Building a Better Boss

In my last blogpost, I talked about how expensive it can be to constantly have to replace employees in your business. It has an economic cost as well as a less quantifiable cost, like the cost to company morale and customers’ experience. So how do you keep employees happy, for the moment and on an ongoing basis?

Retaining employees doesn’t necessarily require paying them more than anyone else in town or offering platinum benefits, although that certainly can help. If you don’t keep your wages somewhat competitive, people will eventually leave no matter how great a work environment you provide. There has to be an additional value beyond wages that your company brings to the employee. Most people who are building their careers want to be paid well, but they also see the value in the other important pieces you can offer that don’t cost you lot of extra dollars. These pieces just require extra thought and an action plan..

Let’s look at why people decide to quit a job. According to studies by Accenture that measured reasons for employees’ unhappiness, the greatest percentage can be attributed to not liking the boss. Think back on any job where you quit: Did you quit the job, or did you quit the boss? I can remember one boss who put her feet up on my desk whenever she came in to talk to me and yelled at me for every mistake, real or perceived. I had to quit before I’d get fired for yelling back!

According to Eric Reed’s article in TheStreet, the food service and hospitality industry is one with a reputation for mediocre bosses because managers often rise to their position based on skills that have nothing to do with their ability to manage people. They have mastered the line, or they understand the menu better than anyone else. The transition from line cook to sous chef to general manager isn’t easy for someone without leadership skills.  Often there is little time or money to be spent on training and development. Our industry is the hardest hit by this short-sighted thinking.  

The [second] most common profile for mediocre bosses is a high-turnover, low-skill environment. This may often be a retail or low-wage service industry position, one in which workers rarely stay very long so the corporation spends little on training or development. (Fast food alone has a turnover rate of 150% annually.)….. managers rarely receive the support or preparation they need to do the job well.

The other reasons why people quit? According to the Accenture study: 1) lack of empowerment, 2) internal politics, and 3) lack of recognition.  It all starts from the top. All part of the same issue.

Management Training:

It would make sense that if people leave a job because of their manager or boss, having better leaders/managers  could make a difference in having people stay.  Let’s start thinking long-term in developing leaders. Here are a few ideas:

  • Identify leaders – First identify people in your organization who have either natural skills for leadership or those who are interested in developing themselves as leaders. People who are able to take ownership of their work, and can lead others to do their best work.  In this process, be aware of any unconscious bias you may have around what a leader “looks” like. The leader in your organization may be hiding in plain sight! That busser, barback or dishwasher may surprise you someday.
  • Invest in coaching.  Put a program in place to train leaders in leadership, whether it’s a leadership program outside of work or a coach you bring in once a week. This has many benefits: 1) employees understand you are serious about leadership and good management , 2) all employees see for themselves what’s possible in your organization, 3) leaders get ongoing training designed to deal with real issues in the workplace.


  • Role Models for the Culture.  When you started your business, you had a strong set of values that informed your decision making. And now it’s time to translate those values into a culture in your business.  Often it’s these values that draw employees to work for you. But if your managers haven’t been thoroughly trained in it, they won’t be good ambassadors for that culture. Be clear with your staff that culture matters by having your managers act as role models.  I often remember the wonderful staff I had at one of my businesses. We made healthy simple food there, and connected with our customers on a personal level. We took care of our staff the same way. Our values and the way we demonstrated our values through our culture had our staff want to stay and work with us.
  • Create Structure for Everything . “Oh no!” you say? “I hate structure!” Well most people love structure in the workplace because it gives a clear map to what’s expected of them. Furthermore managers need good structures from which to evaluate someone’s success.  In fact managers can be instrumental in developing these structures!
    What do I mean? Here are a few examples: 1) a training manual for all positons 2) a clear policy around advancement and wage scales 3) a clear guide for managing disciplinary issues.4) regular check-ins with employees. 


My philosophy is if you create great managers and pathways to success, in any industry, you will create a place where people want to stay and do their best work.

Our industry in the past 30 years has become more of a profession than an occupation. We have people who have chosen career in the culinary field rather than fallen into it. Our industry can no longer assume that we don’t need the structures that other businesses need to serve employees. Employees everywhere want to be empowered in their jobs and have recognition for what they bring to their work. By crafting better managers, our industry will go a long way in improving retention in an industry that has one of the worst retention rates in the country.

 This blogpost can also be found as part of Bernoulli Finance’s February 2019 edition of The Workshop.


The View from the Kitchen

Last week, I attended an event sponsored by the New York Times here in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center. Kim Severson, who recently won a Pultizer for her reporting on sexual harassment and the restaurant industry along with a team of writers, interviewed a panel of Bay Area based women chefs about the state of the restaurant industry in California. Reem Assil,  Dominique Crenn and Tanya Holland are three well respected restaurateurs/chefs who currently own and operate businesses here in the Bay Area.

