Lessons from the kitchen. What leaders can learn from the pot washer – if they have the courage to ask.

In a society that increasingly celebrates superficiality, it’s vital that the value of actions over words, and substance over self-promotion is recognised and rewarded. Managers, leaders and business owners take heed.

My wife’s family owns and runs a local bistro/cafe and, like many eateries recently, they have been overrun thanks to the Chancellor’s generosity and the willingness of people to ‘eat out to help out’. It meant all hands (and more), were needed on deck, and it shone a spotlight on a young team member whose actions spoke for her so eloquently without her saying a word.

Freya (real name), is a young lady who studied for A-Levels and will soon be off to university to read Psychology. She got exemplary grades, not that you would know that from talking to her unless you asked, and she did so whilst working many hours in the kitchen and still finding time to look after a young man with learning difficulties – including taking him for walks in a local country park as part of his care.

She was originally employed as a part-time pot washer and fulfilled that role with maximum efficiency and no fuss. But she also, without being asked, took it upon herself to help her colleagues in many other tasks not included in her job description. When the cook was struggling with too many orders on the pass she stepped in – helping to wash, chop and prep ingredients ready for the next dish. When provisions arrived at the back door she willingly put them away, and if a bin was overflowing it would soon be emptied, cleaned, and put back keeping the kitchen in order so that service could continue. None of that was part of her ‘official’ role, but she made it part of her remit.

‘Whistle’ while you work

Jim Rohn (Tony Robbins’ early mentor), talked about seeing the opportunity to succeed in any situation. If you worked at McDonald’s he would say, whistle why you work – bring a positive disposition and a willing attitude and you’ll progress. Don’t wait for a ‘management’ position before taking responsibility – take it whatever you do. This philosophy is exactly what Freya has naturally embraced and so have others like her. But, because it is often accompanied by an unassuming manner, it’s a vital quality that some managers still overlook – much to the detriment of the employee and the business.

Look for difference

Due to the nature of the role, it’s no revelation that there is an overrepresentation of managers and leaders whose psychology is on the dominant side of the assertiveness axis. This dictates one of two personality types: expressive and emotional (PROMOTING) ar introverted and factual (CONTROLLING). Both types, when taken too far, result in overbearing, domineering, or narcissistic behaviours. When this happens to a leader (and owners in particular), they become blinded to any and all actions that don’t, in some way, reflect their own.

Quiet, considered contribution to the TASK is overlooked – instead, all that is noted is what behaviours are missing. Active ‘contribution’ to team debates, endless emails flagging what they have done or, more likely asked others to do, great intentions of actions yet to be taken, and BIG ideas that will remain just that – ideas, are the misplaced criteria on which performance is assessed.

Diligence is not weakness and should not be abused

Managers must not mistake quiet diligence for weakness or for a lack of willingness to make a broader contribution. The task is what’s important and what will get done. Support them in their efforts and you enable them to contribute further. But do not, as so often happens, abuse their willingness to help. They are not runners or personal gophers. Nor are they there to catch what falls from the sloping shoulders of colleagues. Their job is to make things happen for the customer and so make your business succeed.

Remember, still waters run deep – so if you want to learn what’s going on in your business ask a ‘doer’ in your team and LISTEN carefully to the response. I guarantee it will be considered, not opinionated, and it won’t be a sound byte to reflect the company mantra or soothe your ego either.

The quiet ones, the grafters, see all and say little. Respect their contribution or you will lose their respect for you. When that happens you’ll need to find someone else as willing to get on and do and, partly due to the society we are becoming – they are not that easy to come by.

So, let’s hear it for the Freyas. We need more of them and we need leaders and managers to see and value their contribution. Business, the workplace, and our society will be much better off as a result.