Leadership Lessons from the Kitchen: How to Face Hard Muffins and Hard Situations
Let’s talk about muffins – blueberry muffins, banana nut muffins, apple muffins – and the thud they make as they hit the compost bin, since these particular muffins are rock hard.
I should back up. I left the Ivy League for culinary school years ago to become a chef. During my nine years as a chef, I learned a lot of things—and surprisingly, a lot about leadership. The lessons I learned in the kitchen have come full circle and I now use them with my clients, most of whom haven’t woken up at 4am to bake a fresh fruit tart or managed a busy kitchen day on Mother’s Day. I guess you can say that culinary school provided me with many of the ingredients I needed to bring my leadership knowledge to the table.
Now, back to the muffins. My daughter has a gluten allergy, something that I initially knew little about. What I did know was that her forlorn face looking at pizza and cake at her friend’s birthday parties was too much to bear. I had to do something.
I started by heading to the store and buying a gluten-free muffin. Not only was the muffin $5, it was also loaded with sugar. I went to culinary school, I can do better than this, I thought to myself. It seemed simple enough—buy gluten-free flour, and bake my heart out just like I always had.
I didn’t bother looking up a recipe. I didn’t need help. After all, I have a degree in this stuff. How hard can it be?, I thought. Except my first blueberry muffins, using gluten-free flour, were rock hard. Into the compost bin they went with a thud.
I’ll try banana muffins instead, I thought. Swoosh, into the compost bin. Oh, it must have been the banana consistency, I will try pumpkin, I thought. Swoosh, into the compost bin. Then, it must be this brand of flour; I’ll try a different one, I decided. Swoosh, into the compost bin.
As I continued to do the same thing over and over, with minor substitutions, I began to notice some changes around my house. My 16-year-old nephew stopped coming over for brunch. My mother was only nibbling along the edges of her baked food. My dog was getting rounder and rounder—was he being fed under the table?
One thing hadn’t changed however, and that was the forlorn look on my daughter’s face whenever she saw other kid’s treats.
Being an Expert is Not Always Helpful
I finally had to accept that what I was doing just wasn’t working. Sure, I have a degree from culinary school and should know exactly how to bake a muffin. But I wasn’t taking into account that the rules changed. There was a new challenge on the table, and I was tackling it as though it were the same old thing I’ve handled a million times before.
If I wanted to succeed, I had to go back to the basics, and ask some questions. Being an expert is not always helpful! It means you can get stuck in your old ways and head-butt situations again and again without solving them.
So back to a recipe book I went. And guess what I learned? The building blocks of baking with gluten-free flour were different than baking with traditional flour. Gluten-free flour makes pastries heavier, so adding things like yogurt and purees to the recipe can help. I also learned that I had to follow the recipes to a T (painful for someone with a chef’s background, who likes to improvise with recipes) until I learned all the basic principals of gluten-free baking.
Thankfully for my daughter, my muffins and pizzas are now a hit! Thankfully for me, I can now improvise and experiment with my gluten-free treats, instead of following recipes to a T.
This lesson reaches beyond baking a delicious wheat-free pizza crust. Leaders and managers can also fall victim to doing the same things over and over again, despite the individual challenge at hand. After all, they “know what they are doing” and have “done it a million times before.”
Let’s say we have a team that suffers from poor interpersonal relationships and lack of motivation. The leader of the team knows exactly what to do: team-building activities. A sports day is arranged. Back in the office, the team is still nasty to each other and not meeting deadlines. Okay, maybe the sports wasn’t a good idea, I should do a bike building for charity activity, the leader thinks. Bikes get built and donated, yet the team still slips behind with frowns on their faces. After an improv group, a film screening, and a mentor program—the results just haven’t come. And the department’s budget is drained.
See the problem here? The leader is holding on to the idea of being an expert in team building. She is not going back to the drawing board and asking questions about how to face this unique challenge. In fact, she doesn’t even realize the challenge is new.
Solve Leadership Problems By Asking New Questions
To solve new problems, leaders need to go back to basics. For my muffins, that meant pulling down the recipe book. For a leader or manager, it means asking questions like these to yourself and the team:
- How is this specific situation different than similar situations I’ve dealt with before?
- How is this situation the same as situations I’ve dealt with before?
- What do we need to learn about this situation before beginning to face this challenge?
- What is our blind spot?
- Who is an expert in this new area?
Asking questions is so important. It helps you learn and grow as a leader, and keeps you flexible. A flexible leader is able to add value to an organization and team no matter what the challenge is. A flexible leader also models that making mistakes and asking questions is encouraged at work, which increases creativity and innovation.
I challenge you to take off your expert badge and face each of your leadership challenges with new eyes. Have confidence in your knowledge base and ability, and always be ready to ask questions when needed. Worse than not knowing what to do, is pretending that you do know what to do. Lost credibility and trust is difficult to rebuild within a team. There is always more to learn, and that’s what makes this journey fun.
Am I the only one who got caught in a hamster wheel trying the same thing over and over again and getting nowhere with my results? I’d love to hear your stories. Leave a comment below, send me an email, or tell me on Twitter.