Bill Marvin
The Restaurant Doctor

When was the last time you held a really world class staff meeting? I'm talking about a gathering that was so enjoyable and productive that people left more energized than when they arrived! Did you even realize that such a meeting was possible?

If the idea of a truly invigorating staff meeting seems foreign to your experience, you are not alone. The sad fact is that most staff meetings . . . aren't! In practice, those gatherings we call staff meetings are typically little more than management sermons. Worse yet, they are often presented in a distracted, condescending manner that causes the crew to roll back their eyes, shut down their brains and experience a serious drop in energy. No wonder everybody dreads them.

A truly effective staff meeting is more about reaching a meeting of the minds than simply accomplishing a gathering of the bodies and our old models just don't work. If you are willing to take a different approach to staff meetings, they can help you head off emergencies before they arise, reduce the number of problems that require your attention, lower your turnover and generally help create a smoother-running, more profitable operation. For the purposes of this article, I am talking about pre-shift meetings as distinguished from more formal sessions devoted exclusively to skill training. At any rate, forget everything you ever knew about staff meetings and let's take a fresh look:

The primary purpose of staff meetings should be to create a positive feeling in the group. This may sound strange until you realize that a positive feeling helps people naturally recognize what they have in common. When the feeling in the group is warm and supportive, it is easier to see that everyone is in it together and the success of the group is inseparable from the success of each individual. Without a good feeling, people tend to stay focused on their differences. This close feeling is more likely to result from an appreciative sharing of the good news - and there is usually quite a bit when you look for it. Staff meetings are not the time to address individual shortcomings - that should be done one-on-one in private - and they are certainly not an appropriate time to dwell on group failings.

From a supportive feeling, staff meetings will naturally lead to the second goal - opening a dialogue. A dialogue is a comfortable two-way flow of ideas that leaves all the participants feeling connected and important. The staff can learn from you and you can learn from them. With this sort of rapport, your meetings naturally tend to instill understanding rather than simply passing along knowledge. The difference is significant because understanding "sticks" where information is soon forgotten. Additionally, the flow of ideas back to management helps eliminate the "them and us" mentality and helps your staff feel that it is also their restaurant. By bringing your staff into the loop - by soliciting, considering and valuing their ideas - staff meetings can help establish and enhance the feeling of teamwork in the operation. This is likely to result in improved guest service, productivity and profitability.
The third objective of effective staff meetings is training. Properly conducted staff meetings are a forum for continuous improvement. Even if you have a structured training program, good operators never miss a chance to pass along a few more hints and this is a perfect opportunity to do it. If you don't train, you deliver one of two messages: either that you are getting exactly the results you want and you can't possibly get any better or that any ninny can instinctively be successful in the foodservice business without training. I doubt that either case is true. As the founder of a successful midwest restaurant so wisely told me, "My training program is the only thing that makes this my restaurant. If I didn't train, I'd only be a caretaker for the bank and not an owner!"

When you decide to get serious about staff meetings, it is critical that you commit to holding them on a regular basis - ideally before every shift every day - no matter what is going on that day. When meetings are held sporadically or are frequently cancelled because of other pressures (and there are always other pressures), it tells your staff the true importance you give these meetings. If staff meetings are not important to you, they will certainly not be important to your crew.

Ideally, pre-shift meetings should last ten or fifteen minutes. Any shorter and you don't have enough time to get anything done; any longer and you may start to lose people's attention. Pick a specific meeting length and stick with it. Make a commitment to start and end precisely on time. Bear in mind that while your service staff may be getting paid during the meeting, they are not receiving tips and it is disrespectful to take advantage of their time. Remember, too, that pre-shift meetings are just as essential for the kitchen staff as for the servers. Daily tasting of specials and new menu items are also important, but it is the type of activity that can easily be handled between the kitchen and service staffs outside of the pre-shift meeting and without the direction of management.

The factor that most determines whether or not a staff meeting will be effective is the thinking of the manager or supervisor conducting it. Think about it. Do you approach your job like a cop, finding and correcting mistakes or do you define your job as a coach, identifying and building on inherent strengths? Do you see your staff as bunch of goof-offs looking for a free ride or as a group of intelligent adults who want to do the best job they can? Do you think that management has to have all the answers or do you view your role as helping your crew discover the answers for themselves? What you see is what you get. Recognize that true learning comes from the inside out rather than from the outside in. When you have your own head in the right place, you can finally start to conduct staff meetings that will build confidence and involvement in your staff.

