The Service Industry Entrepreneur Employee

My definition of a Service Industry Entrepreneur Employee is very simple: “An individual who, rather than working as an employee, takes ownership of their work, just as much as an individual who owns and runs a business.” Why is having such an individual on your team important? Well, if you feel like you are “doing all the work around here”, you need to keep reading.

Have you ever been frustrated by an employee who could perform better? But they aren’t. Perhaps they could become your best employee, best server, best bartender, best cook. But they aren’t. They could be a manager someday, and a great one, but they aren’t ready to make the jump? You see more in them than they see in themselves. Sound familiar? I’ve been in that same situation. So, why aren’t they? Because they don’t believe they can. They do not have an entrepreneurial mindset. There are various reasons for this. As managers, we can eliminate some and replace them with entrepreneurial empowerment.

Many people, employees, mid-level managers, and even top executives could accomplish something more, something great. But they don’t. Why? Because they are too attached to being comfortable. They’re comfortable where they are, and performing how they are performing. They are so attached to their current job level that it becomes a part of their identity, and it’s not always a good one: “I’m just a cook”, “I just wait tables”, “I’m only an assistant manager, not the real boss”. These employees allow themselves to be defined by their job, their income, their status in the workplace. And it hurts them. They’re comfortable doing what they are doing and it might be easy for them to do their job, but they’re not happy. And they work for you. Congratulations. Over 73% of your younger employees, when asked about their strengths and weaknesses, will focus on their weaknesses. This is higher than any previous employee group surveyed. (Time, September 28, 2012, “Note to Gen Y Workers”, Jane and Marcus Buckingham)

Odds are that if you are reading this, you are “the boss”, the manager, the person with the accountability and the responsibility for the performance of these types of people. And society reinforces the perception these employees have of themselves at almost every turn. Here is a simple example. What’s the most common question that people ask when they strike up a conversation with someone they’ve just met: “So, what do you do?” I have managed tens of thousands of employees and worked one on one with hundreds of managers. And I still sometimes find myself asking that question too. Oops. Worse yet, I have heard guests and customers ask my employees “So, what else do you do?”, like their current job is not good enough. Wow. Now there’s a self-esteem booster for your full time, key employees. I’ve seen the faces of some of them as they walk away from the table or guest after hearing that. Have you ever slowed down enough in your busy day Mr. or Ms. Manager to notice, or to care?

So, how do you help employees with this emotional aspect of the business? You don’t help fix it for them. They help themselves. You allow them the freedom to have, what I once heard coined, the “Entrepreneurial Mindset”. This is the freedom to think and act like an owner in their workplace. Most employees in the service industry never have this freedom. Ever.

Hospitality employees are usually younger, the “generation y”, the “millenials”, the “teacup employees”. They are thought of as delicate and pampered and easily shattered. They always “got the trophy for finishing the soccer season”, not for winning the championship. You and I have probably heard the same stories and the same analogies. The topic has been beaten to death in management-oriented writing. I cannot claim to be anywhere near an expert on the topic. But I do know one thing: people like to feel good about themselves. And I have worked with many younger employees. They’ve told me many things. The most recurring item is also the most emotional: they want what they do to mean something, and they want to feel important. That trophy, which was the same as every other kid’s, didn’t make them feel good. The “helicopter parents” who hovered over their every move, and told them how good they were for taking that test, “C-” score and all, didn’t make them feel good. How do I know? I talk with them.

I once heard one of my best employees, Steve, answered that guest question “what else do you do” with “Oh, I’m just a waiter.” I winced as I walked past. I hoped the guests didn’t notice. My coaching piece with Steve later was as simple as it was true. I said “Steve, seriously ‘Just a waiter’? In my restaurant, each server brings in over $31,000 a year in revenue. You are a full time employee, and a valued one, your contribution is probably about double that figure. This is a multi-million dollar restaurant. And you help make it run every single day.” Steve was important to my business.

So, yes. Your employees certainly mean something to somebody. They are certainly important to somebody: you. Do you tell them how important they are? Do you say “Thanks” to each employee for one small thing every day, hopefully some behavior you are trying to encourage? Be honest with yourself, and no crossing your fingers under the desk.

