Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

What The Top Chefs Can Teach Us About Achieving Our Goals

Over the last few years, whether we might like it or not, reality-based shows have become a regular staple on most television networks. For my wife and I, we’ve become fans of some of the recent cooking show competitions, especially those that put talented and experienced chefs against one another to see which ones are the top chefs in the group.

While we don’t consider ourselves “foodies”, we do find it educational and entertaining to watch how these respected and clearly talented chefs work to create an appetizing and innovative meal within a narrow time frame. These shows also prove to be insightful on how leaders can improve their ability to guide their organization forward in today’s evolving global market and workplaces.

To help illustrate some of the lessons we can learn from the experiences of these top chefs, let’s take a look at the following four questions to help you evaluate the approach you take in leading your team and organization towards attaining your shared goals.

1. Do you adapt to changing conditions or insist on sticking to what you know?
One of the staples of these cooking competitions is getting the participants to create a new dish using various obscure or undesirable ingredients, at times working under difficult or limited working conditions. The goal in these challenges is simple – to test the ability of these chefs to work outside of their comfort zone while creating a great meal consistent with their talent and experience.

In response to this challenge, some chefs shift gears from what they would’ve normally done and push themselves to create a dish that they wouldn’t otherwise have made. Others, though, approach the challenge sticking to what they know, preferring not to take the risk of trying to go outside their flavour palette or cooking style for fear that they might mess up their dish.

Invariably, for those chefs who try to go outside of their comfort zone, there are times where their efforts miss the mark in terms of producing the dish they had imagined. And yet, in almost every case, the chefs who win this challenge turn out to be the ones who demonstrated a willingness and ability to adapt their approach in order to deliver a meal that embraces both the main ingredient as well as the best way to cook under those conditions.

In today’s business world, there’s no question that it’s hard to know for sure what conditions will be like in the next few years, let alone the next few months. However, we don’t need to look hard to find examples of organizations that are thriving despite this uncertainty, in large part because – like these winning chefs – they are willing to adapt their approaches to meet today’s needs/challenges, instead of insisting on sticking to what’s comfortable in the hopes that the market might support it.

Indeed, like these winning chefs, the process of learning how to adapt one’s approach to meet current conditions not only improves your chances of delivering what your customers will need, it can also help you to discover new approaches that can help fuel your organization’s future growth.

2. Do you regularly assess whether your decisions are serving others or just yourself?
While those chefs who adapt their cooking styles in order to take full potential of the unusual food ingredient or working conditions consistently win these challenges, those chefs who insist on cooking ‘in their style’ and not adapting their dishes in a manner that best embraces the conditions of the challenge are often amongst the first to get booted off.

In the evaluation period, these chefs often remain defiant about why their dish is good, leading most judges to criticize them for making a dish for themselves and not for their guests. Not surprisingly, in the post-evaluation interviews, it’s these chefs that often criticize the judges for ‘not getting’ what their dish was supposed to be about.

Of course, it’s not just chefs who are at risk of losing sight of when they are creating something that fits their needs, but which might fail to take into consideration the needs of those they’re supposed to serve.

As leaders, it’s important that we regularly review and gauge whether the culture and values we nurture – and the decisions we make alongside them – serve only to answer what we want or need under the current conditions, or whether they serve to provide our employees with what they require in order to be successful in their collective efforts.

Granted, it’s easy to be like these unwavering chefs, insisting that we be true to ourselves and that given how we’re ultimately responsible for what goes out, it should be something that we want. However, a key principle to both being a top chef and a good leader is never forgetting that your efforts are not meant to serve your interests or tastes. Rather, your efforts are meant to serve those you lead, or in the case of these chefs, those who will be eating the dish you made.

3. Do your efforts encourage the building of a community or internal silos?
One of the aspects that I especially enjoy about watching these cooking competitions is how the best chefs tend to be those who don’t hope or wish their competitors will slip up. Instead, they want to see their fellow chefs succeed in their efforts because if they beat them, there can be no doubt that they are the top chef.

That’s why even when under the pressure of getting their own dishes completed within a short period of time, they’re still helping out their fellow chefs by tasting their food to tell them if it needs something or if they know where a particular ingredient can be found in the pantry.

