You want to be a good manager? Watch Top Chef!

I’m gonna be honest, I watch a lot of TV! Too much I’m sure, I know I should probably make a better use of my free time but hey, I like it πŸ€·β€β™‚οΈ Although when I say TV, 95% of it are series and movies, I seldom watch TV programs. There is one I’ve been following for several years though, and I still enjoy it everytime: Top Chef (I’m talking of the French version here, I’ve never watched the others but I’m sure they’re great too πŸ˜‰)! I love food, guess that’s the French side in me (even more so than criticizing everything, you know on principel…) and watching skilled people prepare some crazy dishes with ingredients I’ve never heard of is really entertaining. The new season began a couple of weeks ago together with our ritual (we being my wife and myself): get something tasty to eat, some snacks too (it’s almost impossible to watch the candidates cook and not want to eat something nice) and prepare for a cosy evening of in front of the TV 😊

On another note, I’ve been thinking a lot about management lately. It’s not something new, I mean I go back to it quite often but I had a lot of discussions on this particular topic in the past few weeks, mainly because we are in the annual evaluations period. I like those conversations, people are not always well prepared and/or supported when they first take a manager position and it can get hard and lonely very fast. Like a lot of people in the agile community I’ve been studying, observing, learning and reflecting a lot on what it means to be a manager and how to do it properly and being a manager myself I know that, most of the time, there is no straight answer.

Now you might be thinking “great but how are those two things related?” 🀨 Well in the first episode of each season of Top Chef the candidates are grouped in four squads, each one being leaded by a well known Chef that will help them in their efforts to win the competition (at least that’s how it work in the French version). And by observing the way those Chefs behave, you can definitely see the traits that define, from my point of view, a good manager. Let’s dig in…

Clear mission & objective

Does seem obvious right? That’s the starting point and definitely one of the most important ones. In the case of Top Chef, the mission of each candidate is to win Top Chef obviously. There is also one main objective that is very personal to each candidate like:

  • Get recognition and visibility that could make a great impact on their carrer
  • Proving to themselves that this is the right profession for them and that they should persist
  • Improve their skills and meet some of the legends of the profession

Those are very clear and they (the Chefs) insist a lot on it since the very beginning of the season. It will actually influence greatly the creation of the squads (who will be working with whom) and skills, personality and style are what will help make this decision.

But there’s more to it. Each challenge also has a clear objective that defines:

  • What is the topic: like cooking a dish with one particular ingredient as the star of the plate or revisit a traditional recipe in a more contemporary version…
  • What are the evaluation metrics: best teamwork, most innovative cook, best technical skills, best presentation…
  • What are the constraints: cooking time, ingredients available, tools you can use, specific techniques that have to be used…

It’s pretty impressive to see how, after only a few minutes, the candidates already have a plan on what they want to do and how they are going to do it and this is made possible thanks to those clear objectives. The Chefs define the target and the system and the candidates define how to use the system to reach the target.

The Chefs are checking a candidate during Top Chef 2021 (source SudOuest.fr)

Trust & autonomy

Now the challenge can start 🍳 Each team or candidate will have a few minutes to think of what to do and how to do it. Then, their Chef will come and ask the question: “So, what’s your plan?”, that’s it. The only thing they want to know is if their squad member(s) understood the objective and if they are headed in the right direction. If something is not clear they will ask questions (“what will be the link between all those ingredients?”, “will you have a sauce on the side?”, “what kind of cooking technique will you use for the meat?”), if they spot a risk they will raise it and make sure the candidate keeps it in mind (“this usually takes 4 hours, you only have 1…”, “the topic is the tomato, are you sure it is present enough in your dish?”, “sounds tasty but a little too simple, maybe you should add something…”). No answer is given, just questions, challenging the solution that was proposed and giving some hints. It is up to the person doing the cooking to find solutions, go further in its ideas and face issues as they appear. There is complete trust in the skills and capacity of the candidates to get things done and define how they want to do them.

Now, although we don’t see it in the program, I’m pretty sure the Chefs did some work before that. Preparing the set, checking that all the necessary tools are available and works, making sure they have enough ingredients and choice, pairing squad members based on their skills and creativity…basically setting the stage so that each exercise is challenging but doable. Working on the environment to ensure success, not on people.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the candidates listen to them, sometimes they don’t. But they always have something to show for at the end and whatever happens, the participants always end up growing and improving which will help them be better next time.

Support & learning

Now it can get pretty tough. The challenges are hard and the stress of the competition makes it even harder. There’s a lot of pression and more than once you will see a candidate loose it and go into panic mode, for exemple when the main piece of their dish turns out to be completely wasted at 30 minutes of the end of the time they were given 😱 That’s when the Chefs show up and help them calm down, focus and react. “Come on, you still have time, do it again”, “Forget about this, what else can you do in 30 minutes?”, “The rest of your preparations look great, you can definitely do something with that”, “I know it’s hard but you can do it, keep going!”. At that point they might give them more specific hints or advices on what to do in order to unblock the candidate and give them the kick they need to react.

They are here to support them in a moment of distress and help handle the situation using their experience which helps create a feeling of security for the participants that will, step by step, each at her or his own pace, get more confident.

The Chef Philippe Etchebest supporting one of his candidate during Objectif Top Chef (source Voici)

Those are great opportunities to learn too obviously, and they definitely will. Even for someone like me, who is not particularly skilled nor knowledgeable in the art of cooking, you can witness their evolution in terms of ideas, technique, presentation and audacity. And once again, this is in large part thanks to the subtle mentoring of the Chefs. Rather than giving them answers and follow-up instructions they give them challenges, push them to get out of their comfort zone, support them in periods of stress and create the right environment for them to succeed. They also try to get them back in the right track when they identify something wrong in what they are trying to do.

Failing is ok, as long as you learn something out of it and by acknowledging that you reinforce the feeling of security and thus the capacity to innovate and keep improving. This does not mean that they won’t get a lecture from time to time: “I told you guys, but you don’t listen!” but it is always with the objective of teaching something to the squad, make them pay attention to advices.

That’s pretty much it

Might not look like much but it is much more difficult than it seems! Telling people what to do or how to do it is easy, you get used to it and for a lot of us it comes naturally mostly because we think we are right, can definitely find what’s not ok in other people ideas and think that it’s the only way of doing things fast. This is utterly mistaken in the long run, if you want a team to be efficient you have to create an environment where they can constantly learn and improve. Try and fail plays a big part in it and to enable try and fail people needs to feel safe, that’s the most important part of your job here. Give them a clear mission, space to experiment things and adapt, trust their skills and capacity to react and remove blockers for them by adapting the system.

Now I know in the case of Top Chef things are a little bit different because it’s a competition, I mean they can’t really give them the answers right? But still, as far as I can see, those Chefs are great managers and know how to support their team.

I know I’m not saying anything new or giving you a magic trick or recipe on how to do things and this is mainly because it does not exists, you have to find your own way based on your experience and personality. And remember: “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together!”.

Camille Delcroix celebrating his victory of season 9 of Top Chef (source lefigaro.fr)

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Published by Olivier Rouhaud

I'm an Agile Coach, Scrum Master & manager convinced that human centered teams and organisations are the most interesting and efficient!

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