality of the food; that they enjoy the same food they serve; that their jobs are not dismissed as lowly. That’s something every leader on the planet should learn: there are no high or low members of the organization. Rewards and responsibilities differ, of course they do; but no one should feel disengaged and disenchanted. For excellence to happen, it must be delivered from top to bottom.

And lastly, the lesson of discovery. Let me now reveal that the sushi chef was not from India, but his restaurant was in Mumbai. The waiting staff he had asked to vote on his creation were Indian. This is how the best businessfolk globalize: not by arrogantly and rigidly persisting with what works in the home country; but by tweaking the product to suit local conditions, without damaging its essence. The voting staff were the chef’s discovery mechanism: his way of gauging local tastes. He did not disdain local preferences; he found a way to embrace them.

There you go: six vital lessons in business and leadership, from a single paragraph. And here’s a seventh one: the roll was delicious. None of the other lessons matter if the product does not hit the spot. At the end of the day, you need a delighted customer. They got one in me.

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