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Miguel Noguerol


How to Lead Like a Top Chef

Are you passionate, determined, and trustworthy?

Published: Monday, May 15, 2017 - 12:02

The restaurant industry confronts many of the leadership challenges that other industries, corporate leaders, and entrepreneurs face. Chefs and chef-owners play a significant leadership role in their organizations through a variety of operational and social processes. Among these leaders, only an elite group of chefs achieves the recognition to be best-in-class, by operating with excellence, innovation, and delivering exceptional customer experiences.

In the high-end culinary world, there is intense competition. Successful restaurants rely heavily on talent and innovation, and they need to operate with a high level of efficiency and quality of final products and customer services.

As part of the INSEAD Executive Master program in Consulting and Coaching for Change, I combined my passions and curiosity about organizational leadership behavior and gastronomy and decided to talk with top chefs of best-in-class restaurants to discover: 1) What are the predominant leadership behaviors identified in a group of best-in-class leaders? 2) How do these elements contribute to organizational excellence?

The research focus group consisted of 23 top chefs, representing 12 nationalities, all ranked by recognized industry-review organizations like the Michelin Guide or The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.

I conducted interviews with chefs at their restaurant sites in Spain, France, Singapore, Mexico, and the United States, enhanced by a full customer experience and observation of their operations, working environment, client services, and ambiance.

After analyzing the raw data and following qualitative research methods, I identified 12 predominant competencies (narrowed down from 40 recognized emotion-based leadership constructs) that appeared consistently in at least 60 percent of the top chefs interviewed. Finally, I integrated these constructs into three leadership archetypes: the passionate nonconformist, determined eagle eye, and trusted coach. The components in each appeared to have a positive impact on leadership effectiveness and organizational excellence.

Enabling excellence

Top restaurants’ identities are substantially wedded to their chefs’ identity in the areas of creativity, innovation, and external image. However, the day-to-day customer experience outcome is delivered through a coordinated organizational effort of several individuals in the kitchen and the front-of-house who face many challenges in real time. In customer-facing operations, the connection between the organization and the customer is crucial. Organizational excellence can be highly impacted by a combination of three main factors: leadership effectiveness, team effectiveness, and workplace environment.

Leadership effectiveness occurs when the leader’s emotional intelligence (EQ) is expressed in emotion-eliciting actions that can ultimately enable a positive workplace environment. This also has a mutual cause-and-effect relationship with the team’s effectiveness.

Collective emotions ultimately determine the workplace environment, resulting in a team performing a variety of tasks that align with the compnay’s goals, mission, and purpose. It’s not just about what gets done but also how the team performs those actions.

How to lead like a successful top chef

The leadership styles of top chefs can be broadly categorized using the following three archetypes. Which best describes the kind of leader you are, or want to become?

Passionate nonconformist
They integrate enthusiasm and optimism with a clear vision and purpose, unleashing intrinsic motivation to generate constructive action toward achieving personal and organizational goals. An optimist believes in a positive outcome, while passionate nonconformists have a burning desire to drive positive results. They rely on the emotion-based leadership constructs of enthusiasm and optimism, innovation and creativity, and flexibility. Nonconformist leaders are constantly looking to do better. They have a clear purpose and continue to take their dreams to higher levels.

Determined eagle eye
They can maintain a broad view of their operations, but at the same time rely on their self-determination and ability to look at the details so that they can prevent, anticipate, or act quickly with resilience in response to day-to-day challenges. Their obsession with perfection drives them to fulfill their vision. They leverage the leadership constructs of vision, consistency with ethics, principles and values (“walk the talk”) and stress tolerance. They lead with the precision and vision power of an “eagle eye” to see things objectively, the way they are, rather than the way they wish or fear them to be.

Trusted coach
They integrate the leadership constructs of interpersonal relationship, meaningful work, and individual consideration, including generous personal attention and mentoring across all levels of skill development, behavior, and style. They strive to create an open and sharing environment where individuals can express themselves freely to collaborate and learn from each other. They instil respect and trust onto their teams as key elements to eliciting hope, attachment, and fun.

Leadership excellence you can feel

I could feel the positive emotions from the moment I walked into the restaurants run by these top chefs, and I continued to sense it during the whole service experience. Individuals were usually connected and focused with a single goal to provide an excellent customer experience. Like an orchestra, for which the timing and sequence are critical elements of the musical experience itself, many of these restaurants had a series of courses reaching the table one after another in perfect synchronization. They were an authentic and natural form of expression and elegance. In some of these culinary symphony movements, you can indeed observe innovation and creativity in action, expressed with elements of surprise that activate multiple senses—sight, smell, hearing, and touch—and eventually gustatory memories.

These great organizations rely on the leadership of passionate, nonconformist, and determined leaders who leverage their skills to support an obsession for detail, precision, and perfection. They foster enhanced market recognition and valuable organization identity that elicits a proud and active sense of belonging. Their vision is compelling, inspiring, and evokes hope for a positive future.


About The Author

Miguel Noguerol’s picture

Miguel Noguerol

Miguel M. Noguerol has more than 30 years of professional experience and held several senior leadership roles at global high-tech organizations. He is the founding partner of SKANDHAS, the Center of Consulting and Coaching for Change. His mission is to assist senior executives and their organizations to establish their vision and core leadership values, and lead change effectively.