9 Creative Leadership Strategies for a Post-pandemic World

November 17, 2020 | 1771 Views

9 Creative Leadership Strategies for a Post-pandemic World

Jim Sullivan

CEO | Sullivision.com

This is an update to Jim Sullivan's April, 2020 blog, New Rules of Leadership in a Post-Coronavirus World.

My first restaurant GM told me something many years ago that I never forgot: "There are only two things to worry about in the restaurant business: one is that things will never get back to normal, and two, that maybe they already have."Jim Sullivan

The coronavirus global pandemic effectively changed the U.S. foodservice industry forever on March 15, 2020. In its wake of 250,000 deaths (and growing) COVID-19 has left many restaurant companies—especially full-service operators—with bottom lines smaller than the period that ends this sentence. While most QSR and fast-casual restaurants with robust drive-thru and delivery systems in place have thrived during this crisis, many others have not. There are silver linings to be explored, lost opportunities to be examined, and lessons in leadership to be shared.

This isn't the first time we've been in a hard place. And it won't be the last. But we will all have to dig deep into a reserve of self-determination and creativity and resolve that we may not have known we had in order to progress. I've never before seen such a pervasive, perverse, devasting, and invisible enemy with such murky beginnings and no definable end. Yet in the midst of this crisis there are indeed lessons to be learned from operators who have stumbled on or innovated their way through to something resembling forward motion in this Yet-to-be-Defined New Normal. Below are nine of those key learnings for you to consider and to help you and your teams manage and lead your way through these uncharted waters.

1. Question to Find the Answers.

It's important to first ask the right questions if you want to effectively guide your team, brand, and business successfully through to the other side of this crisis. Here are questions for you and your leadership team to consider:

Don't assume that what came before will automatically be preferred again. Or even that things will ever be the "same" again. If the only new thing we have to offer is an improved version of the past, then today and tomorrow will be inferior to yesterday.

2. Better Connect with Customers.

Strive to make employee and customer relationships transformative and not just transactional. Reach out regularly to your customers and let them know what you're doing to help support your crew and community, keep them safe, and how much you appreciate their continued support. Don't ask customers for their feedback, we're all dealing with way too much right now. Design and deploy an effective, robust, and secure Customer Loyalty program that maximizes capture and communication with your patrons. And as long as I've got your attention can I just say that I have a problem with the term "social distancing?" It's not social distancing, it's physical distancing. What we all need is stronger social connection.

3. Connect with Crew.

Communicate regularly with team members. Where there is a void in communication, negativity fills it. Explain your plan to work through and evolve in the crisis. The best operators communicate quickly, consistently, honestly, with urgency, transparency, empathy, and clarity with their managers and hourly team members. And please be grateful for and show appreciation to all those team members you retained who are helping you redefine your business in new ways that will set you up for a stronger future. Rethink and question all of your job roles and responsibilities. Do they still make sense? What could be consolidated/eliminated? Where are the inefficiencies in hiring, training, and onboarding that could be eliminated or improved? Be sure to treat your teams with gratitude, compassion, care, and respect. Presume positive intent in your crew. Focus on improving your culture and commit to building something that lasts. Put faith in the important role that engaged coaching and development will play in getting your team beyond this virus and to that next level of perennial excellence. You are still fighting a turnover and retention crisis when restrictions are eased and your business starts coming back.

4. Assess the Changes in Corporate America.

How will America's workforce and workplace change post-coronavirus? Will businesses trim employees and will commercial office space shrink if distance working proves to be long-term viable and productive (and so far it has)? How will this affect unemployment and office catering, business lunches, banquets and client dinners? How will restaurants connect their services to a remote non-centralized business workforce? Is the traditional business conference and office meeting dead? Airline travel for business is seemingly weak until there is a proven coronavirus treatment. Some experts are now saying that Americans' disposable income will not return to November 2019 levels until the first quarter of 2023.

5. Build Delivery and Takeout into Design.

It wasn't that long ago that takeout from a full-service restaurant meant you had to call a busy hostess and pick up your order from a testy bartender upset by the interruption and additional task. Granted, we've come a long way with curbside/to-go in the last half-decade for full-service operators, but those gains were almost exclusively realized within the chain restaurant realm. We are now thankfully seeing creative improvements in the curbside/to-go process for independent operators too. The one big bright spot in these pandemic times is how quickly and effectively so many foodservice operators have adapted to and made a success of growing their takeout/curbside/to-go sales and marketing. Great lessons in leadership here for the future. Shortlist: touchless payment, dedicated pickup area/window, contactless delivery, and latex gloves.

Quick-serve restaurant chains are fast-tracking the new design prototypes they've been developing that have no dine-in area, just app-ordering pickup and drive-thru. Can a full-service restaurant or bar still survive if new laws require tables to be positioned 12 feet apart and bar stools permanently fixed to seven feet apart with 25% capacity limits? Sheesh. Volume is the only way we've traditionally offset our razor-thin margins. Hard questions for hard times.

