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Finding Culture in an Onion

Published June 1, 2019

I am several months away from the release of my book “Cutting Onions: Leadership Lessons from the Restaurant Industry” but I’m still writing and wanted to share some thoughts around finding culture in an onion, which is one of the most important lessons.

Much like my book, this post is about more than cutting an onion. The onion represents so many things and one of them is culture. At Chipotle we knew we had something special, but when we tied that something special back to our culture, many of us found it in an onion. In the way, we took care of that onion, prepared it, and then sliced and diced it for our recipes.

The seemingly simple act of cutting an onion is actually more complex than you might think. Much like creating the culture you want in your organization is much more complex. You might have the best idea for a product or service, a compelling vision, people who are excited and passionate, and so much more. But it doesn’t mean anything if you do not have the culture to support that vision…that destination you want to take your organization to.

When you prepare to cut an onion you are doing work ahead of time before you ever grab your knife.

  1. You are setting up your station and practicing some excellent mise en place (the French phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place”. Great chefs organize everything in their kitchens and make sure they have all of the ingredients they need to execute a successful recipe. Some chefs even say that great mise en place is an ethical code. They don’t and won’t cook without everything in its place.
  2. Part of the work you do before you do the work of cutting an onion includes making sure you have the right knife, and that knife also needs to be sharp.
  3. You’ve got your cutting board ready to go. It’s clean and sanitized and ready for service.
  4. You know exactly what you need to prepare and have the recipe in front of you to do so.

When you think about changing the culture you have, or creating the culture you want, the same type of preparation and pre-work has to happen.

  1. Whether you have an organization of 1, 10, 100, 1000, or 10,000, you are compelled as a leader to make sure you are practicing great mise en place in how you are currently operating your organization.
  2. Do you have the right people on the team? Are they in the right roles doing the right things to help you accomplish the vision?
  3. Do you really understand your team? Do you know their strengths and weaknesses? What are you doing to help them peel back their layers to be their most authentic selves?
  4. Do they have all of the right resources and tools available to them to execute at the highest level of performance?

All of these things have to happen and be in place before you start “culture-building”. Everyone wants a better culture but not everyone is willing to do the hard, and sometimes painful work, of making the necessary changes that allow you to begin to move forward in building a better culture.

This includes removing low performers, choosing the right people to replace them, giving them the resources they need, and then empowering them to do the work.

  1. Regardless of tenure, personality, charisma, and experience, you must remove people who do not share your core values and the immutable laws of your organization. Even if their performance on paper is stellar. Remember, how you get there is as important as getting there in terms of the results you want to see.
  2. Never settle on someone who checks the box of the job description. Look for people to add to your team who will inspire others to greatness. Look for people who can develop the people around them to be as good or better than they are.
  3. As a leader, you need to get comfortable with investing ahead of the business in a thoughtful manner to ensure that you not following, but that you are leading the way. This includes investing in infrastructure, systems, tools, and processes as needed.
  4. Create a compelling vision that is memorable and portable. You want your team to connect to a vision they can rally around and evangelize. At Chipotle, our vision was to “change the way the world thought about and eats fast food”. It worked. We connected to that vision in a deep way and it permeated the entire organization.

Find the “onion” in your organization. What is that one thing you can use to help you create your culture, elevate performance, and use as a beacon to lead the way?

Find that and put the resources you need around it to help you get there and you will create the culture you want that attracts top performers who believe in your vision and will stick with you on the journey of accomplishing the mission of your organization.