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Finding Tomorrow’s Foodservice Leaders Today

Five foodservice professionals share their thoughts on what individuals and companies need to do to cultivate the next wave of talent that will propel the industry forward.

Companies spanning all segments of the foodservice industry share a common challenge: identifying the next wave of talent to lead their businesses in the years to come. Understanding what to look for in a future leader and, equally important, what they look for in a prospective employer are critical factors for any foodservice company.

FE&S asked five foodservice professionals to share their perspective on the changing demographics of the industry's workforce, the strategies companies should use when recruiting talent and how career-minded people who want a leadership position should go about planning for one.

Who: Stuart H. Mann, Ph.D.
Position: Dean, William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration
Employer: University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Entered industry: Joined the hospitality faculty at Penn State in 1988

From restaurants to hotels to resorts to gaming properties, all companies in the hospitality industry continue to change and so, too, does the talent they seek. When looking to hire new people, most human resources departments understand that today's employees have expectations that significantly differ from previous generations. You can no longer, for example, expect employees to work 70 to 80 hours a week and keep them beyond one or two years. Good people who come in with passion for business, with a good technical background and a personality for hospitality won't put up with that anymore.

The data we had seen in past showed half of the graduates from hospitality programs were out of the industry after six years. They said they needed time for themselves, for a social life and family. In short, these foodservice professionals felt they needed something other than the life of business. Today's graduates do not put business ahead of everything else. This is the first thing you must understand when trying to retain employees.

Our educational process can provide students with skills that allow them to operate in a hospitality environment. But certain critical characteristics can't be taught. If you hire someone for the front desk, make sure they know how to smile. In a restaurant, the first people customers meet must be hospitable and welcoming. These are important characteristics foodservice operators need to take into account when hiring someone. I've always said the following: You are only as good as your lowest-level employee.

Young people who aspire to be future foodservice leaders have to be able to exhibit characteristics of leaders, not followers. One obvious example is where students work in teams on a classroom project. Those who are selected by their peers to be team leaders are those who have the traits that would be desirable by the industry. They have the respect of their peers and the ability to present ideas in way that makes other team members want to follow them.

Recognition is critical in making a company attractive to prospective employees, but it does not come in the form of a plaque. Rather, recognition is more ongoing and includes supervisors letting employees know when their efforts make a difference in the organization's success.

The emerging generation of workers wants to enjoy their work; they want a fun aspect to what they do. It is up to the business to facilitate some of this fun, whether it's through activities during break times or sponsoring an activity—such as a softball team or a charitable endeavor—outside of the workplace. The idea is, "Let's have a good time being together."

To help shape future leaders, it is important to talk with them early. I prefer to talk to incoming freshmen as opposed to college seniors. I let them know that if they expect to get ahead they should meet as many of their peers as possible on classroom projects and in industry-related student clubs—the food and beverage club, the hotel club, et cetera. Doing this allows them to form their own networks and establish contacts by the time the students graduate. Maintaining these contacts is really a way of moving ahead in the industry, because nobody can do it just on their own.

Who: Cris Gross
Position: Regional Manager, Equipment Sales Representative
Employer: Stafford-Smith, Traverse City, Mich.
Entered industry: Hired as company's assistant manager at age 22 in 1994

When trying to uncover new talent for our company, we look for people in two different areas. First, we take suggestions from manufacturers' reps, because they have a good feel for who is available for hire. We also look at the foodservice industry at large. Some of our best salespeople were cooks or kitchen staff, with lots of hands-on experience with our equipment.

Our business, like others with a sales component, is less about the big degree and more about the person or personality. When looking for new salespeople, we want to have the opportunity to interact with a variety of potential candidates. Self-motivation is a key trait we look for because having an ability to push yourself is paramount to sales success. We look, too, for integrity. You can get a good feel for these things in one-on-one interviews.

Equally important to knowing what you want in a new hire is being competitive with wages and benefits. We also maintain strong relationships within our channel to keep a solid reputation. The top salespeople in the country want to work for industry leaders. It helps for the company to be able to show positive growth in its marketplace and have a track record for retaining employees for long periods. Sixteen years ago, when I was hired, almost everyone I met here had 20 or 30 years' experience. At the same time, there's a lot to be said for having young folks in your business to drive the youthfulness of the company. The foodservice equipment business is a dinosaur, meaning it's very slow to react to things. Still, the old guns have the most success in this business because of the trust level.

That's why experience in foodservice, particularly in the kitchen, is one of most important things we look for in a new hire. For people who aspire to be more than that, to be a leader, it is important to have some management experience. If you are a prep cook, supervising three other prep cooks in your kitchen can be valuable experience down the road. We can take different types of people who have the right personalities and make them successful salespeople.

Who: Jane Buttermore
Position: Vice President of Operations
Company: Sodexo, Gaithersburg, Md.
Entered industry: Worked in restaurants during high school; foodservice manager for Servomation after college

As a company, we will find potential leaders by creating an environment that allows members of Generation Y to rise to the occasion and flourish. Our talent acquisition group, or TAG, searches for great talent in ways that are very different from what we used to do in the past. Some examples include conducting virtual job fairs using Avatar technology, exhibiting at a Second Life training session and using Facebook as a recruiting tool. (At least one person was hired using Avatar technology.)

