Monday, November 29, 2010

A Leader Learns from Failure

Almost 13 years ago I learned a valuable lesson at a summer job. This was my first time in a true "Leadership" position. I was working at a Boy Scout Camp in Rhode Island as the kitchen manager for one of three Camps within the larger camp. I was the assistant kitchen manager the last two years, so I thought I was prepared. I was wrong.

To set the scene, the kitchen I "Led" served 300+ meals a day, 3 meals a day 6 and 1/2 days a week.  On Sundays we didn't serve dinner. The kitchen was hot and humid all day, every day. The staff consisted of a professional cook, the Kitchen Manager (KM), the Assistant Kitchen Manager (AKM), and about 5 boys from 16-18. Each person had 1 day off a week.  If the kitchen staff was solid, a person could literally be out the door before the merit badge centers opened, so a lot of advancement was possible. 

So, here was my problem... I had a brand new staff, with nobody who worked in the kitchen before. My AKM was from a different staff the year previous. He impressed me, so I requested him. We worked well together, but he was clueless in the kitchen, and hadn't led in a work environment before.

So here were my mistakes, as I look back.

1. During the 2 weeks of camp set-up before campers arrived, my guys were pulled all over the place, instead I should have fought for them to spend some time in the kitchen learning the job. I had plenty of people helping me clean up the kitchen, getting ready for the health inspection; but I didn't plan any time with MY guys to TRAIN them on their new job, or to set the expectations for them. They came in blind, expecting an easy job. They were wrong and that was my fault.

2. As the Kitchen Manager, I was also the assistant cook. That meant my back was turned to the kitchen through most of the meal because I was cooking the meal beside the actual cook. I didn't tale into account the amount of time I would need to spend cooking rather than watching and working with the staff. My AKM wasn't aware of the priorities, and to be honest, couldn't manage the staff. He tried hard, but we always seemed to be falling behind. I should have taken time to pull him aside and ensure he knew what the duties were and the proper order in which to perform them, as well as the expectations for the staff (which was the job I did for the previous KMs!).

3. I didn't evaluate my staff often enough, and in some cases I did this in order to avoid being mean. A leader must work for the betterment of his team. That meant I should have given reviews weekly (as was expected), and if there was a problem with a specific person (there was) I should have either confronted and addressed it: or I should have transferred him to somewhere he would perform better (he was always sneaking off to the Nature Center). In the long run, if I didn't think he would work out at the Nature Center, I should have fired him rather than transfer my problem to somebody else. By letting him stay and continue to run off and hide, he was dragging the morale and work ethic of everybody else into the gutter.

4.  Our hours were ridiculous. We would be in the kitchen by 0530 to start breakfast. On most days we worked through to the end of lunch, which took us until 1400 (2 PM). Then the staff would have to be back by 1600 or 1630 (4/4:30 PM) depending on the dinner. Clean-up would take us until 2000 (8 PM). And the KM had even longer hours because of prep-work and cooking needs. A good group would be in half that time but we weren't a good group (see all of the above). So basically, it was extreme hours in a rough environment with very little down time, and it repeated for 6-7 days a week (we may not serve dinner, but Sunday was the extreme cleaning day). The guys were getting burned out and I didn't address it.

I didn't organize anything fun. Something I learned in Iraq. No matter how tired the leader is, he/she needs to let his team have fun as a team. I could have scheduled an afternoon canoe race, or maybe a challenge course; but instead I was so tired from the long hours from my team not knowing what to do that all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.

As a second thought, I could have instituted an afternoon off program so that people could go work on merit badges, swim, or maybe just sleep. If I made it merit based, I could have created a carrot.

5. My immediate boss was a former kitchen manager. He was a giant pain in my ass, always telling me how he did things, and pointing out where my staff was insufficient. On top of that, he used the kitchen as a place to escape his responsibilities as Camp Director; so he was always there! Instead of resenting him for it though, I probably should have taken him up on some of his advice. He was a pain about how he offered it, but even a jackass has a good idea every now and then. Don't throw out the message because you don't like the messenger!

6. Finally, I didn't set goals for myself or my staff. I didn't use a stop-watch to see who could clear dishes the fastest, or set-up the trays for the next meal the quickest. I didn't offer recognition for the cleanest floor, or the best preparation for the next meal, or the most neat and organized storage area. All I saw was the work and I let my team down. If I had set metrics and then recognized based on those metrics, the group would have steadily improved, and we wouldn't have worked such ridiculous hours.

In the end, we survived the summer, but only barely. Most of the staff (myself included, but that was due to ROTC commitments) didn't return the following year, and I don't blame them. Looking back now, I can say I learned a lot from that experience. It was a failure on my part, but sometimes you learn the most from failures. I wouldn't be the leader I am today without this experience.

So, there is one of my Learning Experiences. Anyone care to share his/her own? We can all learn by example.

No comments:

Post a Comment