Credit: Dave Dugdale

Real Leaders Work For Tips

Varun 1 year and 1 month ago
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Alternate titles include: “Real leaders serve,” and “What managers can learn from waiters.”

I don’t often end up in fancy restaurants, but when I do, I’m most impressed by the service I receive. A few friends have previously worked as servers, so I try to tip generously, with a little extra for the truly exceptional.

This got me thinking: a lot of what makes a good waiter also makes for a good people manager. In any talent-driven organization, your employees are a precious resource and can be compared to diners at a high-quality restaurant. To get the best results out of them (tips), you need to provide them with exceptional service.

What do you want from your people? From yourself?

It’s important to establish your high-level goals as an effective manager. Here are some items on my list, which are interrelated:

  • Get the best performance I can from my team.
  • Make sure that my people have what they need to do a good job.
  • Have a team that feels good about their workplace, their capabilities, and their growth.
  • Be respected as a capable leader.

The service connection

This concept isn’t new. There are great examples, including from the military, in the book Leaders Eat Last. As an aside, the author Simon Sinek, has a great TED talk you must check out.

Bruce Buschell over at The New York Times put together a list of top 100 don’ts for restaurant staff, and a surprising number of these apply to all leaders. Here are some of the items in that article, together with my thoughts.

I. Watch your words

  • Never say, “Good choice,” implying that other choices are bad.
  • Saying, “No problem” is a problem. It has a tone of insincerity or sarcasm. “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome” will do.
  • Do not gossip about co-workers or guests within earshot of guests.

Words always matter, but they’re especially important when you’re in a leadership position. There are two main reasons for this. First, you are respected by your team, and it’s easy to lose some of that respect by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Second, your words have influence, both direct and indirect. For example, speaking poorly of a colleague can result in their teammates excluding them from work and non-work activities.

you need to stay available

II. Be available

  • Do not turn on the charm when it’s tip time. Be consistent throughout.
  • Do not disappear.
  • Do not stop your excellent service after the check is presented or paid.

This one is probably the most obvious. Being a good manager requires being present; pay attention to what’s going on around you. Be there for your people when they need you, not when you need them.

get out of the way!

III. Know when to get out of the way

  • Do not interrupt a conversation. For any reason. Wait for the right moment.
  • Never hover long enough to make people feel they are being watched or hurried…
  • Do not take an empty plate from one guest while others are still eating the same course. Wait, wait, wait.

This forms a delicate balancing act when combined with the advice from number I above. I would try to offer guidance in this article, but being highly available without micromanaging is a blog post all on its own. If you have good sources of feedback, you’ll know if you’re pulling it off, or which way to course-correct your style.

get feedback in many ways

IV. Get feedback from multiple sources, and act on it

  • Never remove a plate full of food without asking what went wrong. Obviously, something went wrong.
  • When you ask, “How’s everything?” or “How was the meal?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.
  • Do not say anything after a tip — be it good, bad, indifferent — except, “Thank you very much.”
  • Never patronize a guest who has a complaint or suggestion; listen, take it seriously, address it.

Listening to your staff takes more than your ears. A waiter does not rely only on receiving a tip (feedback) at the end of the meal. They look for non-verbal cues, make sure to ask for periodic feedback, and act on what they find. As a manager, it would be nice if just an annual survey or your gut feeling were enough, but we and KPMG know that feedback is not so simple. Multiple sources can include: surveys, town halls, one-on-ones, walking around, and feedback tools.

Acting on feedback is where the magic happens. Think about a time when you had feedback as a customer, even a small piece, and the staff went out of their way to make it right. How did it make you feel? Acting on feedback generates loyalty in customers, and it does the same in your workforce. Not only does it give you the awareness you need to improve the workplace, but it also lets your people be heard and feel heard.

So think about how you listen today, and think about how you act on what you hear. Start working for tips.

Disqovery takes care of employee analytics and feedback in a casual and lightweight way, so managers can understand what’s really happening in their teams. Managers should check us out for info on how Disqovery can help you. Varun can be reached directly at