The perils of micromanagement: Don't do it, says Saladworks CEO

Tempted to micromanage? Don't do it, says Saladworks chief executive Paul Steck, who, by the time he was 30, had already bought, operated and sold two Burger King franchises. He went from being his own boss to working as an executive for Au Bon Pain. Loved the brand, hated the culture -- which taught him a lifelong lesson in leadership and the perils of micromanagement, Steck told me during our interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I love Au Bon Pain, I’m very partial to the brand to this day," he said. "But the culture of their company at the time was very much one of micro management.  So you’d wake up in the morning and they’d want to know what are you doing today.  Then at the end of the day they’d want to know what you did today.  That was the era when cell phones were just coming into play.  You still carried a pager and your pager would go off at all hours of the day and night.  

That is where I learned that micro management doesn’t work for me and it’s where I learned that macro management, the opposite of micro management, is how to run things," Steck said.  "I worked really hard to hire great people.  I worked really hard to give them the tools they needed to do their job.  And I worked really hard to get out of their way.

Question: What’s the trick to that last one?

Answer:  I believe that no one, no human, wakes up in the morning and says, `I’m going to work and screw up today.  It’s just not how we wired.'  I use this every day working with franchisees now.  If someone isn’t doing what I would hope that they would be doing, there’s a reason why.  What is it?  So when I say hire good people and get out of their way, my assumption is everyone wants to do their job.

Q:  So, you believe there is an obstacle keeping them from success?

A:  If they’re not doing their job, it’s not because they don’t want to do it.  Usually, it’s because I haven’t told them what their job is.  So you have to create this culture of great people.  Clearly define what it is that you want them to do.  Probably the last piece of the answer to your question, Jane, is no one is going to do the job the way you would do it.  You have to accept that.  I like to say if I ask someone to do this project, they’re going to deliver 80 percent of what I would.  If I’m okay with that, then it’s easy to be a macro manager. 

Q:  The possibility exists, especially if you hired correctly, that remaining 20 percent may actually be done better than you could have done it, right?.

A:   Yes, you’re absolutely right.   There was a famous book written, I’ll say 10 years ago, “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.”  In the restaurant business I believe everything you need to know about running a company you learn in running your first restaurant.  I learned in my first restaurant kind of the Holy Grail. 

Q: What's that?

A: It’s surround yourself with people that are trained well and, ultimately, you don’t have to do anything.  You work yourself out of a job.  I don’t mean that to sound like someone should be lazy.  But the best restaurant manager I ever saw didn’t do anything.  He sat in a chair in the dining room.  People would come to him and say, `Here’s next week’s crew schedule.  Would you approve this?  Here’s next week’s food order.  Would you approve this?'  He sat there and drank coffee and didn’t do anything.  And you know what?  The restaurant ran like a top.  It was so awesome.  That’s the holy grail of macromanagement.

Q: What about supervising the hourly workers?  What have you learned about that? 

A: They’re no different.  They want to do a good job.  You have to be very clear what a good job means.  The hardest part about working with hourly employees is they’re typically not going to have the education level you or I do.  There’s a reason why someone is making a minimum wage, typically.  It may be their first job or not.  It is not uncommon for an hourly employee, the term we like to use in the restaurant business, they called out.  Meaning they called and said, `I can’t come to work today for whatever reason. ' That’s not uncommon in the food industry.  The thought of me giving up voluntarily 20 percent of my weekly wage is unfathomable today, probably for you as well.  You would never voluntarily give up 20 percent of your wages.  Yet, in managing hourly employees they’ll do that two, three, four times a month. 

Q: What did you learn about dealing with that?

A: What you learn is you have to manage against that. You have to set expectations.  Again, people want to do a good job.  What does that mean?  I’ll give you an example.  In our business today, the salad business, hourly employees so want to do a good job.  When you go in and buy a salad, they’re going to give you more, say protein, say chicken, on a salad than what is the specification, the amount that they should.  What that does is it drives the restaurant’s food costs higher.  It sets your expectation as a consumer.  Oh, I like that salad bar because they give me a big salad.  Everyone wants the big salad.  Why is the employee doing that? 

Q: To please the customer.

A: To please the customer.  That’s it.  They don’t make any extra money because they did that.  So you have to harness that desire to please the customer, but direct it in ways that are good for business, that drive the business forward and allow the business to be profitable. 

Q: But back to people they are sick or other problems,  how do you cope with that as a manager?  I mean it’s always going to be something, right?

A: With grace. You can’t run a restaurant or a company and try [to save] every employee.

Q: Right.

A:  But on the same token life happens to employees. 

Q: And, particularly, to those employees.

A:  When life happens, you have to be understanding and you have to really want to take care of your employees.  I’m going to give you an example.  One of our better franchisees in our system -- I was meeting with him at his restaurant.  He gets a phone call on his cell phone.  And he says could you excuse me a minute.  I’ll be right back.   I said sure, take care of business.  He leaves and he’s gone for like 15 minutes.  He comes back and he goes I’m so sorry.  One of my employees had a flat tire and they called me and I went and changed their tire for them.  Do you see what I mean?  And you could argue he did that just so the employee would then be able to come to work. 

Q: Well, that’s taking care of business. 

A:  But he didn’t do it for that reason.  He did it because his employee needed his help.  

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