YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN NOW: The 7 skills of the restaurant shift leader

Stephen Waters’ guide for new managers

Running a restaurant shift on your own for the first time is a big step. It’s your job to create an atmosphere of hard work, camaraderie, teamwork, and professionalism. People work in restaurants because it’s fun; so that’s your job too. Creating the perfect show is a balancing act built on exposure and experience.

Leaders who run great shifts bring seven interconnected skills to the piece: Decisiveness, preparedness, hospitality, presence, development, communication, and they are resilient.

Skill #1 – Decisiveness


Some situations require fast decisive action, other situations are to be put aside and must be attended to later. The trick is not to confuse the two: some decisions get made too fast; others too slow. In-service-decisions require quick thought, the team is looking to you to sort this out now. Other situations will benefit from being put aside, thought about, researched perhaps and the decision is strategically delayed so that you get a better decision. And the better you get at slow the better you become at fast. 

Skill #2 – Preparedness


Imagine a dashboard with three indicators: Customer. Team. Building.

Setting up your shift whether that’s an early or a late starts with customer. What is the shape and flow of service? How many covers? Who’s coming in? What do they need? Any large parties? What are the peaks and troughs?


Then team. Enough people on? Who’s working? Mixing old and new: where are the opportunities to share experience. Who needs looking after? Who’s going to look after them? Which relationships need strengthening? Any underlying team issues needing resolution?


Finally building: Is it ready? Deliveries in? Fire exits clear?… a good scene: lights down, music on, napkins, stuff that’s superstressful if you don’t have it.  Always go around the building on arrival, people know you’re there if they need you.

There’s an element of mental rehearsal too. Mental rehearsal is where the leader pictures themselves executing a skill and practises the skill in their mind, focusing on the specific stages and correct technique. Mental rehearsal can help us in two ways. First, mental practice improves self-confidence, so we can reduce our stress by visualizing ourselves successfully dealing with our challenges. Second, relaxation is often a part of mental rehearsal exercises, and relaxation helps reduce stress.


Shift briefings can be rehearsed. Briefings vary enormously in quality. Some are focused, timely, and lively; you look forward to them. Others are routine, ritual and cliché. A minute’s rehearsal can make a massive difference.

Skill #3 – Hospitality

“Service is the technical delivery of a product.  Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.  Service is a monologue – we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service.  Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue.  To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response.  It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top” 

Danny Meyer, Setting The Table, Marshall Cavendish, 2010

“I am delighted that today so many young people are going into the restaurant business, or are planning to do so, attracted by the excitement of dealing with seasonal produce, the daily interaction with their fellow human beings, and the opportunity not to have to spend their working day staring at a computer screen”

Nicholas Lander, The Art of the Restaurateur, Phaidon Press, 2012.

“Staff are few and far between, so it’s vital that the ones who want to learn, grow and thrive are inspired by positive role models and encouraged to develop those soft skills that will pay off in the long run – not only from a business perspective but also on a human level. After all, it’s the humans who make or break the business. 

Rav Gill, Countertalk, 2021.

Skill #4 – Presence

The phrase “I’m old school” usually means that you’re about to encounter someone who’s customer facing, leads by example and has high standards, charm, and hospitality. The fact that you notice them when they’re not there is both a testament to their style and a criticism of it. The team collapses in their absence. There’s a new school emerging: one where the staff member who connects closest with customers is the point of focus rather than the conventional leader. The conventional hierarchy is turned upside down: the floor manager’s function is to support the person at the point of contact, the GMs function is to support the floor manager, the ops manager supports the GM and so on. It takes trust, listening and learning to turn an organisation upside down. Many claim to do it, some do it exceptionally well.

Presence is: Being here, now. You know when it’s not there and there are some legendary leaders who possess it to an extraordinary degree. Presence includes self-assurance, confidence, and coming across as believing in yourself. If you talk to people who are known to possess it, you encounter someone who has a deep understanding of their personal values and drivers. They’re even tempered, anchored, and comfortable with themselves. They tend to use controlled gestures and they speak without hesitation.

Skill #5 – Development

Becoming an employer of choice in today’s restaurant environment is inextricably connected to development. Increasingly, people are using their ‘external’ career (who pays their salary) to develop their ‘internal’ career (their long term aspiration).