Several themes emerged from the conversation. Of course, sexual harassment was central to the conversation. But something else came up which made a light bulb go off for me.  Tanya mentioned how difficult it is for her to find investors. Even with all her experience and visibility, her commitment to her community, she has struggled with this.

What is this about? Prior to this moment, why is that men have managed to attract investment despite their track records with settling out of court for sexual harassment claims, while women have so much struggle with this? And does being a woman of color play into this? Or the community that she serves?

Two things come to mind here for me.

One, the investors who bankroll the Mario Batalis of the world are not interested in the kind of business that Tanya is committed to. They want a ROI and they need to understand the attraction of the business. Dominique had had less trouble raising capital because she has a fine dining establishment. Rich folks get that. They want the kind of visibility that being an investor in her restaurants bring. Tanya’s food is for all of us, not just a group of people who can afford $400/person dinner. So it takes a certain kind of investor to see it’s value for themselves.

Two, I believe to raise capital for her businesses, and businesses like hers, it may require  restaurant owners like Tanya to think of different ponds to fish in. Just like Dominique Crenn can go to investors who can afford to eat at her restaurants, maybe we can create a pond of people who invest in restaurants like Tanya’s. Not for the profit they are looking to make, but the communities they are trying to build. Like a capital fund for community based businesses. Like a BIG capital fund.

Real estate developers, are you listening? Let’s dig a pond…




I began working in kitchens when I was 25 years old. I was living in New York City. Having given up life in a office to pursue a career as a pastry chef, I took a position in an executive dining room run by a major hospitality corporation. I felt lucky to get the job; they said they’d train me. The last guy in the job jumped the turnstiles on his way to work, got arrested and never showed up again. Just don’t get arrested, they said.

Before that time, I had never worked in an environment  where men somehow felt it was acceptable to comment on a woman’s looks, or what she might be like in bed. My value as an employee had never been questioned before based on my sex.  I had never worked in a place where people made sexual comments openly to co-workers. The food business was new to me and I wanted to belong. It didn’t matter to me much at the time; I felt like I had to be part of the club so I accepted it as the culture in this new career I had chosen. I played along.  It was 1987.

I moved back to my home in the Bay Area shortly after that, and landed a job in a different sort of environment, a big hotel where all the pastry cooks were women and the pastry chef was a man. He was respectful of all of us, intent on training us well and as a result well liked. I liked working for him, he led the pastry department and was a good role model. It was a professional shop.

The hotel was unionized which meant that when business ebbed, the ones with the least seniority were cut so I ended up moving to Southern California to work. I found a position in a hotel as a pastry cook. The hotel had no pastry chef because for a long time they had been bringing pastry in from outside. The chef decided to hire me, kind of as a favor to his friend in San Francisco. He figured he could stick me in a corner of one of the hotel’s restaurant kitchens and let me do my thing. I had no direct supervision and no mentors.

This chef already had a reputation. It was rumored that he was let go from a huge position with major hotel chain after being charged with sexual harassment.

I took my job seriously and did the best I could without any guidance. I liked making my cake recipes and introducing my own cookies. Every Sunday the hotel had a brunch buffet and I took great pride in producing all the pastries and cakes for the table.

The “pastry department” kept all its production in refrigerators accessible to all the restaurant staff and often, when I arrived in the morning, I would find the shelves of the reach-in in disarray.  If I spent Saturday preparing for the brunch, I would come in Sunday morning  to find at least half of everything eaten by the wait staff and line cooks from the restaurant. I would bring this to the chef’s attention and he ignored me.

The chef had assigned a young man to work with me, someone who no one in the main kitchen liked, and who had worked many stations before being banished to pastry.  He took immense joy in continuously baiting me, making lewd remarks and gestures, spending most of his time fooling around and telling me my pastries sucked. I told the chef about the sexual remarks; his advice was to “ignore him.” It was 1989.

I also have stories of chefs that would never tolerate that type of behavior in their kitchens. One could tell immediately the effect those leaders had on the culture. After having worked in Europe for a short time, I came back with my husband to the states where we both found positions in a hotel. The executive chef was a dog; his comments even made the male cooks cringe. As a result, some of the other men in the kitchen took this as carte blanche to make comments of their own. One day, after hearing something particularly disgusting (way worse than “pussy grabbing”), I blew up. I didn’t go to HR but I should have. I was furious. I heard rumors that the chef was going to find a way to “get rid” of me.

Within the next few months, I left but that chef left soon afterwards. My husband took over as executive chef and immediately, the tone became professional. That kind of talk was unacceptable and I think everyone was relieved.

These experiences articulate a basic tenet of leadership :  As a leader, if you model a certain behavior, that behavior becomes acceptable in the culture. People may be sexist or racist, but if they are surrounded by a culture in which that behavior is frowned upon, they will not act upon their prejudices. If bad behavior is exhibited in the leadership, it becomes sanctioned.

Sexist and racist behavior has been sanctioned in our industry longer than in any other. It is time to take it out of the shadows and take leadership in transforming our culture to one of safety for all. We can take the high road.