1: Danny Meyer was struggling.
Twenty-seven years old, he had just opened his first restaurant in New York City. He sensed he was making the biggest mistake a manager can make: neglecting to set high standards and hold others accountable. Most of his waiters and managers were older than he was. They were testing him and pushing his buttons.
“This was driving me crazy,” he recalls in his book Setting the Table.
Across from him sat Pat Cetta, the legendary New York City restauranteur and owner of Sparks Steak House.
Pat pointed at the table next to theirs. “First, I want you to take everything off that table except the saltshaker. Go ahead! Get rid of the plates, the silverware, the napkins, even the pepper mill. I just want you to leave the saltshaker in the middle.”
Danny did as he was instructed.
“Where’s the saltshaker now?” Pat asked.
“Right where you told me, in the center of the table.”
“Are you sure that’s where you want it?”
Danny looked closely. The shaker was a bit off-center. “Go ahead and put it where you really want it,” Pat told Danny, who moved it very slightly, so it was in the dead center of the table. As soon as he removed his hand, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off-center.
“Now put it back where you want it,” Pat said. Danny returned it to the center.
Pat moved it again, this time six inches off-center. “Now, where do you want it?” Pat asked. Danny slid it back to the middle.
“Listen, luvah. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off-center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off-center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you.
“And if you’re ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the f***** restaurant!”
Danny got it. The center of the table represented his core of excellence. “Every other point on the table was, to some degree, a measure of mediocrity, or even failure,” he writes. “But this powerful lesson also taught me to preserve my energy and not waste it getting upset about a basic, ongoing fact of life: ‘S*** happens, luvah!'”
2: Understanding the “saltshaker theory” helped Danny develop and teach a managerial style he calls constant, gentle pressure. “It’s the way I return the saltshaker to the center each time life moves it,” he writes.
Constant. Gentle. Pressure. Danny’s approach to leadership requires all three elements. “If you are constantly gentle but fail to apply pressure when needed, your business won’t grow or improve: your team will lack the drive and passion for excellence. If you exert gentle pressure but not constantly, both your staff and your guests will get a mixed message depending on what day it is, and probably won’t believe that excellence truly matters to you,” he writes. “If you exert constant pressure that isn’t gentle, employees may burn out, quit, or lose their graciousness – and you will probably cease to attract good employees.”
3: Today, Danny owns 18 highly successful restaurants in New York City, the toughest restaurant market in the world. He believes it is his job and that of every other leader in his company to teach their entire team how to distinguish center from off-center and always to set things straight.
“I send my managers an unequivocal message: I’m going to be extremely specific as to where every component on that tabletop belongs,” he notes. “I anticipate that outside forces, including you, will always conspire to change the table setting.
“Every time that happens, I’m going to move everything right back to the way it should be. And so should you! That’s the constant aspect. I’ll never recenter the saltshaker in a way that denies you your dignity. That’s the gentle aspect. But standards are standards, and I’m constantly watching every table and pushing back on every saltshaker that’s moved, because excellent performance is paramount. That’s the pressure.”
Reflection: How well does my organization exert constant, gentle pressure to achieve high levels of excellence? How would I grade each element?
Action: Discuss with my team or with a colleague.