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Learning To Cook Made Me a Better Leader

Ok, this might sound like a bit of a stretch but hear me out. Several weeks ago, I was attending a phenomenal workshop facilitated by some of our own Colorado Access experts about innovation. During this workshop, we talked about this idea that:

Creativity + Execution = Innovation

And while we were discussing this concept, I was reminded of something Chef Michael Symon once said as a judge on an episode of “The Next Iron Chef” several years ago. A chef competitor had attempted something very creative but the execution went all wrong. He said something along the lines of (paraphrasing), “if you’re creative and you fail, do you get points for creativity, or do you get sent home because your dish doesn’t taste good?”

Fortunately, life isn’t like a reality cooking competition (thank goodness). When you’re learning to cook, you follow a lot of recipes, typically to the letter of the recipe. As you get familiar with recipes and different cooking techniques, you get more comfortable getting creative with adaptations. You ignore the amount of garlic listed in a recipe and you add as much garlic as your heart desires (always more garlic!). You learn exactly how many minutes your cookies need to be in the oven to get them the right level of chewiness (or crunchiness) that you like them, and that time might be slightly different in your new oven than it was in your old oven. You learn how to correct mistakes on the fly, like how to adjust when you’ve accidentally oversalted your pot of soup (add an acid like lemon juice), or how to tweak recipes when baking because you can maintain the integrity of the science that baking requires.

I think leadership and innovation works the same way – we all start off with no idea what we’re doing, following someone else’s ideas and instructions very closely. But as you get more comfortable, you start making adaptations, adjusting as you go. You learn that like garlic, there’s no such thing as too much recognition and appreciation for your team, or that your new introverted team needs different things than your previous, extroverted team did.

And eventually you’ll start creating ideas of your own. But whether it’s at work or in the kitchen, there are a lot of ways those ideas can go sideways:

  • It might not actually be a good idea (maybe buffalo chicken ice cream just won’t work?)
  • Maybe it’s a good idea, but your plan was flawed (adding the vinegar-y hot sauce straight into your ice cream base made your dairy curdle)
  • Maybe it was a good idea and you had a good plan, but you made a mistake (you let your ice cream churn too long and made butter instead)
  • Maybe your plan worked the way it should, but there were unforeseen circumstances (your ice cream maker short-circuited and started a kitchen fire. Or Alton Brown sabotaged you Cutthroat-Kitchen-style and made you cook with one arm behind your back)

Which one of these is a failure? A good chef (and a good leader) would tell you that none of these scenarios is a failure. They all might ruin your chances at being the celebrity chef, but that’s ok. Every single scenario gets you one step closer to success – maybe you need to buy a new ice cream maker or set a timer to make sure you don’t over-churn your ice cream. Or maybe your idea needs to be scrapped altogether, but the process of trying to figure out a buffalo chicken ice cream recipe led you to create the most perfect habanero ice cream instead. Or maybe you figure out the recipe to perfection and go viral as the crazy home cook who figured out how to make buffalo chicken ice cream taste delicious.

John C. Maxwell calls this “failing forward” – learning from your experience and making adjustments and adaptations for the future. But I’m not sure any kitchen afficionado needs this lesson – we’ve learned it firsthand, the hard way. I’ve forgotten to check on my bread under the broiler and ended up with charcoal and a smoky kitchen. Our first attempt at deep-frying a turkey at Thanksgiving resulted in the turkey being dropped in the gravel and needing to be rinsed off before we attempted to carve it. My husband once mixed up teaspoons and tablespoons and accidentally made VERY salty chocolate chip cookies.

We look back on each of these memories with a lot of humor, but you can bet that I now watch like a hawk whenever I’m broiling something, my husband triple checks his teaspoon/tablespoon abbreviations, and we always make sure someone is in charge of holding the roasting pan when the turkey comes out of the deep fryer or the smoker every year at Thanksgiving.

And in an oddly similar scenario at work several years ago, I had to make a presentation in front of our leadership team, including the executive team. My plan for this presentation backfired spectacularly – it was too detailed and the discussion quickly went in an unintended direction. I panicked, forgot all of the facilitation skills I had ever learned, and the presentation went completely off the rails. I felt like I had served deep-fried-dropped-in-the-dirt turkey, burned bread, and salty cookies to my CEO. I was mortified.

One of our VPs met me at my desk afterwards and said, “so… how do you think that went?” I looked at him with equal parts embarrassment and horror and buried my face in my hands. He chuckled and said, “ok well we won’t dwell on that then, what will you do different next time?” We talked about tailoring presentations to the audience, anticipating questions, and steering discussion back on track.

Thankfully, I’ve not crashed and burned that hard in a presentation since then. But I always I think about those mistakes I made. Not with shame or embarrassment, but to make sure I’m thinking things through in a way that I didn’t for that awful presentation. Just like I babysit my bread under the broiler. I always do my due diligence to make sure any plan I have can be executed the way I want it to – a good idea for a value-based contract model won’t go very far if claims won’t pay or we don’t have a way to measure improvement.

Whether you’re creating a new recipe, presenting to your leadership team, launching a new idea, or even just trying a new hobby, you can’t be afraid of failure. Sometimes recipes become the gold standard because they really are the best. And sometimes recipes remain classics because no one has come up with a better way to do it. But success doesn’t usually happen overnight – it can take a lot of trial and error to get to an implementation that will make you successful.

Failure in the kitchen made me a better cook. And learning to fail forward in the kitchen made failing forward a lot easier at work. Embracing a fail-forward mindset absolutely makes me a better leader.

Go forth, get in the kitchen, take risks, and learn to make mistakes. Your colleagues will thank you for it.