Imagine you launch a business that becomes very popular, is loved by guests, and is quite profitable. It becomes the talk of the town due to the service, vibe, food, and drinks. There are incredible advancements in technology, design, and guest offerings that make the concept unique and very desirable. There are lines out the door on the weekends and it takes weeks to get a reservation. Home run.
The popularity of the concept begins to turn into requests for you to expand the concept into different markets and you are approached by a few people who want to invest in your growth. The offers begin pouring in for you to take the concept to new heights and you begin to realize the opportunity to 10X your sales and grow the concept into a “brand”.
You get a commitment of funding and quickly sign four leases in some of the coolest neighborhood projects in the country. You get the deals in place and the world can’t wait for the expansion of your hip, innovative, brand. They eagerly await the opportunity to experience something they’ve only read about in publications.
You improve your design and the layout to make it better than the first one and choose some really cool furniture and fixtures for the new spots. You are ready to take on the world and will have 5 locations within the next 24 months, with a promise to have 20 locations built in the coming years. The world wants your concept badly. The future is bright.
Now it’s time to hire your team. You absolutely gotta go get the best in the industry. The most experienced and most confident leaders in all fields. Unleash the recruiters!
This is where the wheels come off for your promising young company.
You’ll spend a lot of time and money looking through fancy resumes and titles. You’ll throw a lot of money at strangers and trust them to run your business and hope they “get” your concept the same way you do. These people will work hard to maintain their own self-image. They won’t understand what made your brand special. There will be no shared values or virtues that guide their actions. Things will get difficult, they will leave for the next shiny job, you’ll be stretched too thin, guest experiences will suffer, you’ll have no culture, nobody will want to work there. Your concept dies as you are unable to recreate the initial “magic” that made it so cool to begin with.
This situation likely happens more than we know. Only you don’t hear about the concepts rising to fame simply because they failed to focus on the leadership team first and the rise never actually happens. The idea of large scale growth without the right team is a pipe dream.
What if you start with the people first?
Recognize Talent & Take Chances on People
I am not extremely talented at everything. Quite the opposite. There are aspects of this complicated industry where I am the first to admit I am lacking. However, there is one area that I can say that I am very good at and continue to get better at, which is my ability to recognize talent and assemble a great team.
Back in the 90’s, I started out in “quick service” in an hourly role prepping, washing dishes, cashiering, and serving guests. I eventually moved into leadership and just before my 19th birthday was made a GM of my first restaurant. I learned at a young age the importance of surrounding yourself with great people. I also learned that in the quick-service world, there weren’t people beating down the doors to apply. We were always a manager short, so I learned to be creative and leverage the hourly team members to help me. It was "sink or swim", and if I didn’t trust them to do some of the managerial tasks, I would fail.
Failure was not an option.
I learned early on that anyone that shows up on time and is “coachable” can be made into a “manager”. I also learned that taking chances on people meant that sometimes people would let you down, and sometimes their path leads them to a different place. Neither of those scenarios should stop me from taking chances on people if I wanted to survive in this industry.
I've never been one who relies on a resume and typically don’t like promoting the people who say they want to get promoted. I prefer to observe people’s work ethic, integrity, and how they treat others to decide who is best for a leadership role.
From my experience, the ones who can’t wait to become a manager, wear a suit, and have a fancy title and business card are the ones who don’t last. There are two types of leaders in my opinion: The ones that do it for titles, benefits, money, and status….and the ones that do it to fix what the previous ones screwed up. Either way, if you want to see who a person really is, give them power.
Investing In Your Team Makes Other Problems Go Away
I have been in the industry for nearly 27 years. I have worked in every type of restaurant from quick-serve to casual theme, upscale, nightlife, and entertainment. There is one thing I can say that transcends industries and time, which is, if you don’t have good people, you will never be successful. I have curated a group of some of the best leaders imaginable on the AMP Up1 team. Leaders that I have known and worked alongside for years, even decades.
The last company we ran together, which at its peak had nearly a thousand employees, boasted some impressive statistics. 85% of the leaders in the company started off in hourly positions, and with the exception of the Finance Director, 100% of the Executive Management Team came up through the ranks. Four of the eleven General Managers started off as Wait Assistants (Bussers & Food Runners). While it takes a long time to curate a group as dynamic as ours, the results are undeniable. There was no problem we couldn’t solve and the team could pivot on a dime. Most importantly, there was respect for who the leaders were from the team and the leaders had empathy because they had done what their team was doing and worked relentlessly to remove obstacles that they had previously dealt with.