This generation is outspoken, confident, and innovative. Gen Ys do not look for a career where they have to pay their dues, rather they seek an environment that allows them to flourish. While they are solutions-oriented, the members of Gen Y also want to have balance in their lives—and that's very important.

For Gen Y, working for a company is more about a lifestyle that fits their personal needs. What I have found at Sodexo is that employee networking groups are phenomenally attractive to Gen Ys because these groups represent an opportunity to expand their horizons. There is no corporate ladder for Gen Ys, by the way. They prefer more of a corporate lattice that allows them to wind their way through departments and have new experiences.

When seeking out talent I'm looking for someone who is creative and innovative. I want someone who has done research on what the Sodexo brand is about—the kind of research that would allow them to bring innovative to the ideas the brand. They need to be able to work in groups and mange people—and be able to seek out talent themselves. When you are looking for leadership you are looking for people who can bring you ideas.

Who: Christopher Muller
Position: Professor, University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management
Employer: Rosen School of Hospitality, University of Central Florida
Entered industry: Age 15; soda jerk at Carvel on Long Island

Company recruiters should look for employees who have leadership roles in outside activities, especially in volunteer organizations where persuasion, not a direct order, is the only way to achieve group goals. In the past, simply giving orders to the staff might have sufficed, but moving forward in the complex restaurant world, more will be required to motivate and lead a team of foodservice professionals. Younger managers will need to use persuasion and collaboration to achieve their goals when dealing with their socially networked peers.

Personal integrity, particularly when applied to decision making in the high- pressure environment of a restaurant will be paramount. More than ever, a cynical staff will only give a new manager or leader a short period of time to build trust. More than ever, senior managers will expect results but will insist on honesty when they review the work of their subordinates. Look for young leaders who have loyal followers. A rising star will have built up a team of others who will want to join them wherever they go. A 23-year-old assistant restaurant manager should be able to name two to four people who don't work for the company, could be called on to work a shift for them in an emergency.

My suggestion for the current foodservice leaders is to rethink the role of restaurant-unit leadership to include faster promotion to levels of responsibility and authority based on more advanced cooperative-training methods. This will accomplish a number of things. Primarily, it will build on the millennial generation's social-networking mindset and increase the likelihood that restaurants will become professionally managed by a more comprehensively trained cadre of leaders.

Leadership is exhibited in many different ways: A new employee can offer to manage a restaurant's charitable campaign; spearhead a new local-marketing campaign; or help with back-office work, including staff scheduling or inventory. The earlier in their working career a new leader steps up and takes a leadership role—say, offering to close or open a shift, seeking to become a certified trainer for new employees, or taking on the tasks of shift supervisor—the faster their promotion path. The speed with which a young manager advances is determined by how well they exhibit the skills and demeanor of a more-senior employee.

Who: Lane Cardwell
Position: Chief Executive Officer
Employer: Boston Market, Denver
Entered industry: Joined Steak and Ale as a financial analyst in 1978

First thing you want to do is assess and benchmark the behaviors of your current best leaders. We're trying to identify what that looks like for our current people and then use it to assess new hires and people we promote internally, measuring them against that best fit. We have also created consistency in language in measuring strengths and opportunities for an employee. Yet the biggest hurdle is overcoming the paradigm shift from using numbers on scores to identifying the behavior that can drive results. The second is to give every employee the opportunity to lead people. Giving an assistant manager the chance to run part of the restaurant under their own responsibility and accountability, for example, lets them practice being a leader.

When identifying future leaders, we look for a number of key attributes. Communications skills are critical. So is dependability, both in terms of showing up and taking on challenges. Patience is important, too. It is hard when you are young to have someone tell you have to be patient—that you won't get your next promotion in six months. Then there's drive, energy and quickness of pace, sense of urgency and action orientation. Also, acceptance of authority. If you don't accept authority, you probably won't be a good fit. Finally, there is friendliness and sociability with co-workers and customers.

Companies that have a great brand for employment are able to attract and retain the best people. Take Starbucks as an example. You couldn't have lured away one of their employees for years. A lot of that was the low cost of the product they sold enabled them to offer medical benefits and stock options for many years before changing the accounting treatment. Fourteen percent of the payroll went to stock options for employees. Even though they were serving coffee, the front-line employees felt like they had a white-collar management position. If you have a brand where employees' friends say, "That is a great job," the company will have an easy time hiring great people. What is critical is that the company has to be able to answer this basic employee question: "If I give you my time and my brain, what else have you got for me?" People are looking for something more than pay.

Career-minded people who want to get ahead in the foodservice industry should start by getting a job while in school. Doing so lets them hone their communication skills and learn about chain of command. Everything you learn in school you learn on the job more quickly. If you're a member of a club or some other type of organization, it is a good idea to assume a leadership role, which gives you a chance to lead in an environment where their careers are not on the line. New hires should also sit down with their managers and explain what they would like get out of their work experience. It is also a good idea to seek out companies that have clearly defined career paths. It is almost cliché, but if someone wants a leadership role, hard work and dependability will pay off. Those two things will move a foodservice professional ahead quicker and more consistently than anything else.