Lessons in Action, Part IV: Coaching for Star Performance

Every day I think of Michael O’Grady and the creative ways he coached and mentored so many to new heights. In this new series, Lessons in Action, I share my insights, breakthroughs, tools, and techniques that honor Michael’s legacy of helping others grow.

The greatest influencer of performance is coaching. Yet, it’s the most underdeveloped practice in restaurants today. Though many managers know how to do inventory, generate a P&L, and write schedules, too few are skilled in coaching.

1. Overcome fear. When I ask, “What’s so hard about coaching?” I hear, “It’s hard to find the right words. I feel like I’m picking on people.” Unfortunately, some managers take the autocratic “my way or the highway” approach while others buddy up too close to hold their players accountable.

2. Be a subject matter expert. How can you earn the respect of your players if you haven’t mastered the product knowledge and service skills you aspire to teach. Be prepared to model everything from how to deliver an airplane landing delivery of a plate, to giving a guided tour of the menu, to making “hello” special. When you’re competent you’re believable.

3. Be a DNA detective. Is your team member a hospitality charmer, a sidework obsessive-compulsive, or a super salesperson? Great coaches sniff out the idiosyncrasies, desires, and talents of their players. Uncover the DNA by asking, “What do you do best? How do you like to be rewarded? What’s the one thing I can do to motivate you?”

4. Watch your words. Ever hear, “I feel like a babysitter?” Too many managers stay trapped in this energy-draining role. They unwittingly speak to employees like children. “You need to,” “you ought to,” “you should,” “you never,” “you always.” Treating an employee like a child is guaranteed to demotivate. Bitter and resentful, your coachee will resist the behavior you are trying to change, and scheme on how to get even. That’s a big price to pay.

5. Master the coaching conversation. I’m often asked, “How can I be direct without sounding harsh? How can I stop asking people, ‘Would you do me a favor?’ when all I really want is for them to do their job?” Consider the following approach: Observe. “I noticed at table 23 you said to Mr. and Ms. Brown, ‘Would you like some wine? And Mr. Brown said, ‘No, we’re fine with water.’” Offer advice. “My advice is to say, ‘Mr. and Ms. Brown, if you’re interested in wine, our list is arranged by varietals. For a light crisp white, I recommend the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.’” Explain benefit. “When you explain how the wine list works and suggest a featured wine, you plant the wine seed. And if a guest buys a $40 bottle, you just made eight dollars in 10 seconds.


• Stay in the adult voice. “My advice is” is respectful. Parent phrasing like “you need to,” or “you should” keeps you in the babysitting role.

• Steer clear of judgments. “You didn’t properly offer wine,” sounds like your coachee is defective when it’s the behavior that’s ineffective.

• Be specific. When you generalize and say, “You’re not selling wine,” your coachee thinks, “How can you say that when you’ve been in the office the entire shift?”

• Keep it simple. Focus on one topic: explain the wine list and offer a specific wine.

• Be direct and respectful. Don’t sandwich two goods between a bad. No one likes false flattery. “I think you’re a great team player but, you never sell wine.” Keep the but out.

• Cut down on the whine. “Sam and Lori don’t sell wine. So why are you picking on me?” Try, “Susan, I promise to address this with anyone who doesn’t meet the standard. And I also promise to keep our discussions private.”

• Avoid tentative language. Don’t use phrases like “kind of,” “sort of,” and “maybe.” “You kind of didn’t mention wine” is hesitant and weak. You’re either pregnant or you’re not.

When you’re a great coach you develop honor and maximize the unique talents of your people. You improve performance, boost sales, and guest satisfaction. And, when you gift your players with time, attention, and direction, you’ll get a rousing round of applause in the form of a thank you handshake.

About the Author

Bob Brown, president of Bob Brown Service Solutions,, pioneered Marriott’s Service Excellence Program. He has worked with clients such as Disney, Hilton, Morton’s of Chicago, Nordstrom, Olive Garden, and Ritz Carlton and works internationally with the prestigious Burj Al Arab in Dubai. He has appeared on the Food Network and is author of the bestselling The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success, selling over 100,000 copies worldwide. Contact Bob for keynotes, workshops, breakouts, and executive retreats at 571-246-2944 ©Bob Brown Service Solutions 2016.

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