Now that you understand that it is possible to hold energixing staff meetings, you may be anxious to get started. To help you get things rolling, here is a suggested format for a 10-15 minute pre-shift meeting:

GOOD NEWS (1-2 minutes)
The purpose here is to recognize what is working and set a positive tone for the meeting. You can talk about progress made toward a particular goal, share a success story about one of the staff or read a complimentary letter from a guest. Everybody likes to hear good news and it will help establish a warm feeling for the rest of the session, particularly when delivered with a feeling of sincere gratitude.NEWS OF THE DAY (2-3 minutes)
In this segment you might talk briefly about what is coming up on this shift and in the near future. You could mention special parties or promotions in effect. You could use it to outline your not-on-the-menu items (specials) for the day. The important thing is that you be very focused and very brief. Don't get lost in this part of the program or you run the risk of sermonizing and that can kill the mood.

STAFF COMMENTS (5 minutes)
This is when you open the floor to the crew. It is the most important part of the meeting because it is when you can really find out what is happening and what is on people's minds. The critical skill is to listen without judging the comments you receive. Let yourself be really stupid for awhile. Listen with curiosity. Try to avoid preconceived notions about what people might be saying and be cautious about injecting your own thoughts into the discussion. This may take some practice but the results will be worth the effort. Your goal is to create a safe environment for people to share their ideas and to learn from each other. This is where that all-important dialogue we discussed in Part 1 really starts.

At first, you may find that people are reluctant to open up. You will soon discover that the quality and quantity of the input you receive will be in direct proportion to how well your staff feels you are listening to what they say - not just hearing the words but really listening to understand the message. Your willingness to consider their ideas will build trust and you will get more and more involvement from your crew as the level of trust in the organization improves.

If your initial efforts to get people talking are greeted with silence, here are a few questions that may prompt some discussion: Who deserves to be thanked or recognized and for what? What is making your job tough? What have you noticed that is improving? What are we doing that we shouldn't be doing? What aren't we doing that we should be doing? Where is the system breaking down? What questions came up on your last shift that you couldn't answer? If this were your restaurant, what would you change about it? You get the idea.

As people are talking, give them your undistracted attention and really LISTEN for the feeling behind their words. You may want to ask if other people see things the same way as the speaker. You may want to ask a clarifying question to be sure you understand but resist the urge to add too many of your own comments. The purpose of this part of the meeting is to get information flowing in your direction so that you can learn from your crew and start to see the operation from their point of view.

In my experience, if you will only ask for comments (and be passionately interested in the answers), your staff will tell you everything you need to know about what it will take to make the operation more efficient. When you have a consensus, seriously consider what you have learned. See if you can take some action based on their ideas because when people see something actually happening because of their input, they will gain hope and tell you even more. This is not management by committee - the final responsibility for action always rests with management. It is, however, an honest acknowledgement that collectively we can usually make better decisions than one person acting alone.

Every gathering is an opportunity to enhance skills. Particularly in the beginning, I suggest you shorten the time allocated to training by the time that the staff comments segment runs long. It is probably more important that you learn from the crew than that they learn from you.

Once they have confidence that there is a forum where their ideas will be heard and considered, your staff will be ready to receive new information. Use this part of the meeting to discuss a single point you want the staff to focus on for that shift, to impart some product knowledge, to share professional tips or to amplify or supplement material from your regular training program. Again, your own focus is important. Cut to the chase and don't ramble. People will be watching the time and you will build credibility by being direct and finishing on time.

Effective staff meetings are possible. As your skills and credibility improve, you will see that staff meetings can be an easy way to begin creating a feeling of teamwork in your organization. The exciting part is that they will also let you tap the inherent talents of your staff which will, in turn, help the manager's role evolve into one that is more enjoyable and less stressful.

I realize that this article may raise as many questions as it answers, so if you have questions, please give me a call and I'll try to fill in any missing pieces. I wish you good luck - let me know how it goes.

for more information contact:
Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor™
(585) 606-0000

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