6. Invest in Technology.

During this pandemic, Baby Boomers have learned to finally be comfortable with third party app ordering and delivery, a behavior that until recently was the bailiwick of younger generations. As a result, third-party apps have boomed. If you haven't yet invested in creating effective, safe, and secure third-party and contactless ordering apps, this pandemic should have revealed the absolute necessity of doing so. Pick the company that will share your customer ordering/delivery database as part of your agreement.

Ghost kitchens are now growing exponentially to offset the cost of real estate, labor, signage, and marketing. The pandemic has probably advanced the evolution of technology in foodservice ten years in the last 10 months.

7. Re-assess Cleanliness and Sanitation.

Now more than ever customers will scrutinize the cleanliness and safety of your operations. Re-assess all your processes for cleaning, disinfecting, and sterilizing your facilities, work environment, and customer contact points. Consider the myriad customer touch points in a full-service restaurant: menus, salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles, door handles, seats, tabletops, silverware, glassware, straws, drink garnishes, napkins, sugar caddies, tabletops, restrooms, etc. etc. How do we ensure safety and sanitation in the traditional full-service restaurant in a post-virus world? We'll have to think it through thoroughly, and if you think the Health Inspector visits were challenging before, welcome to a whole new world of standards, enforcement, and multiple routine health inspections. Look for creating pre-sanitization areas in our kitchens for all incoming products from our distributors, disposable menus, and QR codes for menus on tables in full-service operations, sneeze guards at the drive-through window, and seamless/touchless curbside/to-go systems will be standard features in the post-COVID-19 world. Will every restaurant have to reconfigure its tables and booth and condiment stands while every bar requires its patrons to sit a minimum of six feet apart? Initially, yes. How will bartenders safely prepare, garnish, and serve drinks in a post-coronavirus world?

8. Embrace Innovative Packaging.

We've recently made great strides in to-go and delivery packaging but even greater innovation is needed to keep hot food hot, cold food cold, and the containers tamper-safe from delivery drivers. This new world is bringing us those innovations at long last. I will not shed one tear for the death of the styrofoam clamshell.

9. Radically Improve Online Training.

Some experts question whether any traditional university or college will survive long-term post-virus given the price of education, and the pivot to and preponderance of remote learning. Why go to a classroom when the classroom can come to you? Apply that same logic to foodservice training teams. Will the new realities and opportunities for self-learning radically alter how we teach and train our managers and crew? Will it affect the size of training departments? Probably. But this much is certain: the time is now for the foodservice industry to go all in and radically improve the online learning-and-doing experience for every team member we teach and train.

We need change our perspective; it's time to design experiences, not deliver content. We want team members to engage and energize with our training courses, not simply "go through" it. We can start by rethinking our curriculum; creating courses designed for how adults actually learn (as opposed to what we want to "tell" them). Then we should integrate insight on crisis management, sanitation 2.0, and what leadership and hospitality means in a post-COVID-19 world into our courses. Meta-learning—or learning to learn—should be a key course and a critical focus area.

You should be keeping detailed notes every day during this crisis on what you did do/didn't do/should've done relative to leadership and communication during the coronavirus. Twice-weekly during these strange days I'm on conference calls with our foodservice clients sharing best practices, research, and collective reflections on how the best operators have improved their people and processes and systems during this pandemic. The operational strategies vary weekly but everyone agrees on one thing: that the RIGHT KIND of employee training is more important and critical now than ever. If your current digital learning curriculum primarily consists of passive (boring) content, it's time to invest in ways to make it more engaging; take your clue from the best podcasts you've heard or the most engaging short-format learning/DIY videos you've seen. There are even scores of learning lessons embedded in popular series like The Queen's Gambit.


As you consider strategies for getting the nine basics above in place in your operations, don't forget that compassion is a fundamental, too. Show unfailing gratitude for your crew and customers. Like Grandma Sullivan always said: "Give without remembering and receive without forgetting."

School is never out for the pro, and now is the time to read more, learn more, and think harder about how you can build a stronger future for your team, company and customers. Please visit Amazon take a look at the brand new editions of our bestselling books Fundamentals and Multiunit Leadership. There is an audiobook version of Multiunit Leadership also available exclusively at Audible. All are on sale this month. End of sales pitch. Thank you.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. And the key strategy is to focus your post-virus company on being resilient (adaptable to change), as opposed to focusing on stability (trying to keep things the same). This is, and always will be, a crazy industry. My first restaurant GM told me something many years ago that I never forgot: "There are only two things to worry about in the restaurant business: one is that things will never get back to normal, and two, that maybe they already have."

--Jim Sullivan, November 2020

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Comments (1)

  1. Richard Zurburg:
    Nov 18, 2020 at 05:20 AM

    And what you say also applies to ops in England. Your points are well made and hopefully well taken and applied. Stay well yourself!