Managing the shift isn’t just about technique. There isn’t a manual, that says to talk to people this way, they will respond well.  It’s about the endlessly changing dynamic of oneself and other people in a set of circumstances. Your team members will (of course) vary in their levels of  (1) competence and (2) commitment. Developing the habit of noticing where the people on your shift are operating on both of these scales and responding with varying levels of support and direction is one of the most useful tools that a shift manager has at their disposal for building teams who fire off each other’s strengths.

‘Can you take the bins out please’  isn’t delegation.


Real delegation means giving people the chance to engage in work which is stretching and has real responsibility. It is one of the main ways in which we achieve job satisfaction.


We develop people through a set of connected skills: training, briefing, debriefing, feedback, questions, listening, mentoring, and coaching. Great shift managers have developed a balance of talking/leading and listening/observing.

Skill #6 –Communication

We ask our people to show initiative, and care for customers and so it becomes our job to keep them thinking. Poor communication skills will get you by day to day but a whole other level of skill is required if you want to keep people thinking. Poor communicators tend to demonstrate three key patterns. The first is that they take far too long to describe their ideas. As a result, the listener often ‘checks out’ of the conversation. The second is the listener not understanding exactly what the speaker was saying, so, conversations would go off on side tracks, resulting in the intent of a conversation not being achieved. The third pattern was that the speaker didn’t speak in the language and concepts the listener could immediately grasp.


We speak at about 100 words per minute but think at much higher rates –  about 600 words per minute. So, to create real commitment on the shift we must first capture and keep people’s attention. Being succinct engages people in the conversation you’d like to have. There are two reasons for this. First, focusing on being succinct makes the speaker get clearer about their core message before they speak. This in itself means that the conversations will be more focused. They might complete a message in a couple of sentences instead of a few minutes. Second being succinct provides the listener with a chance to process bite sized pieces of information rather than having to digest several minutes of ideas at once.

Being succinct saves significant time and mental energy. When we are succinct, we use less time to get across our ideas, the other person understands our ideas more quickly, and there is less debate about any points that were not clear.At the same time as using as few words as possible, we still need to be specific enough so that people understand exactly what we mean. We need to provide just enough information to illustrate the point we are making. Some of us have the habit of giving the other person too much information – they’re left drowning in detail, others of us have developed a habit of giving the other person not enough information: we’re too vague, they’re left stranded.


Be succinct, be specific. Finally, don’t forget that many (most?) of us in the restaurant business are operating in our second, third or even fourth language, so use language and concepts that are likely to appeal to the other person. Be yourself: if you’re funny, be funny, if you’re a wine enthusiast be a wine enthusiast. Share your thinking with relative frequency, but in a way that is crisp, concise, and relatable. Be authentic, be interested and tell stories. Make eye contact and remember the things that are important to your colleagues. Adapt to your team’s energy level, then raise it if necessary. Where energy is low, talk more than listen whereas a more engaged, energized group requires more observation and facilitation

Skill #7 Resilience

You as a manager are going to encounter some very difficult situations whether that’s customers, staff, or building  – and you need to be able to bounce back from those situations. Resilience is not an instant skill; it’s built on exposure and experience, it’s something that everybody develops throughout their entire life.


There’s no getting rid of the stress of shift management  – you just have to learn how to work with it as best as you can. Resilience is about understanding and framing those stressful moments as points of growth. “This is going to be challenging, but what can I take from it?” is the resilient leader’s maxim.

These are the seven skills.  Decisiveness, preparedness, hospitality, presence, development, communication, and resilience. Together these create an exceptional working climate from which extraordinary teamwork flows.

Stephen Waters

Stephen worked as a manager with Dome Brasseries, Oriel, and Cafe Des Amis du Vin during the 1980’s and with the founders of Pitcher & Piano as a manager, operations manager, management coach and Managing Director during the 1990’s.  Since 2001 he has been building Watershed, designing leadership development programmes for independent bar & restaurant companies and learning how people deliver the goods in the fast-moving hospitality environment.

Stephen is hosting a GOING SOLO course based on this article  – these are single full days, scheduled for 6 June, 22 June and 12 June. Get in touch with him here to book your place.

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