3 Leadership Lessons I Learned from Working in Food Service (That Business School Never Taught Me)

I’ve led teams large and small, and I’ve coached leaders in a huge variety of situations. The lessons I find myself drawing upon again and again, aren’t the things I learned in business school (Sorry, University of Georgia). They’re more frequently the timeless truths I learned earlier in my life, working in food service.

I never expected those first few jobs to teach me so much; I was just a kid who needed some extra money to get through school. But what we learn early in our careers is often foundational, leaving lasting impressions on us. Here are three lessons that stuck with me.

Never underestimate how much success means to your boss.  
My first job was working at Donut King. I was 14 and worked behind the counter. Usually, the owner was there, but one afternoon, he stepped out to run an errand and left me to hold down the shop.

A few minutes after he departed, a large group of 20 or so firefighters came in. It was towards the end of the day and the firefighters bought every single donut we had left in the case, over 200 donuts.  We had never run out of donuts before, I didn’t know what to do. I offered to go into the back and see if we had more. We did and they bought those as well, for a total of 225 donuts. (I still remember the number)

When the owner came back, I told him, “All these firefighters came in and bought every donut we had in the store!” He was elated. Absolutely beaming, he asked me if they liked them, if I thought they would come back, and thanked me for serving all of them.  To me, this was a summer job to earn some extra cash, and the firefighters were just an interesting experience.  To the owner, this was his life’s work, and something he was extraordinarily proud of.

In business, if we’re not feeling “into it” we assume others feel the same. That’s seldom the case. Even if a job is a stepping stone to you, it might mean everything to your boss, the founder, or the customers.

Emotional acting will erode your spirit…quickly.
Emotional acting is a phrase coined by Wharton professor Adam Grant. It’s when you put on a persona and you fake it, in a lot of interactions, all day long.  Anyone who has worked in a restaurant, retail store, or any type of customer service capacity knows this feeling deep in their soul.

In college, I worked at a swanky cocktail lounge. Every night I would fake laugh at stupid (or gross) jokes, ignore degrading remarks, and pretend like an overpriced gin and tonic was the most delectable beverage on earth.

Emotional acting is physically, intellectually, and emotionally draining. To be clear, we all have times when we should be carefully managing our emotions, like calming ourselves after some negative feedback or trying to have a good attitude in the face of a disruptive change.  But repeatedly masking our emotions at work is exhausting and it’s not sustainable. Innovation, creativity, and engagement depend on showing up as your authentic self.

A lack of clear expectations is at the root of (most) performance problems. 
Later in college, I got a new waitressing job at a full-service restaurant. In the haze of onboarding, someone probably told me, when you’re not busy with tables, you should be rolling silverware. Between learning the menu, the table numbers, and the new system, I forgot.

Until three weeks in, when a more experienced waitress lost it on me. “You think you’re too good to roll silverware like the rest of us!! I haven’t seen you bring a single batch to the host stand!”

I was stunned. I didn’t think I was too good to roll silverware, good grief, I was a waitress, nothing was beneath me! I literally just forgot that single passing comment. I didn’t know rolling silverware was an expectation. Rest assured, I started rolling, but the dynamic remained awkward from that point forward.

I’ve witnessed the same dynamic play out on teams I lead and inside of my clients. When expectations aren’t clear, and repeatedly referenced, performance becomes personal very quickly. The vast majority of people want to do a good job, and with clear expectations, will rise to the occasion.