Like a good 401(k), the benefits of this approach compound over time. By committing to the growth of the internal team, suddenly the guest experience improves as every member of the team feels empowered to make the right choices. Rather than knowing your mission and values in a “flashcard” kind of way, the experienced internal promotion understands them because they’ve lived them. They become walking billboards for what is possible, modeling the behaviors that helped build the company.
Your talent management costs drop precipitously as less time is spent posting ads, onboarding, and training. This time can be applied to more productive, culture boosting practices like recognition and enrichment programs. Over time, your internal hires become beacons of what's possible in your company. The values you preach about aren’t just words on a paper or a website anymore, but they are brought to life by the stories of the team operating the location, and the company.
You simply cannot grow a company without great people. Sure, you can hire a bunch of fancy resumes if you want to, but from my experience, a resume is only as valuable as the paper it was printed on. Until you see someone in the arena, you will never know who they really are. Owners and company executives who spend all their time sorting through resumes and hiring leaders who may have worked in a few cool places in the past don’t realize the vicious cycle they put themselves through. They want the “easy button” and choose a facade someone created versus realizing you have talent all around you if you stop and take a look. The same owners and executives will be the first to cut ties when their once “can’t miss” hires don’t live up to their promise and the search process begins again for the next great hope. Rinse, lather and repeat.
Why is it easier to take a chance on someone you never worked with versus the individual across the room who is working their butt off?
This is what is wrong with the industry. It’s the devil you know, versus the devil you don’t. It is so easy to look at a person on their best behavior, putting their best foot forward in an interview over the member of your team who screwed up a few times, yet shows up again the next day. Hiring managers convince themselves the new person is going to solve their problems because they appear to be perfect.
Tell me all the mistakes that a team member has made in the last year, and I will tell you that you have that individual figured out. There is enormous value in that knowledge. The new “resume” will make those same mistakes, but it will take you a lot more money and time to figure that out. They won’t let their guard down and their fragile egos never allow them to walk on a tightrope for fear of making a mistake and having their boss discover they are an “imposter”.
At the end of the day, I am going to push you. My goal is to get you to where you want to be and I will take an interest in focusing on your “hard things” and will either push you to greatness or push you out the door. There is no purgatory in our company. Nothing good is ever easy and nothing easy is ever good (or sustainable). Time multiplies whatever you feed it and we get what we repeat. I don’t fear people quitting because they aren't a cultural fit. What I do fear is people “quitting” and continuing to stay on our team. Anyone who is actively disengaged is the start of the cultural demise of your organization. People who thrive on being given Autonomy,
Mastery, and Purpose will always push through the plateaus and grow as I work with them to help them achieve more. I think the results speak for themselves.
Grit Versus the “Promise of Perfection”
I will always take the “scrapper” over the polished resume. I don’t need someone who is hanging their hat on what they did in the past. I believe we learn way more from our mistakes than we do from our accomplishments. I want someone who is willing to fall down and get back up. If your default is to hire a bunch of “professionals” when you need to fill an important role and you don’t bother to look internally at the team that shows up every day to fight for your business making a fraction of the bloated salary you’ve allocated for the future “messiah” that you think is going to solve all your problems, you’re in for a rude awakening. The pressure to perform disallows them to learn the business organically and they end up doing what they’ve always done before running away at the first sign of trouble.
I am not at all saying you shouldn't hire talent from the outside, but I strongly advise against doing that for new roles or to fill a role in which the last person “didn't work out”. Instead, try looking inside the organization and focusing on the right virtues needed to successfully achieve the objectives versus hiring someone who tells you how great they are in an interview. I have never interviewed someone who tells me they can’t achieve a hard objective. The moment of truth is when they are in the trenches and without the right kind of experience, they are less likely to survive.
Pro tip: It is a huge red flag when you hire them and they can’t recruit people they worked with in the past. If they have worked for years in the industry and you ask them to recruit talent into the company and they come up with nobody...that is very telling of who they will be as a leader.
The hospitality industry “boasts” the highest turnover rates of any industry for this reason. It boggles my mind seeing companies choosing to trust strangers with their most important work versus the team they already have. I’ve spent my career assembling teams and have worked to assemble one at AMP Up1 Hospitality that I couldn’t be more proud of. The average tenure of our “executive team” for a company less than a year old is over 11 years*. We have been to war and back together and respect one another. It amazes people who see our very diverse team, just how aligned, adaptable, disciplined, and respectful we are.