Let’s examine a common service industry scenario and apply the entrepreneurial mindset to it: the “problem table”. Don’t pretend that you never get them. We all do. So, pretend Steve works for you. He is 21 years old. He comes to you with a long list of complaints from one of his tables: “The food came out cold, the bartender made their drinks wrong, they say it is too cold in here, and they’re really mad”. Then Steve stops. He stops speaking. He also stops thinking, and moving. So, what do you do? Oh: you fix it. You get tell the cooks to get fresh hot food working. You turn the air conditioner warmer. You tell the bartender to remake those drinks. Then you get right out there to the dining room and visit that table and grovel for a while. What exactly does Steve do? He does what he was trained to do by almost every restaurant I know of: tell the manager. This is followed by doing absolutely nothing, except perhaps to complain about the table to his coworkers. At what point does Steve have freedom to act? Is he allowed to fix these problems himself? Do you let him? Do you trust him? And if that answer is no by the way, why do you let him continue to be the face of your business to the public?

Okay. I do admit that, yes, someone else other than Steve has to fix the A/C issue. But Steve’s freedom to act on everything else is up to you. Is the culture in your workplace “I got it”? “I” meaning you in this example. Or, is it “What have you done to fix things so far, Steve?” Do you let him ring up the new food first to expedite time, and to offer the guests some soup or a salad “on me” so they do not sit hungry and unhappy at an empty table? Can Steve ring in another round of drinks without checking with you first? If not, why not? If it’s a theft issue, remember what I just said: Steve “rings up” everything. He just doesn’t “ask” the bartender or cook for it. There is an accounting control there. You must remove it from the bill later, before it’s presented. Financial risk: minimized. Steve: empowered. He is in control, like an owner of his table and all that happens with it. Steve is then an entrepreneur in a most basic description of the word: “Entrepreneurs take initiative, accept risk of failure and have an internal focus of control”-Albert Shapero, 1975. Steve has been trained and allowed to take care of the guest first, then inform the manager, and worry about the rest later. So when Steve goes back to the table he doesn’t say “I’m sorry. A manager will be over shortly.” Instead, Steve says “I’m sorry. This is what I’ve done to make things right for you… “

Answer these simple questions. In which situation does Steve feel important, needed and successful? In which case is Steve given the ability and flexibility to use an entrepreneurial mindset? More importantly, in which situation would you like to be that guest?

You might be saying “But that wouldn’t work in my restaurant.” Really? Why not? Truths are timeless. Here is one you have probably already heard: You’re either growing or dying. It’s true of people. It’s true of plants. Managers need to allow people to grow. Yet, you can’t nurture people to grow, develop, and become better if you do not have a system and culture in place that permits it. You’re either growing or dying. There is no staying the same. People who say “I want things to stay as they are” just don’t get it. They’re too comfortable. The only time people are comfortable is when they are not doing anything new.

Give your employees the freedom to act beyond the boundaries of “normal”. Allow them to be uncomfortable with the “new normal”. And they will grow. Will Steve be uncomfortable taking ownership of “problem tables”? Yes. Will he feel empowered after a few successes at it? Definitely. And if he fails, will you support him, coach him, and retrain if necessary, or will you just say “You tried really hard, Steve. Nice job.” Then give him the same trophy as all the other kids got at the end of soccer season?

There are many of you reading this that will be saying this is too simple to work, or it can’t be done, or blah, blah, blah… ” Apparently, you might just be too comfortable with the status quo yourself. People are always comfortable setting repeats, not records. You have to take a leap of faith.

Managers manage in the moment. Leaders develop, learn, teach, and grow for long term impact. They take risks. I challenge you to find it in yourself to be that leader, to get out of your comfort zone. Become an agent of change, and improvement, for your employees. Become an entrepreneur yourself. “Entrepreneurs are innovators who use a process of shattering the status quo… “-Joseph Schumpeter, 1934. Truths are timeless: If you don’t exhibit leadership and do it, your employees won’t exhibit leadership and do it. Then, someone else, perhaps your boss, might just be looking at you someday, thinking “This business needs to grow and to perform at a higher level. And that manager is just too attached to being comfortable to try anything new. He could be such an impactful leader, but he’s not. I see more in him than he sees in himself.”

Let that not be you.