Book Summary: Setting The Table

"Sell the f*#ing restaurant!" exclaims the owner.

Danny Meyer was seated at one of the tables of Union Square Cafe, his then-famous New York City eatery. Pat Cetta, one of his restaurant mentors, had dropped by for an unannounced visit and pep session.

Meyer, who was 27 years old at the time, was trying to oversee a fast-growing company.

He was having particular difficulty communicating his goal for greatness and holding his employees accountable for it. (At this point, those of you who lead groups of people will nod understandingly.)

With the proper metaphor, Cetta is prepared for this. He requested that Meyer clear one of the tables and place a salt shaker in the center of one of them.

He moved the shaker three inches to the left and told Meyer to place it back where he wanted it after confirming Meyer had it precisely where he wanted it.

Cetta then delivered the punch-line after a few more instances like this.

"Listen, luvah. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off-center. That's their job. It is the job of life. It's the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you're going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off-center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that's what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you. And if you're ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the f*^#ing restaurant!"

Fortunately for us, Meyer did not give up the restaurant, and he went on to create Union Square Hospitality Group, one of the world's most successful private restaurant groups.

According to experts, Meyer is the CEO of the firm, which produces between $250 million and $500 million in sales, even though the company is private and does not report revenue.

It owns several fine-dining restaurants in New York City and Shake Shack (delicious!). It also offers catering and a brand of health drinks.

The firm has proven successful in reintroducing salt shakers to the center of the table. It now has a consultancy arm that teaches other businesses to boost their bottom lines by providing better customer service.

Turning a simple lesson into 5 words to live by

A manager getting job promotion.

Most people would be satisfied if they could only remember to place the salt shakers back in the center of the table - that the only way to encourage greatness is to demand it.

There has undoubtedly been a long line of people who have achieved economic success by following such an idea.

Danny Meyer, on the other hand, thinks differently than most people, and he has coined five phrases that I believe every world leader should live by:

"Whoever wrote the rule that..."

This was a question he asked of each of the eateries he founded. "Who wrote the rule that the only way to enjoy expensive fine dining is in a stuffy restaurant with tuxedo-clad servers and a stiff, quiet atmosphere?" for example.

This was the question that drove Meyer to open Gramercy Tavern, his second restaurant, which has won nearly every accolade a restaurant can get, including a Michelin star.

But, in my perspective, his greatest brilliance was in applying this similar sort of thought to leadership.

"Who made the rule that you had to be a jerk to expect perfection?" he wondered when it came to demanding quality from staff. This is a very unique approach in an industry rife with egomaniacs.

Meyer's leadership style was born out of this question: constant, gentle pressure.

Constant, Gentle Pressure

A boss reviewing an employee performance.

It may seem like a nice massage formula, but it also works for leadership.

If you've lately taken on the manager role for the first time, you'll notice that your life has altered. It's as though three things have transpired, as Meyer recounts in his book Setting The Table.

To begin with, it will feel as if an imagined megaphone has been permanently affixed to your lips, allowing everyone to hear whatever you say. When you say anything to one employee, you've effectively said it to all of them.

Second, each of your staff has been given a pair of binoculars, which they are instructed to keep locked on you at all times.

This implies that everyone will be able to watch whatever you do. If you do something in front of one employee, you've already done it in front of everyone.

Third, you have been granted the talent of "fire," which you may employ in various ways as the leader. It may be used as a torch to illuminate the path for others. It may be used to offer warmth and comfort when needed. You may also use it to make a campfire that promotes community and rapport among your team.

The basic truth is that as a leader, everything you say and do is significant. Quite a bit.

So Meyer sends a clear message to his managers: he'll be bringing the salt shaker back to the center of the table regularly, but never in a way that diminishes the dignity of the other person.

To lead successfully, all three components of Meyer's formula - consistent, mild, and pressure - must be present. It's simple to see why if you consider what would happen if you didn't have them all:

Your team will lack the desire and passion for greatness if you are always polite yet don't apply pressure where it is needed.

If you apply gentle pressure, but not consistently, your staff will get a confusing message and wonder if excellence is truly important to you.

Finally, if you apply continual pressure without being gentle, your staff will burn out and quit. And you'll have a difficult time hiring good personnel, especially in today's environment, when your employees review your leadership online for all to see.

But I won't be able to perform all three!

Most individuals aren't born with that precise formula in their bones, and you'll be able to identify your bad leadership style from the list above. Most likely, you excel in one or two of the three aspects, but not all three.

Does this imply that you should surrender the restaurant's keys? Obviously not. However, it does suggest that you must adjust in some way for your weaknesses.

Meyer discovers a natural propensity to be steady and gentle but struggles to exert pressure. So he worked at it and came up with ways to get around it.

Many leaders, especially those transitioning from one level of management to another, struggle with this. You're now expected to apply pressure to individuals who were previously your peers and may still be your pals.

The consistent element is the most difficult thing for me. Our team just transitioned from a fixed office location to be fully remote, making it very easy to forget to interact with one another during the day.

I've been trying to improve my team communication skills, but there's always one more job on my to-do list today, so I tend to put it off till the end of the day. Then the end of the day turned into tomorrow, and tomorrow turned into the next week.

I realized I hadn't communicated effectively with my team outside of simple task-related interactions.

What are your thoughts?

Consider which of the three leadership profiles you fit into as you begin this week. Are you polite and consistent yet don't put enough pressure on the other person? You might gently apply pressure, but not all the time. Perhaps you apply steady pressure, but not softly.

Consider what you could do this week to nail down all three profiles, whichever one best matches your leadership style.

I'd be interested to know how it goes.

It's all uphill from here.

PS: Here's a remark from Danny that you might want to remember this week:

Know where your center is, give it a name, commit to it, and trust in it.

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