Too Many Cooks

by: Doug Michaelides

How many people are gathered around your senior management table? This is an important question in the effective operation of any growing organization. Having more managers around the table creates diversity of perspective (a factor in quality decision-making) and commitment cultivated through participation.  The downside, however, is the difficulty in developing consensus and making decisions. The risk, as Grandma might say, is that “too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth”.

This hazard is even greater in the absence of a common vision or clear strategy.  It’s tough enough trying to prepare a meal with cooks bumping into each other, but without a shared recipe it’s hopeless!  Sure, everyone gets to be in the kitchen where the action is, but nobody is having fun, and not much is getting cooked.

There’s a good reason that commercial kitchens employ a hierarchy of staff (sous-chefs and line cooks) supervised by a head chef.  When the heat is on and there are hungry patrons in the front of the house, clarity of purpose, well-defined roles and effective decision-making is essential to managing a complex, time-sensitive, production process. A ship has a captain, executive officers and crew for the same reasons.

Foster Senior Management Participation

A good chef, captain or chief executive frequently solicits the advice of trusted staff members but doesn’t allow consultation to obstruct formulating strategies or making decisions. Even in this age of social media and the democratization of ideas, the most successful companies, the icons of modern business, have been built not by broad managerial consensus but through the iron will of inspired leaders.  Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have each had just one (or two) “executive chefs” setting direction and calling the shots.  Investors, the board of directors and employees invariably look to a compact C-level executive team to take ultimate responsibility for the success of the business.

So, by all means, foster managerial participation.  But be careful not to undermine the C-level leadership needed to move the business forward.  Most managers enjoy sitting at the table when it’s time to plot strategy and argue tactics. But their satisfaction will be short-lived if they find themselves mired in endless debate without making progress towards a common goal. Any cook would agree that there is no sense wasting time in the heat of the kitchen if the meal never gets served.  And your hungry clients certainly won’t wait around while you argue about what’s on the menu!

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