Lessons I Learned at the Food Court

Almost everyone looks back at their career at some point. The good times are remembered fondly, the tough times are recalled with the wonder of survival, and the things learned that might apply to what is happening at the moment surface with thanks.

I literally grew up in the food industry. My first job in high school was working at a small grocery store; I then graduated to McDonald’s; worked through college at a convenience store and spent summers at a Hunt-Wesson ketchup factory, working the graveyard shift on the sanitation crew. Post college I worked for leaders Nestle and Coca-Cola.

Here are five major lessons I learned in my time in the food industry. By the way, I never actually worked at a food court but did spend plenty of time in kitchens all over the country.

The Jack Trumps, Not Donald
In the food industry, like many industries, your career is what you make of it. Being a “jack of all trades and master of none” is invaluable, because it serves as the foundation for becoming a general manager.

I spent time in production, operations management, inventory control, finance, sales analysis, marketing and business development.

The lesson learned is that it pays to keep learning everything you can about your employer and your industry even if you don’t like the subject because as an owner or in a position of leadership, you will be expected to understand how everything fits together for the organization.

Plans, Who Has Plans?
A huge life lesson I learned from a mentor is that if you want to be successful, you have to have a plan.

My experience is that only two functional areas in business actually have written plans.

The first is marketing, responsible for creating revenue. The other is the financial department, responsible for reporting revenue, costs and profits.

That other departments I spent time in had no plan was astounding. It wasn’t that the leaders in charge of these departments weren’t dedicated or hard-working. They did not have plans because the organization was not aligned.

This lack of alignment manifested itself in many ways, the biggest one being that the companies struggled to achieve strategic goals and when they did, it was almost always well beyond the desired date of accomplishment.

Every department in a company should have a plan, written down and presented for approval once a year if for no other reason than to make sure the goals and processes being used or proposed are not in conflict with other departments.

Goals, What Are Those?
If you think not having a plan is bad, how about department without goals?
As the leader, you are responsible for making sure that both goals and plans exist for departments and people.

Organizations need goals. People need goals. Without goals, not much will get done.

But a lot of money, time and other resources will go to waste for lack of goals and holding people accountable for accomplishing them.

Creativity Counts
If there was a mantra I heard over and over it was, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Or, “That will never work in our industry.”

I am not referring to selling green ketchup because it looks cool. Heinz did this some years back. It flopped. I give them credit for trying to expand the category.

What I am saying is that individuals with creativity and an aim to destabilize or reinvigorate can turn an industry upside down. Howard Schultz did it with Starbucks.
Herb Kelleher did it with Southwest Airlines.

Instead of saying “no,” start asking “why not?” Those two words alone can be a creative tool that can change the fortunes of the organization you lead in a short period of time.

Never Stop Learning
Far too many people in business simply stop learning; they fail to invest in their own future. Many leaders fall into this trap.

At Nestle I was the first person in the division to take advantage of the tuition reimbursement program offered. I did not have to pay any money out of pocket when I was earning my MBA.

But when I was taking the coursework, there were only a few people who encouraged me and plenty of people who thought it was a waste of time and the company’s money.

Things change in the world of business and those caught unprepared or unaware pay the price. Making ongoing learning should be part of the responsibility of leadership in every organization. It is nothing more than an investment in the future of the company.

As a leader, your role is to teach and one of the best ways to do this is to share what you have learned along the way so others won’t make the same mistakes you did.