What Top Chef teaches us about teamwork

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

May 09

Yes, it is true: both Kate and I are foodies. We get into The Next Food Network Star and think Guy rocks – even with the bling. But, the Food Network and Bravo TV are two separate entities and you can tell that Bravo TV wants their Top Chef show to be different, a bit edgier, and more personality based.

That’s OK – the competition can teach us a lot about teamwork, individual achievement, and what it takes to win. And how not to win. For those not familiar with the show, there is a “Quickfire” challenge and then an “Elimination” round where, in this case, one of the eight remaining contestants will “pack their knives” and go home.

There are individual challenges and team challenges. Last night, both tests were team challenges. The dynamics of being on a team were obvious – both the good and the bad. For our purposes, since the elimination round was for the teams to cater a wedding (!), there was the “bride” and “groom” team.

Team Dynamics

There are always three dynamics at work on a team. The first is leadership. The second is assigning tasks: the right task to the right person with the right skills. The third is each person’s attitude toward the team and the challenge.

Leadership is not static on a team. In one challenge, one person can be the leader and the next challenge a different leader can – and should – be leading the group. This is based on the person with the right experience for the challenge.

Assigning tasks between challenges or assignments also changes. In one instance, a person could be chopping onions for speed and next be responsible for the wedding cake. As noted in Competency perspective: teamwork, each person on a team needs to be relied on to do their part with skill and excellence. If that means chopping onions for speed in one challenge and baking a four-tier wedding cake the next, that’s what a good team person does.

One’s attitude toward the challenge and the team depends on one’s “world” outlook (catering a wedding sucks!), other team members perceived skills (this person can’t cater and I’m stuck with this person), to personality based on previous interactions.

The Bride’s Team

The “elimination” challenge was to cater a meal for the bride’s taste. In this case, the bride liked comfort food and was from the Atlanta area. One of the team was also from Atlanta and knew a lot about Southern comfort food cooking. Because of the expertise and new relationship, the leadership role falls automatically to this person.

With the Bride’s wishes for the meal, the team then looked at assigning tasks. On this team, each person was able to take a task that either had a strength in skills or had experience in doing the work.

The good attitudes showed as well. Leadership was about expertise with collaboration. Tasks were weighed, skills evaluated, and agreement done for the work. Previous experience in working with others showed as people on the team had delivered in their roles in the past. In the middle of the (36-hour) marathon cooking and preparation, this attitude showed in that, even in exhaustion from staying up so long, the team remained the same. Disagreements – yes. Working through the disagreements – done.

The goal, of course, was a meal for the bride on her day – and to win the competition and stay on to compete another day.

When the judges reviewed the work, there was some criticism, but mostly acclaim. The winner of the elimination round (with prizes) was the ad hoc leader of the group.

Yet, the leader of the team knew who saved the team – it was the person who made the wedding cake. The people may have enjoyed the leader’s food more, but he knew that his team was toast if the wedding cake failed.

So he said that he didn’t deserve the win – before the prizes were announced, mind you – and it should go to the person who made the wedding cake. This display of leadership is especially telling – the person making the cake was the only person on the team who had any experience making cakes (and not wedding cakes…) and it was not a skill area. To overcome that shortfall and save the team deserves the award, but all of that would not be something the judges would necessarily see. But the leader of the team knew and unselfishly gave the win to the maker of the cake.

The Groom’s Team

One would now suspect the groom’s team failed in all of these team qualities. And you’d be right. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

In the first “Quickfire” round, this team lost the challenge. Teammate Dale – honestly, this year’s asshole on the show – said far worse than I just did. Plus, he slammed his fist into the side of one of the kitchen lockers. The camera carefully showed the dent. All this, of course, was done in front of the judges. For the rest of team, the commentary behind the scenes was, “Dale. Yup. That’s what he does. And we’re stuck with him on our team.”

Having the asshole on the team carried over into the marathon 36-hour wedding challenge. The groom loved Italian food and one of the four on the team cooked Italian food all the time – the natural leader. But, she purposefully made recommendations for the menu, but refused to be the leader of the team because she didn’t want to consistently confront Dale.

Tasks were assigned, but there was little discussion and each person had reservations about the tasks to be done – but didn’t air them because Dale was on the team.

And when the cooking started, the uneven workload was simply ignored – except Dale kept taking on more of the cooking and angry about having to do so. Of course, he didn’t complain at the time – only at the judges table.

The lack of leadership, poor assignment of tasks, and lousy attitude brought this team to the loss.

The cause was Dale. But he didn’t pay the price of going home.

At the judges table — even with Dale being a total asshole – the person sent home was the person who refused to take the leadership role. It was hers to take, but she didn’t want it because of Dale.

Like “blame the victim.”

TV is not our workplace

Now, I realize that this is television. And good television means there is conflict. If that conflict can maintain over the course of the weekly shows, so much the better. So my prediction is that Dale will stay on the show to the end. People will have to be lucky to make it to the end because the producers will always choose conflict over improving the team. Not exactly a “top chef” except in the sense of ruining teams.

But that’s not at work.

Dale’s asshole Personal Brand is on full display here. It’s this way every single week. He may think that his personal brand is “loving the balance that Asian cuisine offers…” but his behavior betrays this false presentation.

And if I were the Executive Chef at Buddakan, “one of New York’s hottest restaurants,” I’d be looking real hard at this show and throw the asshole out my kitchen before he destroys my team.

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.