Stepping Into The Ring- Leadership, Impostor Syndrome, and Creativity on Demand

“Well this will be interesting…”

I apologize for the lack of a blog post this past week, but last Sunday I left the French bakery behind and started a new job at a pie company. Despite the fact that pie is, some would say, very much my wheelhouse, that’s not the part that will make this job uniquely interesting or what consumed so much of my time and energy. What will make this particular gig a real challenge started right at the interview. As I sat down with the owner, she flipped through my resume and said,

“Listen, I’m hiring a baker, but you’ve got training experience, right? You can train, schedule, and lead a team? Good- because I am stretched way too thin. Here’s the plan: I hire you, make you my kitchen manager, and turn the production, scheduling, and menu of our sweet pies over to you. That will free me up to run the rest of business. Deal?”

For the first time in my career, I’m scheduling production, training up the team, and choosing the menu. In other words, actually functioning as a chef (at least as it’s popularly defined in America.)

For the first week while I learned methods, recipes, and the rhythm of the kitchen, I stuck to some classics on the menu… but next week I’ll really have to come up with some ideas and prove that I can hack it. Not so much to my co-workers or boss- they have an almost unbelievable faith in my ability to deliver and perform.

No, I’ve got to prove it to me that I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.

You Learn From The Best (AND The Worst)

Whenever I have been given an opportunity to lead, I have kept a few cardinal rules in mind:

  1. Be the leader you would want to have.
  2. Servant Leadership- you succeed when the team does.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Ask, don’t order. Do, don’t demand.

Part of that first commandment in particular isn’t just remembering all the good leaders and teachers you had and how they helped you. It’s also remembering all the crappy ones and doing what you wish they had done. As it is, I was hired into a middle-management position with the full endorsement of the owner. The team is small and respects her enough that, to start with, all I needed to do was show capability and have a good personality (you’d be amazed at how far kindness, humility, and sincerity will take you on the path to leadership.)

That said, even if you are hired into leadership, you still have to learn the job like everyone else. That means learning how they do things in their business, and learning it from the people who’ve been doing it for longer than you. In other words, you swallow your pride and get trained by your subordinates.

In the past, I’ve had a couple bosses who were hired in above me, and they had very different attitudes about it. The first came barging into the kitchen, refused to let me show her how and why we do some recipes the way we do, and proceeded to order everyone around her to make the things she felt the cafe needed. The result was a lot of bitterness, a lot of wasted product, and a very sharp learning curve for her in how to manage people.

The second came in and proceeded to get a couple days training at every persons station asking “how,” “why,” and “when” of the people who had been doing those tasks for longer. She pumped the longest-lasting employees for information about frequency, sales, ordering, and which problems have been going on for longest. She was respected, productivity improved, and she created a team that fired on all cylinders.

Two cooks wearing black aprons in a white room prepare an oyster bar

But Matt, if I’m given the power to change things the way I see fit, why should I bother learning the current ways if I’m just going to change them later?”

What exactly are you going to change? Things don’t happen the way they do in businesses for no reason- even if that reason is “We’ve always done it this way.” Before you go stomping into someone else’s business flashing your License to Kill, find out what is being done now and why. This will do you a few favors:

  • Expresses interest and humility for your team. You don’t come in looking like a know-it-all, and it shows you are interested in what’s being done by the people who work for you.
  • New ideas. I certainly have some ideas for how different recipes and production schedules should flow, but every kitchen is different, and this one might have some new ideas I haven’t been exposed to.
  • Best-case scenario. The methods in use, while they might seem odd, might also be the best-possible answer for current problems in the kitchen. By learning these methods and why they’re in use, you get a better idea of what needs fixing.

By taking your good managers as inspirations and your bad managers as warnings, you learn to be a great leader yourself. That is, if you think you’re up to it.

Self-Doubt Kills Creativity

I may be on medication for my anxiety now, but Impostor Syndrome is its own beast that needs taming.

I’ve always been pretty proud of my creativity when in comes to tweaking recipes and coming up with new concepts. During my last job, I would test out savory pie ideas by making lunches for myself. I don’t remember the last time anyone (except me, of course) told me that one of my creations was just plain “bad.”

Regardless, when my boss had a wholesale customer on the phone and asked me to list off options for this weeks specials on my first day, I started to sweat a bit and rattled off a few recipes I’d made before that I knew worked. They picked a sangria pie that I’d made once before at a previous job… and they wanted ten of them.

Scaling up a recipe is not a problem, usually- if a recipe is good, your only concerns are how to cook a batch that big and the cost of ingredients. The day I was making the filling, however, Impostor Syndrome got right on my back and made the day a nightmare:

“Ok, fillings made, it tastes right… but there’s so little compared to the other batches they make! Why? Oh god, they must fill heavier than I do… this recipe is for 10 of my size pies. I’m going to need to make more, oh goddammit I need to fix this, I’m such a screw up, how did I even get this job, I can’t disappoint them, friggin basic mistake oh god oh god oh god…

It was bad enough that I left for work early the next morning so I could stop at a grocery store and get enough ingredients with my own money to make another batch. I whipped it up first thing in the morning and figured that I’d successfully covered my ass. Then, as I started filling pies, I realized I’d scaled correctly all along. The extra filling was not necessary, the panic was not necessary, and I’d probably have had a better day if I’d just had faith in my skills. My manager and team went wild for the new recipe I’d brought in, and the customer loved it.

70% of people deal with Impostor Syndrome at least once in their lives. Part of breaking it really is just learning that you don’t have to be perfect, I don’t need to fix all of a business’s problems on the first day, and that just like any creative medium there are bound to be hits and flops. My job is just to come up with more hits. Part of doing that means having faith in my skills, accepting the faith others have in me, and learning to work with what is available rather than creating reasons not to.

You’d be surprised how far a dose of self-reflection, realistic expectation, and faith can take you in your career.

Stay Classy,

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