We all speak the same language. These types of bonds and relationships can only be forged in the arena. Trust forged through adversity and vulnerability.
Recognize Great Ideas
It is not about hierarchy or individual talent in our company, rather about how one’s diverse talent contributes to the big picture. We love to win together, and it’s not about who scores the touchdown. We don’t spend our time pointing out each other's inefficiencies, rather we celebrate the quirky nature of each personality and what they bring to the table. We have a meritocratic way of looking at situations and opportunities and in our company; the best idea wins. We seek out the opinions of the introverts and not just those with the loudest voices. Hint: Introverts have more to contribute than most because they listen more than they speak.
My most valuable asset has and never will be the superficial assets that many companies boast. It will always be our team. Adaptable, gritty, and disciplined. I’ve been to hell and back a few times and would not be where I am without the leaders who are there, by my side, ready to fight and grow as one team. Any leader who builds a company without starting with their team is building a company that will not last.
You get what you reward. I believe in rewarding the “Invisible Superhero” versus the “Firefighter”. So many businesses do the opposite of this as firefighters are seemingly preventing the problems from becoming catastrophes. The real problem here is, the firefighter gets addicted to the praise and rewards they get and eventually burn out.
The Invisible Superhero gets less of the praise because they are preventing a problem before it becomes one. If you simply reward those who invest in solutions to problems they faced, rather than dealing with them and doing nothing, you will see sustained results. Having a bad shift doesn't define you...what you choose to do after that shift to ensure it doesn't happen again does.
You get what you reward.
Obsess Over Taking Care of Good People
My rule has always been, if you work for me, you never have to ask for a raise or a promotion. I am obsessed with taking care of my tribe as I cannot do my job without them. If you have to ask me for either of these things, look in the mirror, because I am not scared to promote or take care of people - I have built my reputation on doing this. I don’t believe in carrots and sticks and prefer people who want to do the job for the non-monetary benefits and believe that the right people are motivated more by autonomy, mastery, and purpose (AMP). Money is the easy part.
We will build The Third Spot™️ brand with some of the most diversely talented leaders I have had the honor to work with. The company will launch successfully and will grow faster and more sustainably than most. Not just because we did it before many times, but because the leaders in place will naturally seek out others like them and believe in the power of servant leadership and trusting their team. We have grown through tremendous adversity in the past together and have war stories that would seem almost unbelievable to most people, but not this team.
We don't rest on what we did in the past and choose to challenge ourselves to learn more and do better. Our mistakes don’t define us, but how we have chosen to respond to these challenges, does. Our process and core values are in the DNA of our company and have shaped who we are today. These continue to be our driving force as we march forward and work to create a brand where the team loves coming to work each day to create something special.
Features are Short-Lived, Good People Endure
Five years from today, all of the superficial things that get people excited about our brands like our menus, technology, and design will all be irrelevant. The only thing that will be better with time, thanks to our values will be our team and our culture. The superficial things will be reinvented and evolved if we’ve done our job right, and our brand will remain relevant. We refuse to ignore trends and listen carefully to where things are going. We adapt and are not afraid to change and reinvent ourselves. What defines us is our willingness to let go of the past and focus on the future.
The key to growth is your team. Mistakes made are investments into the future and do not define your team. Anyone looking for the easy button when it comes to assembling great leaders will be faced with the harsh reality of doing this when the proverbial ‘shit hits the fan’. Anyone looking to join your team that requires a fancy title and a lot of money that isn't willing to bet on themselves should be a hard pass as you're just going to have to replace them in a few years anyway when their fragile ego can’t withstand the realities of the hard job that is required of them. I would take any leader on our team today over the most experienced resumes on the market and will prove this fact as we launch and grow our brand with this as the ethos of who we are.
Along the way, we will sprinkle in talent from the outside and will continue to take chances on people. The leaders who create a legacy of recognizing homegrown talent and taking chances on them by planting seeds and watering them for years will be the ones who will grow in power. You are only as good as your team and your growth and survival in the industry depend on them. I literally love the team I work with and will do everything I can to give them purpose, fulfillment, and financial freedom. I will not stop until they are all taken care of in ways that begin to pay them back for the chances they have taken on me and truly believe they will do the same for their team. This is servant leadership at its core.
This, in my humble opinion, is how you grow a company.
*How long I’ve worked with “The Team”
Average Time: 11+ years tenure together. Name another “start-up” that has this?
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