The CNE Midway at dusk
In Toronto something happens every August that signals the beginning of the end of summer – the opening of the Canadian National Exhibition (aka CNE, aka The Ex). The CNE opens in the middle of August, runs for 3 weeks and ends on the weekend before school starts in September. I’ve been going to the CNE every year since I was 8. Some of my fondest memories are from riding the rides and eating cotton candy there. When I was 16 I got the chance to actually work at the CNE and it was during that short stint that I got my first real lessons on leadership at work.
The famous Food Building at the CNE.
When I was 16, I got a job as a Taco Chef (…the official title was Taco Prepper) at the Mexicasa kiosk in the Food Building at the CNE. It was there that I had the privilege of working for a Head Manager named Tony. Tony was the kind of guy that anybody would want to work for. He was funny, patient, kind and completely down-to-earth. I didn’t realize it back then, but the way Tony ran the operation and the way he treated us as his team left a huge impression on me. In fact, a lot of how I lead today stems from what I experienced that summer.
Lesson 1: Always be professional.
The first day on the job was a disaster. We had no food, our oven didn’t work, half the lights wouldn’t turn on and we had only 1 cash register. Things were so disorganized that our line manager, Francois, blew a gasket and began throwing utensils and other kitchen objects out of the kiosk into the aisle. Throughout this tirade, Tony stayed calm. He waited until the tantrum ended and simply asked Francois “Are you feeling better?” After a moment of stunned silence, Tony thanked Francois for releasing his frustration: “Thank you Francois for helping all of us release our frustration. You acted out what we all feel inside – stressed and frustrated. I can’t promise you things will get better, but the team and I could really use your help in these next 3 weeks if you’re up for the challenge. If not, that’s okay too. Things are likely to be very frustrating for the next few days and that isn’t for everybody.” Tony then took Francois aside and by the end of the conversation, they shook hands and Francois left – never to be seen again.
I was amazed at how calmly Tony handled the situation. He didn’t freak out, he didn’t reprimand Francois in front of the team , instead he stayed cool. In fact he managed to turn a negative situation into a positive one because the way he remained professional really inspired the rest of us. It was really comforting to know that our leader could handle a crisis like this in a calm and level-headed way.
Lesson 2: Be open to new ideas.
Be open to new ideas.
After the departure of Francois, we got to work preparing for the lunchtime opening. We borrowed utensils from neighboring kiosks, we negotiated with the GE dealer onsite and got a working convection oven to use until ours was fixed and with about an hour until opening, most of our condiments and other foodstuffs arrived. With some serious teamwork we got the kiosk ready with 15min to spare…but there was one big problem – none of our taco meat had arrived. So here we were with everything to make tacos, except for the main ingredient.
Tony gathered us all in the back for a team meeting. “Folks, we’ve all worked really hard in the past 2hrs to get ourselves ready. You guys really worked hard as a team, but we have a problem, our taco meat isn’t going to arrive until well after lunch. If we don’t have anything to sell, we’re going to have to shut the kiosk down and unfortunately that’d mean you’d guys would have to go home with only 2hrs of paid time. Does anyone have any ideas?” Everyone was silent for a while until finally one of the cashiers (I think her name was Michelle) put forward two ideas: selling veggie tacos and selling a hot-dog taco with hot dogs purchased from another of our neighboring kiosks. Tony loved the idea and we made it happen.
As we were getting ready, my fellow Taco Prepper (Vi was his name) came up with the idea of selling the veggie tacos at ½ price since they didn’t have any meat. At the same time, I put forward the idea of putting up a sign to promote the fact that the “hot dog taco” was an exclusive offering for the opening day only. Tony gave us the go-ahead
That’s the way it went with Tony. He always listened to people’s ideas – no matter how outlandish or impractical. During the course of the 3 weeks we ended up implementing over a hundred small improvements that people had suggested: Roasting the taco shells in the oven before serving them, forgoing heat lamps in favor of made-to-order, races between Taco Preppers and adding sprite to the taco meat prior to heating it in the ovens to adds flavor and moisture (my idea!).
What Tony taught me was that good ideas can come from anyone at anytime…and that you never know which ideas are going to homeruns and which are duds. There were several ideas that we all thought were sure-fire hits that turned out to be flops. It was only years later that I realized that it didn’t really matter which ideas worked and which didn’t, it was more important that there was a constant flow of ideas. More ideas = more potential hits.
Lesson 3: Acknowledge and reward extra effort
Acknowledge and reward people.
Back in those days, our kiosk was one of the only places at the CNE where you could get Mexican food (most would argue that a taco isn’t real Mexican cuisine, but it was the closest thing J). Because of that, we often had long lines and large orders. It was really tough to keep on top of things. All us on the day shift team ended up doing a lot more than our original job descriptions. After the events of the first day, we really bonded as a team and we did a lot of things simply because we wanted to help each other out. We covered for each other when unexpected emergencies came up, we took turns cleaning the appliances, we all got there early so that opening would be smoother – anything and everything. Through every shift, Tony was right there alongside us. He helped out when it got busy and even when he was in the back office, he kept his eye on what was happening through his window.
We never asked for any sort of extra reward for the work we put in. We all got paid a fair wage and it was fun to come to work with new friends. Tony, however, made sure that he acknowledged anyone who went above and beyond. Sometimes it was a simple “thank you” in private, sometimes it was a “good job” in front of the team and if it was something truly special it was an extra 30min added to your timecard or a bit of overtime pay.
The positive effect of these small acknowledgements was amazing. Anybody who got recognized had a smile from ear to ear. I didn’t realize it at the time, but towards the end of the CNE I asked Tony how he decided what got recognized and what didn’t. He told me that what he looked for both the obvious and the not-so-obvious. It was important to recognize someone who cleaned up a spill caused by someone else, to acknowledge someone who covered for someone else who had an emergency come up or to say thank you to someone who decided to keep working rather than take their lunch break. This was just as important as recognizing the top cashier of the day. He also told me that he felt EVERYONE on the team deserved to be thanked and that he tried to ensure that each one of us got “thank yous” at least once every couple of days.
A Lasting Impression
I really enjoyed my work at the CNE and I learned so much just being part of that Mexicasa team. Tony and the crew really made an impression on me. I got so much more than a paycheck from that experience. The bottom line: good leaders and good examples of leadership are everywhere – even in a fast food kiosk.