There is more to take away from a trip to Cracker Barrel than old time candy and wooden peg games. With every pancake, hash brown casserole, and general store gift there are lessons in leadership each of us stand to take another helping of:
1. Start Fresh Every Day
The day begins at CB at 4:30 every morning with a fresh delivery of produce and meats to stock the country store. The truck does not come only when the day before has been wonderfully busy and it needs to restock. It comes even when the day before has been a slow Tuesday and the servers thought their shifts would never end.
Each of us would do well to similarly take stock of the day before but remember to start each day fresh and not ride off the good feelings of the previous day's successes or failures. Each day is another opportunity to step up to the plate of leadership with fresh eyes and renewed energy.
2. Servant Leadership
Many moons ago as a waitress at CB 559 in Hampton Virginia I watched my managers wash dishes when a member of the crew was out, make pancakes when a cook was out, and gladly serve tables when we were low on wait staff, and do it better than the best of us on our best day.
How many of us can actually do the jobs of our direct reports? How can you effectively or responsibly lead when you aren't familiar with the tasks, time, and effort it takes for the job to get done on a daily basis? How can we preach servant leadership when we don't even know HOW to serve? Let's first learn to serve before we even attempt to lead.
3. Systems are the Key to Success
Every 90 minutes hot sanitizing water shoots into buckets and everyone in the kitchen stops and just takes a moment to wipe down the surfaces in front of them. Between breakfast and lunch and then lunch and dinner the cooks break down one half of the grill and completely clean it from top to bottom. These tedious but important systems keep the cleanliness and order needed to keep a packed out restaurant running without a glitch.
I once worked at a firm that for every QBR the managing director ran around in almost a panic getting files from this person and that person. It sparked mass chaos as people scrambled to pull various reports and give various stats they could have been gathering all quarter. Unscathed by it all I consistently could provide my direct manager my numbers I had taken the time to maintain and update every Friday. As a leader this IS your circus and these ARE your monkeys. The only way to ensure you survive the chaos of last minute requests from the big bosses (aren't they always last minute..and at the worse time?) is to have dedicated systems in place for your team to handle the tedious on a daily basis so when thing heat up your team can rise to the occasion without a glitch.
4. Enjoy the View
Cracker Barrel is just as known for its iconic long porch filled with beautiful wooden rocking chairs as it is for its waits for a table. The rocking chairs are a welcome reminder to take some time to enjoy the view and understand it can wait.
As leaders we often fail to take much needed time off to enjoy the fruits of our labors. To spend time with our families and most importantly recharge so we can give our teams 100% of ourselves. As the holidays approach enjoy the view, enjoy the food, enjoy your family, enjoy the time off. Hold yourself accountable; turn off your work phone, turn ON your vacation responder and know that work can wait.
5. Never Forget Where You Started
Over a decade ago I joined the crew of staff that opened Cracker Barrel 559 in Hampton, Virginia with the fresh eyes of a college coed hoping to one day be a big time lawyer. The leadership lessons I took from my time waitressing have been just as useful in my work as an entertainment attorney to GRAMMY nominated songwriters and producers as they were during my days at the country store. The poise I learned to maintain in a busy dining room suddenly reappeared when I nervously stepped in front of hundreds to deliver a TED talk in at Johnson & Johnson in 2014. The people skills I learned long nights serving tables translated to effectively managing vertically, handling difficult clients, and presenting my best self down to the last at countless diversity conferences, engagements, and workshops as a consultant.
As leaders we should never forget where we started. Never forget the lessons learned in those early days before the titles, accolades, and bonuses. It's those lessons in the early days that give us the grit and foundation to stand tall on our hardest days and during our busiest seasons.
So next time you are in a Cracker Barrel and you see a bright eyed young waitress be sure to tip her well and remember her face because she may be seeing you in the board room one day soon.