Think about your favorite boss, the one who really made an impact on you through their leadership. Maybe it’s even the person who encouraged you to become a leader in the industry. You can probably remember specific lessons learned and recall details from impactful conversations together. In my case, I know she took time to listen to me and to ask my opinion. She is a huge part of what made our culture so great way back then.

Great cultures require great leaders to step up and do a few things remarkably well. Regardless of whether your culture is formal, laid-back, trendy, or classic, the ability to listen and seek input is a requirement of all leaders who want to build a great restaurant culture.

Listen more

People are really good at recognizing when someone else isn’t paying attention to them. Whether the signs are limited eye contact, lack of engagement, using a cell phone or computer, or simply not making an effort to understand what’s being said, there are lots of ways to be disengaged and unfocused when your employees are talking to you. And all of them cost your culture big time. These ideas, concerns, contributions, and connections are being left on the table when you don’t focus on listening at a deep level.

Nearly 100 percent of the calls I get about speaking gigs, workshops, and consulting share the common goal of increasing engagement from the employees at the company. Lack of engagement is costing restaurants sales, profits, customers, and innovation, and leading to costly turnover. Employee engagement is a hot topic. This isn’t just happening at the front-line level; I’m seeing this at every level of management and throughout the corporate offices at some of the biggest brands, with employees leaving their best ideas and highest contributions untapped because no one is really listening. It doesn’t take a very deep look to see that the root word in engagement is “engage.” The issue with employee engagement is directly linked to your ability to engage with them—to communicate with them in a meaningful way. This always starts with listening with more intention, more attention, and more frequency. Create space in your schedule to tune in so you can turn on the engagement you are looking for from your team.

Oh, and if you are one of those managers who believe in the old saying “bring me solutions, don’t bring me problems,” then you might want to evaluate how that’s working for you. While good-intentioned, it might be causing your employees to not surface issues if they don’t know how to solve them right away. They think you won’t listen, so they don’t speak up. I don’t know about you, but if I have an employee who recognizes that someone is stealing from the restaurant, I’d want him or her to speak up even if they didn’t have a solution.

Seek input

Creating space to listen to your employees is a great start for using the power of communication to boost you culture. But if you really want to tap into the potential, then you also need to seek their input frequently. And by potential, I mean the kinds of ideas that improve customer service, boost sales, lower costs, and drive your business results.

One of the interesting things I’ve seen as I’ve worked with both local restaurants and global brands in the restaurant and hotel space is how easy it is for me to curate from employees a ton of creative ideas for improving things quickly. Clients are often surprised how easily I can come back with really solid ideas. While I know they will need me to help strategize and execute on those ideas, I never take credit for creating them in the first place. As an outsider, I know that most of the answers that help save a business or improve a team already live inside the organization. Someone just needs to ask in a way that makes it easy for employees to share their best stuff.

In the organizations I admire for having great cultures, I see managers at all levels seeking the input of employees on all kinds of things. Most of the time they are the ones closest to the action. Why wouldn’t you tap into them to see what they think about things? Whether asking about a change to operations, a new menu item, some marketing ideas, or even on how to improve your talent acquisition efforts, you have nothing to lose by seeking input from your team. Even if you don’t use any of those ideas, you’ve created an environment where everyone has the potential to contribute.

Going back to the beginning of this column: You got nostalgic about your favorite boss. I know when I think of mine, I smile and remember her mentorship and coaching, which all stemmed for her ability to listen and seek my input. I bet you did, too. So let me ask you this: What are you doing to become someone’s favorite boss?

Employee Management, Mike Ganino: Crafting Culture, Story