It’s been over 10 years since I last stepped into my kitchen to cook. One of the privileges of living in a cosmopolitan Indian city like Bengaluru, is the luxury of being able to hire a cook, which has allowed me to stay away from the kitchen for all these years. Cut to the present crisis and the lock-down situation, I have no choice but to don the chef’s hat myself, in the absence of my dear cook! It took me some time to get used to it, but now yours truly is whipping up everything from cheese quesadillas, pani puri, and missal paav, to double-beans dum biryani and more.

Curiosity is my middle name. You see, I like to observe and learn from any situation that I am in, and I tend to draw parallels to the corporate world even when I am in the kitchen, and that’s how I stumbled upon some valuable leadership lessons. So much so, that one day I almost burnt the dal-khichadi (lentil pudding) as my mind began wondering about how well the seemingly diverse yellow lentil pulses and white rice grains can come together to create such an amazing dish. This is an apt example to demonstrate how diversity in the workplace can bring about refreshing ideas and innovation, that will help drive organizational growth.

Here are some of the other leadership lessons I learnt during my kitchen experiments:

1. Motivation 

As I tossed the carrot and beans around in my pan, trying my hand at making a vegetable curry, I realized that if I set the stove on high-flame, very soon my veggies would get charred. To avoid that, I had to make sure that I sprinkle a bit of water and allow them to steam off, pamper them with a few strokes of the ladle when needed, and I had to keep adjusting the flame occasionally, to ensure that my veggies are cooked to perfection. This is quite similar to how a leader would motivate their team, especially in a pressure situation. The more attentive a leader is to their team members, and the more timely support that they offer, the better the team’s performance.

2. Feedback

One morning, I made dosas for the kids. The moment I served it, the younger one whined “Why is it not crisp?! I want a different one!”. As my temper raged and my face turned red, my elder son, who sometimes assumes the role of my therapist with his worldly wisdom, said “Mom, I appreciate you cooking for us. For the next one, could you try and maybe roast it a bit on low-flame and make it slightly crispier? It would taste much better.” A feedback where there is an acknowledgement of the effort, accompanied by a precise indication of what went wrong, how it can be made right, and what would be its impact, is constructive feedback and more effective that criticism!

3. Customer Delight

My younger one, is by no means a spoilt brat, she’s a good kid. Our family watches a movie together at home, every other night. On one such movie night, we decided to watch a horror flick, and my daughter is not a fan of the genre. To our surprise, that night she asked us to watch the movie without her, telling us that she would whip-up a surprise for us. We were relieved and didn’t make much of it then. Halfway through the movie, an enticing aroma filled the air. We could tell that she was up to something in the kitchen. To our shock and delight, a few moments later, she wheels out a freshly baked cake, some popcorn, and cold lemonade! This is a great lesson in customer delight. This gesture was unexpected, it was thoughtful and kind, the timing was impeccable, and last but not the least it was done out of sheer goodwill!

4. Delegation

I think of myself as a good mom. I am also a smart mom. I know how to marshal my resources efficiently. The kids take turns to make breakfast and the occasional evening snacks (simple dishes, that I know they will enjoy making), and I’m in charge of lunch and dinner. The efficiency with which I have delegated responsibility of the important tasks to my team members is something that’s working very well for me, as it gives me time and energy to focus on the more critical tasks at hand. It’s also working very well for the kids, as they feel empowered, included, and responsible. Not so sure though if the husband agrees – his task is to clean the vessels that the kids and I leave in the kitchen sink, after cooking-up a storm. I am not saying that leaders must take on the mantle of delivering critical tasks themselves, but it is crucial to delegate tasks based on strengths and skills of your team members.

5. Sharpen the Knife

The kitchen knife becomes unusable if it’s not sharpened every now and then. The same happens with your skills and competencies. So, take a conscious pause and make time to sharpen yourself. Like Stephen Covey says in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, make it a habit to ‘Sharpen the Saw’. A team member who is constantly learning and evolving is an asset to any organization, just like how a sharpened knife is an asset to any kitchen.

So, there you have it. These were some very basic but important leadership lessons from my kitchen experiences. I am pretty sure that when you start applying these in your work place, you will begin to notice the impact almost immediately. And yes, next time, don’t hesitate to enter the kitchen to lend a helping hand. You never know what valuable life and corporate lessons you may get to learn!