Signs of Leadership Imbalance at the Unit Level

Signs of Leadership Imbalance at the Unit Level

by Jim Sullivan Copyright

We design and deliver multiunit leadership development workshops for the top one hundred foodservice and retail companies around the globe. In these interactive programs with Area Managers
and multiunit franchisees we share fresh research, best practices and common stumbling blocks related to 21st Century leadership. One skill that multi-unit managers (MUMs) routinely identify as most challenging is how to properly assess and improve the leadership of unit managers. An imbalance of leadership at the unit level affects all aspects of a brand since the store is where the company meets the customer. And if a positive guest experience is variable depending on who’s managing, then marketing, sales, costs and repeat business all become more variable too, placing undue stress on both budgets and performance. So how do above-restaurant leaders effectively evaluate unit leadership levels and then prioritize the development necessary to improve them? Here’s a checklist of unit-level symptoms to watch for. If these sound familiar it’s likely there’s also imbalance in that unit’s leadership:

  • Managers are supervising processes instead of people. This behavior is viewed as normal by accountants and the consultants who sell the processes. But we are not in the food and beverage industry serving people; we are in the people business serving food and beverage. Processes should be supporting people development and not vice versa.

  • New employees are put in the toughest positions. This is what we call orientation: new crew members are handed a packet, given a lukewarm greeting by the manager-on-duty and then ushered to a backroom seat in front of a combo TV/DVD player near the cleaning bucket to watch an hour-long video. Nice. Then they’re often thrown into a tough position (drive-through window, front counter, make table) during a busy meal period, overwhelming them. Our industry needs a thorough overhaul of the new employee orientation or “onboarding” process. Always begin with cultural assimilation or “why” before you pile on the “what” and “how.” Motivate new employees through intent and not just instruction. Don’t allow managers to throw newbies into roles they haven’t been acclimated to. You know why? Because they end up practicing on the customer.

  • Promote-able candidates are not being properly developed. GMs are hired by the people they report to, but fired by the people who report to them. It is not enough to identify your high-performers, you must simultaneously make them better at what they do. When unit managers are poor supervisors they miss opportunities to define and develop the next generation of leaders. How effective are your GMs at training their junior managers to teach, lead and coach the hourly team? Do they craft quarterly development plans for each manager and high-potential hourly team member? Do they elicit best practices from their managers at the weekly meeting and then archive and share those insights with their Multiunit Managers?

  • Poor performance on the GMs day off. The sign of a good GM is that the restaurant runs best when they’re working. But the sign of a great General Manager is how well her or his store operates when they’re not there. Standards and performance should not vary markedly from shift-to-shift.

  • Turnover, not tenure, is measured.  It’s more important to know how long hourly crew members stay in each position (tenure) than what percentage left last year (turnover). What does “50% annual turnover” really tell us? That every other person on the team left once in the last year? Or that five positions churned ten times? Value tenure over turnover as a measuring stick. Once you know exactly when each position tends to be voluntarily vacated, you can then initiate new training or incentives several months before the average jumping-off date. This helps you extend their tenure and engagement, which reduces hiring, training and replacement costs.

  • Everything’s a priority/never enough “time.” Time management is the foundation of high-performing unit managers. No matter how well you know what you need to do, you must first have the time to do it. And know how to prioritize it.
  • Uncertain about how customers see us. Most service initiatives fail because we’re either habitually inconsistent or everyone’s focused on the wrong things. Get your managers and customer-facing crew to each make a list of the customer’s top five expectations and top five complaints. Compare each list. If they’re not aligned, agree who’s right and re-align them. Now practice the skills that will eliminate complaints and exceed expectations.
  • No pre-shift goal-setting/communication. A sure sign of imbalance in a restaurant’s leadership team is an absence of pre-shift communication between managers and staff. If you don’t give your team members a plan before each shift they will presume you don’t have a plan. And each person will focus on their own goals, which may include doing as little as little as possible. This is not what you want. Download a free pre-shift meeting planning template at and use it to focus your team daily with smart and measurable goals. 

  • Previously effective systems/processes are less effective. Weak leadership makes strong systems ineffective. Before you 86 the system make sure that all the managers are using it correctly. Don’t manage your business in “safe” mode, put off change, hedge bets, and wait for things to get back to “normal”  The restaurant business is not getting back to “normal;” this is the new “new.” Accept it. And if you find yourself operating in a reactive culture that is now exclusively numbers-driven, re-visit the first sign (above).


Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at leadership conferences worldwide. Get his brand new book Fundamentals at Amazon or and the free monthly leadership e-newsletter and product catalog at