Building a team? Think like a chef

19 Nov

Earlier today I was speaking with a technology company CEO that I’ve known for years. Ostensibly, the conversation was about building great teams, but we wandered. We flitted between technology, culture, management best practices, and leaders we admired. At one point in the conversation I realized that had someone been eavesdropping he/she could have thought that we were talking about cooking. It got me to thinking.

I have long found amusing analogies between the act of cooking and that of playing music, particularly jazz. Regardless of how well-trained the practitioner, there is an element of improvisation that exists and the success of that improvisation leans a great deal on talent, pattern recognition, and “animal spirits” that cannot be taught or learned.

Experienced jazz musicians rarely read music; instead, they work from a lead sheet–a page of barely decipherable melody notes and chord changes that “suggest” the outline of a tune. They then make it their own through interpretation. Great musicians can dance on the edge of cacophony and it’s in that dance that magic is made. Similarly, experienced chefs take the framework of a recipe and a notion how something should be executed–say, how a beef bourguignon should classically look, smell and taste–and then they render an interpretation of that dish–sometimes successfully, sometimes not–based upon what’s at their disposal. Not until today had I thought there was much of a lesson there to building start-up teams.

Like cooking or playing jazz, start-up team building usually begins with a framework, often drawn from some best practices handbook, business school text, or from the counsel of experienced advisors. These frameworks are valuable, mind you, but like the most well-conceived battle plans they quickly go out the window the moment the bullets start flying. The “perfect” VP Marketing candidate is never available when it’s time to hire; the CEO who was so cool, calm and impressive in the interviews really can’t give a presentation in front of VCs without breaking into a flop sweat; and, the young programmer who was supposed to just build the basic code until the rock-star VP Engineering came aboard is now building the entire product because there’s no budget for a VP Engineering any longer. Pass the ammunition.

What I think distinguishes a great CEO from a merely competent one is that ability to improvise. It’s trite to say that CEOs should strive to only hire the best candidates, or chefs should only work with the finest ingredients. That’s too easy. Anyone can grill a top-dollar USDA Prime filet mignon; a talented chef can take a cheaper cut–say, a tough, sinewy beef shoulder–and know enough to be able to execute a proper four-hour braise in a gentle bath of wine and aromatic vegetables that will have it falling off the bone and tasting every bit as good as the filet. 

A great chef and a great CEO also learn early that it’s easy to add; it’s much harder to take away. Salt is cheap and plentiful and can always be added later; oversalt a dish too early and it’s ruined. Similarly, talent is always available (especially now) but bringing on resources into a start-up impulsively can shock the system. If those “additions” later turn out to be unnecessary, re-potting them somewhere else in the company or removing them altogether can be extremely painful, costly and destabilizing.

Truth is, there never seems to be the resources to do things the “right way”; and, waiting for the “right” moment to hire that A-list player or the “right” time to launch that marketing plan means waiting so long you miss the window of opportunity, which usually means the company suffers, or fails altogether. A great chef and a great CEO recognize and understand the potential of all the imperfect resources that are available to them at any time and can coax them toward realizing the fullness of their potential.


One Response to “Building a team? Think like a chef”


  1. Getting out of the starvation mentality « Adventure Capitalist - November 23, 2009

    […] focus on being extremely efficient with capital and resources. As I pointed out in my recent post, Building a Team? Think like a Chef, there is never enough time nor resources to do things optimally, so improvisation becomes the […]

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