5 Lessons Barbecue Has for Business

For thousands of years, humans have gathered around a fire, relying on its warmth and ability to provide sustenance. And while our modern-day gatherings may look a bit different from those of our pre-historic ancestors, there is still some magic that occurs when a group of people comes together for a feast over the flame: It’s the magic of the barbecue.

I am an avid griller. That means I’m constantly learning new strategies to throw the best possible barbecue with food that leaves guests asking for to-go boxes. As I’ve grown as a leader, I’ve realized that many of these strategies I use standing in front of the fire apply to my business, too. So how can we bring the magic of the barbecue out of our backyard and into the office?

Inclusive barbecuing

There is nothing worse than attending a summer barbecue only to discover there is no food that accommodates your dietary restrictions. You’re stuck eating chips and salsa for dinner while the rest of the guests delight in the feast.

As hosts, it’s our job to consider all dietary needs and preferences when creating the menu to ensure everyone invited gets to partake. The same applies when creating an inclusive work culture — what needs to be on your menu of offerings to support every person regardless of their background?

It may be more work for the host, but when we increase the flavors on the menu, we increase the probability that everyone will leave satisfied and perhaps even surprised by a dish they never tried before. Similarly, by creating an inclusive and diverse work environment, we not only meet the needs of the varying people on our team, but we also make a richer and more exciting final product for our customers.

Control the heat

When you barbecue, you have to be closely attuned to the heat of the grill. Do you want the temperature high and hot for a quick sear on a steak? Or low and slow to smoke a brisket?

The best grillers control their heat; they don’t let the heat control them. In leadership, emotion is our fire and it is vital to our success, but it can be all too easy to let our emotions get away from us. Without self-awareness and control, we may overshoot, unintentionally burdening or even hurting our employees.

Conversely, we can be too “cool,” allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of or letting bad behavior slide. Great leaders know how to modulate their disposition based on the context and the outcome they’re trying to achieve — they are in the moment, their eyes firmly fixed on the temperature gauge, ready to adjust at any time.

Preparation is our friend

A barbecue host’s nightmare might look like this: You’re standing at the grill, sweating bullets and the food is an hour behind. The guests are hungry, impatient and silently questioning if they should leave and just order takeout.

Without proper preparation, a barbecue can quickly go off the rails. Furthermore, if you don’t plan and marinate the meat or season the vegetables, the food you were going to serve will be not only late but also subpar.

Our outcome is commensurate with our preparation. Whether I am standing in front of the grill or my board members, if I am unprepared, my results won’t meet my goals. When I am too busy to properly prepare for a board meeting, the meeting is unfocused and unproductive. However, when I take the time to set out my goals and gather my notes, the meeting is seamless and we accomplish what we need.

The discipline of fire

Grillers know they cannot “set it and forget it,” walking away from the fire to chat with friends or cool off inside. If they do, they may commit one of the cardinal sins of grilling: overcooked meat. Your heart sinks as you poke the charred, dry brisket, and more often than not, the food is unrecoverable. Even if we have barbecued a million times, we have to monitor the process minute to minute, looking for signals that the food is done.

A “set it and forget it” approach to leadership is similarly disastrous. It’s vital that leaders stay focused and continuously monitor the health of their businesses, projects and people. The processes we build — especially those we can sometimes find “boring” or rote — and the consistency with which we do them allow our business to flourish.

If we neglect regular check-ins, we may miss a flare-up and jeopardize our success. The discipline of great leadership is in standing by the fire when all you want to do is sit down, have a beer and relax with the rest of the guests.

Grilling with intuition

I don’t necessarily recommend you try this at home, but when I grill, I don’t use a thermometer or follow recipes. Of course, thermometers and recipes can be useful — I relied on them heavily when I was first learning. But over time, I found that when I stopped using them, I was forced to be hyper-present, trusting my senses and intuition to know my next move.

In business, we need to avoid relying too heavily on standard check-in practices and data analysis, lest we become complacent. Such tools provide extremely useful information, but it’s easy to become so obsessed with what the data says that we fail to ask basic questions, such as “What do I think about this? Are we going in the right direction?” One of the most powerful tools we have is our intuition, and sometimes it is the most useful data point we can follow.

Recipes, thermometers and data provide the foundation, but what happens if the thermometer breaks or the data formula is outdated? When we stay hyper-present and focused, we ensure we don’t miss potential opportunities or problems. And if we want to create something beyond the typical hamburger and move toward the exceptional, we have to put away the recipe books, take risks and trust our gut.

Get grilling

There is a reason we all love attending barbecues. But before you stop reading and start planning one, I’ve got a few more tips to set you up for success at the grill and in the office. A grilling speed round, if you will.

Consider using a spice you’ve never tried before — but remember to taste it before you throw in the entire bottle. This is similar to experimenting and iterating in the workplace. Try new things and work on improving them over time.

Also, never underestimate the simple contribution of salt and pepper or what a dash of Worcestershire sauce can bring to the overall flavor of a dish. Sometimes, it’s the simple things we do in business that put us over the finish line. People may not always notice when they’re there, but they’ll definitely know it when they’re not.

Finally, as the late great Anthony Bourdain once said, “Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start.” Barbecue might not be what we look to for leadership advice, but it can still teach us a lot.

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