The most seasoned foodservice consultants know all too well that ensuring good communication and collaboration among project teammates and industry partners is one of the strongest and most important challenges they face. 

William Bender, FCSI, founder and principal of W.H. Bender & Associates, knows this, and even specializes in consulting other consultants on building better teams. Bender works as a business consultant for independent and chain restaurants and other foodservice operations. He is also a member of the board of directors for the CRA Educational Foundation and a frequent speaker on the subject of management, partnership, training, corporate growth and other better-business-building topics and works with companies small and large to improve the quality of team members they recruit as well as the way they work together.

FE&S caught up with Bender to hear some of his thoughts on how consultants can build better project teams, especially when working with a diverse set of industry partners that may include architects, interior designers, dealers, manufacturers, contractors, construction workers and others. Here’s a quick rundown of some of his top tips.

Know Your Team. When tackling a project, foodservice consultants don’t always have the luxury of building their own teams. Some consultants are recruited later in the game and must work with what they’ve got, good or challenging. Still, there are tools of the trade to get ahead here, Bender says. “Start with defining your core values,” he says. “You want to have everyone on the same page and treat each other with respect. That means attracting good team players and telling the story of your team.” But it also means getting to know the other members of your team – learning everyone’s different work styles, pace, willingness to take risks, business hours, travel schedules, and other characteristics that define their business personalities. The more team members are upfront about these personalities at the get-go, the easier it is to expect certain things and anticipate others.

Learn Others’ Communication Traits. Sure, people say good communication is the key to all great teams. But what does that really mean? These days, with so many different forms of contact, from traditional phone calls and snail mail to email, mobile phones, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, we’re constantly interconnected with each other. Regardless, people tend to have their preferred method or methods of communication, Bender says. Some prefer email only, reserving phone calls for meetings. Others like to call for everything. Those who have embraced social media enjoy using those instant feeds to talk quickly – even using direct Twitter and Facebook messaging in place of email.

While it is helpful to know your teammates’ preferences, this kind of diversity can also cause adversity or angst within a group, Bender says. “First, think about your most effective way of communicating, and then, be upfront with others about your style of communication and what you like and dislike,” he says. Bender cares less about Twitter feeds disclosing what teammates had for dinner that night mixed in with their business messaging. And he’s less of a mobile phone person – choosing to sit down at a computer to thoughtfully craft his emails. That can clash, he realizes, with others who like to reply immediately to messages, through phones or social media. As a result, there’s a potential that mobile-communicative people to perceive Bender as ignoring them or making himself unavailable, even though that’s far from the case. Working out these issues right away is one of the most important team building exercises for professionals. “I think the increased communication is an advantage, but with that comes more burdens,” he says. Knowing how to separate business from personal communication methods can help work through some of that burden.

Focus on the End Result. Deadlines and timelines are important, sure, but so is producing an excellent product – one that exceeds even the operator’s initial expectations. “Of course having a project stay on track is important,” Bender says. “We all try to meet the timelines of the project on the calendar. But there are times when we need to take a deep breath and maybe let things sit for a couple of days.” It is better to submit the right work product within a reasonable timeframe of the final deadline instead of a product that’s been rushed to meet the deadline above all else, he says. Once all team members agree that delivering the best possible end-result to the end-user client trumps all other goals, the entire team can work more efficiently and cooperatively toward that shared ambition. Everyone’s reputation, not just that of the team leader, is at stake during a collaborative project.

Capitalize on Individual Strengths. Teams work better when each person shares some of their greatest strengths, Bender says. But it’s important to acknowledge and learn about those strengths upfront. For example, on one of Bender’s recent projects that involved a total reconcept of a country club in San Francisco, a goal was to educate the client about the bigger picture of what the results could be, meaning they wanted to produce a more effective and efficient foodservice operation and not just specify some furniture, paint the walls or order new equipment.

“We worked through every single step together to meet each client need bigger and better,” Bender says. To do that, he adds, the team played off their individual strengths. Everyone contributed their own expertise: some team members knew everything about the right equipment and the right layout, others knew about the construction and plumbing needs, others knew how to create a better overall look and feel. But there’s a difference between just knowing these things and really excelling in these different areas. Allowing individuals to lead certain aspects of the project in this regard produced superior results.

Respect Scheduled Calls and Meetings. If you schedule a call at 10 a.m., you should expect the other person to answer the phone or call at that time, Bender says. At the same time, think about what time zones people are in and what family or other responsibilities they have. “Maybe you don’t want to schedule a conference call at 9 p.m.,” he says. And if you’re working on the East Coast, scheduling a call at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. could be challenging for a West Coast team member, who is two time zones behind. The same goes for scheduling a call at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. West Coast time – that’s getting to the end of the day for East Coasters. Sure, while many consultants work widely outside of the 9 to 5 timeframe, it’s still respectful to understand others’ work style and needs outside of those traditional business hours. Many professionals choose to have an “off” time – meaning, they may be hard at work late at night but only prefer phone calls during traditional business hours.

Put Egos Aside and Listen. A classic problem for many small business operators is being able to put their egos aside. Sure, we’re all proud of our hard work and want to do the best job we can for ourselves, but remember to think of your team and the client first and foremost, Bender says. “Everyone needs to have the chance to voice their opinions,” he says, not just at the start of the project, but during, too. “Get back to the core of the project – the goal is to satisfy the client’s goals and strategies, not your own personal ambitions.” Try presenting the project in a way that everyone can buy into it – that means learning to let some strongholds go, and remaining open minded to new ideas and strategies at the same time.