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Why Your Team’s Mistakes are Essential to Grow Your Business


Want to grow leaders who take real responsibility in your business?  Pizzeria Toro owner Gray Brooks shows us how in part 2 of our interview (go here for part 1).   Conqueror this and you begin to stop wasting the likely most under-valued resource in your business – your team.

storefront slight comp
The team in front of their temporarily shuttered storefont. All the writing in the windows encourages passers-by to dine at locally owned restaurants. See part 1 of the interview to get the latest news on the fire and the planned re-opening.

Teri: You are at a stage in your business where you are learning how to empower managers and make them leaders.  Managers orchestrate business proceses, but how do you help them lead, become independent thinkers and really take responsiblity for the business?

Gray: The hardest thing for a new leader is to realize they are going to fail sometimes.

People will apologize. but as an owner I am not looking for an apology. I want people to own the mistake, realize it was not handled right, examine why, and learn from it.

Not because they are in trouble, but because learning from mistakes is so critical to individual development and the success of our business.

In so many workplaces, it is about shifting the blame – who’s fault is it?

Who cares whose fault it is? Let’s figure out how to make it better. Mistakes are inevitable. Otherwise you cannot grow. If it happened, it happened; it can’t un-happen. What can we learn from it?

It is interesting when people see that when they make a mistake, they are not being reprimanded. When they see we are genuinely asking ‘how can we learn from this’?. It’s an approach many are not used to experiencing.

Teri: What advice would you give other leaders and owners who want to empower their managers to become leaders?

Gray: It takes time. It’s like giving a child a new bike with no training wheels and telling them to get on the bike. You put them out there. Then in your head, you think ‘Oh he’s going to wreck that bike.’

You have to realize: sometimes you have to let them wreck your bike.

I remember the first big mistake I made when I became a chef working for in Seattle. I spent way too much money to have a piece of equipment custom ordered, and if I had ordered it an inch or two longer we would have saved a ton of money, like half the price.

The boss Tom said, “Brooks, you got fleeced on this. You cost me a lot of money. This was a mistake.” I felt like an idiot. I realized later by letting me make this purchase, he probably knew I might screw it up—hoping I wouldn’t, but knowing I might.  He knew I would actually learn from the experience if I did screw up.

So, you realize you can’t micro-manage your bike, and they are going to crash it, just like you crashed someone else’s bike once upon a time.


teri and gray comp
Teri and Gray enjoying conversation at the Beyu Cafe in Durham.

That is the whole deal. Once they crash it, they learn that is how you crash the bike, and now I want to learn how to not crash it and it gets easier. Eventually as the boss you back off more and more.

Teri: It sounds like a practice in both letting go and in closely paying attention to what is happening.

Gray: Yes, and it is a learning process for both sides. For new leaders it is realizing: I can wreck this thing a little bit and they are not going to throw me out of here. It is realizing I have to make the call myself and some times it may not be the right one.

I have seen operations where middle managers (the new leaders) are constantly asking senior management what to do and senior management constantly tells them what to do because they don’t want their bike wrecked. But at some point, middle managers have to decide they are going to take full responsibility for making the calls and dealing with the consequences— perfect or not.

For the experienced leader it is understanding that when people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean you need to take the bike away. It means this is a learning opportunity. Don’t ignore the bike wreck and don’t take the bike away. When you respond somewhere in the middle, when you acknowledge the mistake without blame, then you create a space where people can learn.

Naturally, people who want to grow are saying (out loud or not) “Let me on the bike!” So know, they want to be on your bike and ride to the store, on their own, without you. You have to realize, that is what the bike is for.

It really is a mutual learning. The further down the road we get, the better we and our up-and-coming managers get. Again, the culture starts to nurture itself.

Teri: What else helps?

Gray: As owners we are constantly trying to stay open to the fact that we could be wrong. Just because we are at the top of the pyramid, doesn’t mean we know everything.

It goes back into the whole thing of constantly trying to make things better. I have learned a lot about food from the dishwashers. I have watched dishwashers get together and make their own lunch and it’s delicious. They do things I would never have thought about doing with food. In every part of running a business, there are constantly things to learn.

Anytime there is a conflict or things are not running smoothly, it’s important to reflect on what is really happing and how did we contribute to this? We are always looking at our own behavior: How did we find a resolution in one area and not in another? That kind of reflection is something that never ends.

Teri:  Wow, I think we have covered several business school courses in these interviews.  Your experience is invaluable to share with the Skillful Means community.  Thank you Gray and best wishes for the future.

Catch up on the first part of my interview with Gray here.  If you are interested in learning how you can create a culture of continuos learning and improvement within your team, drop me a line here and we will find some time to talk.

Now it is your turn.  Whether you are a owner, manager or employee, how do you create a culture of continuous learning in your business?

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