In some of the commentary given by these top chefs, you can see that they share a sense of community and belonging with the other chefs, not just because they all come from the top calibre of their field, but because they’re all committed to helping each other to improve their craft and with it, the expectations people should have of them.

This drive to build a sense of community where everyone feels encouraged to succeed mirrors the success of Iceland, which was recently identified as being the happiest place on Earth, in large part because of their interest not in individual success, but in how to help one another to collectively succeed.

While a sense of competition is healthy and beneficial for encouraging people to push themselves, as these top chefs consistently demonstrate, it doesn’t have to lead to the building of silos between teams and departments over an internal community where employees are connected through your shared goals and interests.

4. Do you see change as a cost or an opportunity?
Another key attribute the top chefs all share is how they approach the seemingly endless changes they are expected to work under – whether it’s working with different people in a team, working with ingredients they’ve never used, or trying to create a dish using the most basic cooking tools. In each case, these chefs don’t complain about how often they’re expected to change tactics or preparations in order to create a completed meal.

Instead, they see these changes as an opportunity to stretch their perception about food and their skills in trying to prepare dishes under those challenging conditions. In some cases, these chefs even end up making dishes that the judges openly admit they’re going to ‘steal’ to use in their own restaurants because of how successful and original they are.

Of course, these chefs still had their doubts and concerns about their ability to create something that would best showcase these ingredients and their talents under those conditions. But this doubt never lead them to view the situation as a liability. Instead, they chose to see the challenge as an opportunity to learn something new about their craft and their abilities.

In today’s faster-paced world, the ability to adapt and embrace change is no longer simply an asset, but a requirement of doing business while remaining competitive. As these top chefs illustrate, key to making this shift is not seeing change in terms of what it will cost you to adapt to this new reality, but to seeing it as an opportunity to discover new outlets and ways to improve your offerings.

In her book “Mindset”, psychologist Carol Dweck writes – “it isn’t just our abilities and talent that bring our success — but whether we approach our goals with a fixed or growth mindset.”

Watching these top chefs compete, it’s clear that the reason why they are at the top of their field is not simply because of their culinary talents and expertise. Rather, it’s also because they exemplify the kind of growth mindset Dweck describes; of seeing these challenges and requirements to work outside of what they’re used to as new avenues to explore in their quest to achieve their goals.

It’s an example that all leaders can benefit from applying in their own roles of helping their organization to achieve its shared goals in today’s challenging and uncertain economy.

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  1. On October 30th, 2012 at 1:27 PM Jim Matorin said:

    Another one of your interesting analogies. Being in the food business and close to numerous chefs around the country, to a degree I agree with some of the different points you make. However, to me the shows are a competition and limiting as it relates to what breeds true success among great chefs. Experimentation and failure are key, plus they like to play their cards close to their chest. Based on my experience, on camera is different from how they behave off camera, thanks to a three letter word: ego.

  2. On October 30th, 2012 at 1:37 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Jim,

    I do agree with you that what we see in these shows is not a completely accurate picture as it is subject to editing and other tricks to ensure the show accomplishes its main goal – to entertain the viewers.

    Nonetheless, we do get to see these top chefs experiment and fail, as well as experiment and being surprised by the outcome, to the point that they openly admit to considering adding such dishes to their repertoire.

    And as I mentioned above, its these chefs who are willing to challenge their assumptions about food, their techniques and preparations who ultimately take the lead because they avail themselves to seeing these challenges as opportunities to test and learn, instead of liabilities that might negatively impact their personal brand (or ego).

    In the end, reality is always subjective, whether it appears on camera or in first person, and yet, what we see in these shows do reflect these key points that leaders need to evaluate and consider in terms of how they lead their own teams and organizations.

    Thanks again, Jim, for sharing your thoughts.

  3. On November 3rd, 2012 at 2:59 PM karin hurt said:

    I am not a chef, but enjoy cooking. Sometimes I get so excited and energized by the challenge of pulling together a "gourmet" meal out of whatever I can find in the fridge…. somehow it feels so much more successful. I do think that applies to leadership, making the most of the hand we are dealt.

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