A Chef and a Strategist: What’s the difference?

two women standing a kitchen, sharing a laugh

As my partner and I were preparing our traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner–corned beef, cabbage, Irish soda bread (paired with some Guinness, of course)–I had a bit of an aha moment. See, I’ve been looking for a way to describe what “strategy” is and how it intersects with “culture.” And you might be thinking, “Taylor, well why don’t you just Google it. There’s been a lot already written on this topic.” Well, I did that, but it still didn’t satisfy my desire to break it down in non-consulting-y words. Plus, we consultants like a good metaphor.

That is when it came to me. What better metaphor for the relationship between strategy and culture than food. Real original right?

Stay with me.

You know the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”? Well, I think of it a bit differently.

I think of strategy as the Chef. A Chef can make a really good or really bad meal (just ask my partner–I’m not the best cook). That meal, along with the ambiance of the restaurant, the staff, the music, the lighting comprises an experience.

A Chef has a vision for what the meal should and could be. That Chef is on a mission to bring that vision to life.

The Chef then brings together all of the ingredients and tools they need to make the meal. And they aren’t alone in preparing the meal–they have a team. This team works together using the recipes, tools, and ingredients to make the desired meal and experience.

See where I’m going?

A Chef and their team create an experience, which isn’t much different than what functional teams do. Communications, HR, IT, Operations, and others collectively create the employee experience and, in turn, the organization’s culture.

If there isn’t a strategy to ground them in what that desired culture is, the experience won’t be one of a Michelin-star restaurant.

Great chefs plan a great meal. And, they’re also able to adapt and make do with what’s on hand and who’s at the table.

There is a lot of weight in the word “strategy.” If I had to guess, it’s because most of the time we think of strategy as this fully-baked thing that must be perfect. When in reality, that’s the opposite of what a strategy should be. Just like a Chef creates new dishes, teams need to adapt and try new things, keeping the main objectives and outcomes at the core.

The strategy informs the team’s focus and work. This means that when change and unexpected situations arise the team can rally together and adapt as needed to reach the desired outcome.

In a Dare to Lead podcast episode on Prepared Leadership, a quote that stood out to me was, “We have to be able to teach people how to work and plan strategically and we have to be able to help people understand that when there is the inevitable disruption, how are you resilient from that so that you can get back on your plan forward?”

That’s why I think it is so important to start with a vision (AKA what your team aspires to achieve).

Here’s my recipe (grandma’s secret ingredients redacted) for crafting a strategy that will ground your team:
  • Start with the bigger picture
  • Then work back from there to define the top 3-5 objectives
  • From there, determine how you are going to achieve those objectives
  • Define how you will know you have achieved them
  • Create a roadmap of what you’re going to do and when

Once that is done, the most important work begins. Start living the strategy by implementing it through processes, channels, programs, and people.

It doesn’t stop there.

We must keep an ear on our processes, channels, programs, and people. This will help us understand what’s working, what’s not working, and adapt as needed. To do so, this means we must have a constant pulse on employee sentiment. Moreover, we need to be willing to get it wrong in order to get it right.

Sometimes, in the midst of day-to-day scrambling to get something to eat on the table, the vision gets lost. Do you really want to serve your Irish soda bread with peanut butter? Or your cabbage with Nutella and ice cream? Teams that take the time to step back and think about what they are trying to achieve will avoid noise, lack of clarity, and a disengaged/disconnected workforce.

The ingredients, the people, and the tools might change. Certainly, there will be some unexpected disruption throughout. Yet, getting the whole team rallying around the vision from the beginning can make the bumps and disruptions smoother.

Need a Chef in your kitchen?

We’re here to serve. Drop me a line to chat about all things strategy, vision boarding, planning, and bad cooking. 🙂