What is Facilitative Leadership?
In my first kitchen, a sign just like this one hung on the wall. Since then, I have seen it many times in other kitchens.
I liked it. Even though it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, it provided some sense of order and, and it gave me a goal...to become the chef.
At the same time, even back then, you can’t read this sign without thinking: “Of course the chef must be wrong sometimes.”
Even though this is a sign about the chef, I have witnessed a career full of leaders and managers who have had this mindset, myself included.
One of those leaders was a chef I worked for very early in my career (I’ll call him Chef). His claim to fame was barbecue, he had been crowned BBQ King of San Francisco three years in a row. And that’s how he introduced himself.
As a young cook, on a team of young cooks, we were all eager to work with and learn from a good chef. With this chef, we eventually saw that our learning was how to best navigate a relationship with him.
There was a certain kind of reverence needed to pay him to unlock his ability to listen to you. So, if you wanted to tell him that you took the last of the shrimp and he should order more, you had to put it in a way that made him feel like he was a step ahead of you, and that it was your clumsiness that made this conversation a necessity.
Something like, “Hey Chef, I know you already ordered the seafood, but I just took the last of the shrimp—I should have told you yesterday...”
When Chef wasn’t within ear-shot, the general conversation in the kitchen crew was “Did you see what he did today?” or “ Make sure you pretend you’re saving the sauce!” knowing that there was coordination with the next shift, and they would throw the sauce away before Chef got in, pretending as if they had added it to the next day’s sauce.
It was his involvement in the little things he didn’t understand that drove us the craziest. He had phrases that made no sense to us, like, “If you watch the nickels and dimes, the dollars will take care of themselves,” while we were thinking, “If you refrigerate the hollandaise sauce overnight and try to resurrect it in the morning, someone’s eventually going to get food poisoning!”
We were a team before him, now we were aligned about keeping him out of our business.
I bet it wasn’t a full year that we had him as our chef, but I remember the relief we collectively felt when he was gone. Now we could get back to running the place our way!
We got to be right again, or so we thought...
It’s a new day and we have a new chef, it’s this European guy with a European name, Rene Debon, he must be pretty special.
He spent the first day observing and asking a lot of questions. He got to know each of us on the line a little, and shared some of his food philosophies too, it was pretty exciting for a young cook.
Eventually, the first evening ended and the crew got ready for our evening post-work rituals, but Rene went back to the mop closet and started to get ready to clean. “Are you going to mop?” I asked. “No, I want to work with the night cleaners and show them what I expect when I arrive in the morning.”
I’d never heard of that—don’t chefs have people for that? Not Rene, he got the cleaning supplies out, introduced himself to the cleaning crew when they arrived and got to cleaning with them.
As Rene settled in, you could see he was thinking about my and the other cook’s prep lists. It was very common to come to work and have your worst job, like peeling shrimp, cleaning spinach or green beans, already done for you.
This was a kind of listening, it seemed Rene was always listening for the pinch points in our jobs. He rarely if ever asked us if we wanted those jobs done, he just did them, or got others to do them. If you ever did ask Rene for help, he’d find a way to help you.
I was once traveling through Tennessee with him, we were approached on the street in Knoxville by a strung-out looking guy, asking for money. We ended up bringing him to lunch with us and putting him on a bus to his sister’s house to get his life back together, complete with snacks, a couple packs of smokes and a bottle of whiskey to keep the DT’s away, all paid for by Rene.
After a couple weeks of working with Rene, I noticed the cook’s conversation shifted to
cooperation, “Hey, I know you need stock for tomorrow, so I made a bigger batch today.”
There was also a new pride in cleanliness, which I believe made the food taste better.
Rene was kind, and also tough. Once I was late because I had been out partying all night and I came in very hung over. Rene wouldn’t make eye contact with me, and at the end of my shift, he said, “Come with me.” I thought I would be fired, maybe worse. He opened the walk-in freezer door and said, “I want everything out of this freezer, the floors and walls cleaned, and everything put back and reorganized.” Yikes, that job is hard for a non-hung-over person at the beginning of their shift! He also told me to punch out before I started.
For the next few years, I followed Rene around the country, I saw that this chef, who taught me so much about food and cooking, also had a super-power. Almost everyone he came in contact with wanted to be around him, and wanted to do something for him. In his mind, I think cooking was just a thing, what he really valued was connection and cooperation.
For me, the experience of being cared for enough that the person at the top would make things easier for me, resonated through my whole being. It started me on a journey of finding ways to make things easier for other people, and it sparked a curiosity in me about how to treat people. Facilitation was a way to connect positively to people as a manager.
Facilitation is pretty simple as a concept. Simply put, it is to make things easier for others.
Facilitative leadership is a shift from making sure things get done, to trusting it can all get done with the right amount of cooperation. Maybe a better way to describe facilitative leadership is to say it’s “modeling cooperation.”
Here’s an invitation...
Ask those who you lead, “What’s one thing I can do to make your job easier?”
Try that for a week, just asking this powerful question here and there. Then see if/how it shifts the level of cooperation and maybe even the conversation in your organization. My guess is with time, you too will find that those who report to you will want to do more for you.
Come back to this post after you’ve tried it and comment, or share your comments now.
Others reading this can benefit from your insights.
If I can support you in learning more, and practicing facilitative leadership, please reach out.