From the Archives: What “Top Chef” Teaches Us About Teamwork

Following the great HRevolution event, a group of 30 or so descended on Flip Burger in Atlanta, owner by the recently crowned Top Chef Richard Blais.  I thought it would be nice to pull out this post from September 15, 2010 in honor of that trip.  Enjoy!

I admit, I am a huge kitchen geek, so I love Top Chef.  I look forward to each season, especially to the Restaurant Wars episode.  I do this with no small sense of irony, given how much I despise reality TV in general.  I can justify my love because I learn a ton from the competitors, gaining from their culinary school experience without having to go myself.
We can all gain from the experience, though, outside of the realm of the kitchen.  In the Restaurant Wars episodes, competitors are split into two teams, each of which must create a restaurant them and menu, then work together to execute.  One member of the winning team usually gets a nice prize, one member of the losing team usually goes home.
Even if you don’t care about kiwi foam, braised guacamole or deep fried bits of formerly living things, there are lessons we can take away about teamwork in a heated environment.
  • It is possible to be teammates with your rivals. On TC, it is required for the day.  In real life, it’s just as forced, but usually lasts longer.  The successful competitors realize they depend on their teammates to be successful if they want to remain.  We sometimes must do the same to be successful at work.  It is rare to have a team fail and still have a member or two look like a star.
  • Someone has to take the tough job, and can suffer for it. Many of the losing teams see their “executive chef” go home, even if they were not the weakest performer that week.  Sometimes when you are in charge, you take the blame.  It might not be your fault, but that’s part of the job.
  • Taking the tough job doesn’t always mean reaping the rewards. As often as the team leader goes home, it is rare that the team leader is declared the winner.  That honor goes to the individual contributor who really shines, more often than not.  It’s just another lesson that leadership isn’t the easy path some believe it to be.
  • When the heat is on, alliances can fall apart quickly. Many teammates have turned on each other in tough times.  Issues that were thought to be minor or resolved spring up, seemingly to blame for the failure of the team.  Always be aware of those who declare a problem resolved, only to continue to simmer over some injustice, real or imagined.
  • Each win is simply a step in the process. Restaurant wars is fun to watch, but is never the ending of the season.  The next week, those teammates will be back to individual challenges.  Just like we work side by side with our teams, but are eventually judged on our own merits.  Take those team tasks as a chance to learn from each other and better ourselves, but never forget that we must improve our own skills in the process if we want to be successful long term.

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