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Restaurant Management: Are You A Sergeant Or A General?

For those of you who do not know me personally, I have a confession to make.  I am a huge history nerd.  This means that The History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” is taking up a large portion on my DVR.

I was watching the episode on World War II the other day when a particular statement from a General caught my attention.  He talked about the reasons soldiers fight.  He said that beyond all other reasons soldiers almost universally fight for the guy in the foxhole with them.

As a server, I can relate to this.  When the entire restaurant goes down in the weeds, you don’t fight through it for the sake of corporation or their shareholders.  You fight through it for your coworkers. You fight through it for those people who are fighting with you.  After the fight it is a bond you share.

There are many former coworkers out there I don’t particularly like as people, but will always respect because of the battles we went through together.  I would lend them a hand when they need it, because I know I could count on them when I need it.

To take the military analogy further, there are two types of restaurant managers: Generals and Sergeants. Generals send you into battle.  Sergeants lead you into battle.  You fight for Sergeants and you curse Generals under your breath the whole time.  Managers who fight with you and for you as Sergeants make you want to fight with and for them.  Managers who command as Generals will find a staff unconcerned with helping them win their battles.

It all comes down to one very simple principle:

Strong managers gain respect by their actions.  Weak managers demand respect because of their title.

With this in mind, here are three ways a manager can transition from a General to a Sergeant:

Get in the Battle: A manager who is on the floor running food and bussing tables will command the respect of their staff.  You cannot lead the troops from the host stand or the office.  If you don’t find it important enough to join in the battle, then your staff will feel their battle is not important to you.

This does not mean being a food runner during slow times.  It means helping out when the battle gets heated for your staff.  If you are not willing to help your staff when they need you, you can expect the same level of help in achieving your objectives.

Show You Care: Serving is different than most jobs.  Most jobs start with an agreement to pay a certain amount for a certain level of performance.  Servers agree to charge far less (sometimes less than minimum wage) with the understanding management will put them in a position to make far more in tips.  That is why servers take the job.

If you show your staff that you do not care about the amount of tips they make, you can not expect them to care about the parts of the job they are making minimum wage or less for.  When you show you care about them making more in tips, they will care more about the additional things you need them to do.

Be Willing to Apologize: Servers and managers are both experts at apologies to guests. Both generally stink at apologizing to each other.  Managers are forced to make judgment calls that can impact server’s income on a nearly shift-by-shift basis.  Even great managers get these calls wrong sometimes.

The reason they are great managers is because they are willing to own up to these mistakes.

Nearly all of these mistakes can be forgiven with a simple, “I made what I thought was the best call and I got it wrong.  I am sorry.”  This goes a long way in showing that you care.  This does not reduce your authority, but instead increases the respect for the decision.  Trying to stand behind and defend a decision that turned out poorly is a fool’s errand that shows you are more concerned with being in charge than being correct.

As a manager, a vast majority of your objectives depend on the effort and cooperation of your staff.  Having them fighting with you makes achieving most of these objectives far easier.  Managers who feel they must have an adversarial relationship with their staff will find little help in achieving their objectives.  This does not mean that the staff must love a manager who acts as a Sergeant.  Sergeants are not necessarily liked, but they are respected.  The troops respect the Sergeant though because they are in the battle with them and therefore are much more likely to fight for them.

Do you work for a Sergeant?  Any Generals out there want to tell the other side?  Any other suggestions from servers on what they appreciate in a manager?  Any former server turned manager who wants to share some insight?  The comment section is yours!

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