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You’re a chef, not a chemist

As business leaders, we’re chefs, not chemists. Our task is to make something of the tools and ingredients available to us -- nothing more and nothing less.

6 min read



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Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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Every family has at least one: A years-old recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation.  All that may have survived is a dog-eared index card with weathered handwriting and a couple of stains from kitchens past; the recipe itself isn’t pretty, but what it represents is remarkable.

Whether the recipe originated from a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle or an old family friend, somewhere along the line somebody wrote it down. Before that, someone had to come up with it. They took whatever ingredients were available to them and tried something, repeatedly, until they found a unique combination that worked. That’s how recipes become lasting — through intention and iteration. They’re judged first by how well they taste to the chef, then by how they perform on the family table. Over time, some even make it to the marketplace.

Contrast that with chemistry. When a prescription drug is being formulated, it’s vital that it be done so with precision. Not only will the drug be ineffective if something isn’t right, it could also harm or even kill someone. Chemists creating drugs can do a great deal of experimenting, but when it’s time to serve it up, they have zero margin for error.

Whether it’s a prescription drug or a potato salad, there’s a recipe, a formula. But that’s where the comparison ends. The former must be nailed the first time. With the latter, you can learn as you go.

A few days ago, I was chatting with an executive of a Fortune 100 corporation about the need for rapid iteration in a world where every company is trying to outrun the Grim Reaper. He described the way his old-industry company — one that I had wrongly perceived as a slow, lumbering giant — is increasingly approaching change more like a chef than a chemist.

“It used to be test, test, test, test, then rollout,” he said. “Now it’s “test, rollout, learn, modify — and as a result, we see a lot of half-baked stuff.” He wasn’t complaining, mind you, just observing how things have changed.

It’s true up and down the value chain. One of our clients is a closely held company a long way from the Fortune 500 that has made a remarkable transition through a 40-year cycle of maturation, saturation and commoditization. The management team has generated accelerating growth via the development of a whole new business model while navigating a succession plan, to boot.

The CEO knows the general direction his company is heading, but he’ll be the first to admit he doesn’t have a master plan all figured out. Should he pour it on to seize every opportunity the company is uncovering and risk overexpansion? Or slow things down to consolidate his gains and risk losing first-mover advantage? That’s just one of the many forks in the road he’s facing; as he comes across each one he has no choice but to choose.

Yet another client is a startup, pioneering a new industry that’s showing signs of being a genuine gold rush. Its management team knows, generally speaking, in what direction its nascent industry is heading, and they know they need to stake their claim in a relevant, differentiated and defensible niche. But (forgive the mixed metaphor) nobody can say what the final chessboard will look like. As arrogant as it would be for the team to assume they know how the industry will shake out, it would be foolish to not pursue a singular direction despite many uncertainties.

In “Brand vs. Wild: Building Resilient Brands for Harsh Business Environments,” my colleague Jonathan David Lewis recounts the story of the 1972 disaster in which a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crash-landed in a remote region of the Andes. It took months, but the survivors were ultimately rescued because a few brave souls acted on the one thing they knew: “To the west is Chile.”

It wasn’t much to go on, but based on that information they started making their way in the only direction they believed offered salvation. Had they stayed in the (relative) comfort of the torn airplane fuselage trying to develop a perfect survival plan, they would have all perished. Instead, they went with what they knew — precious little that it was — and made it, despite inevitable missteps along the way.

It’s human nature to proceed with caution, but one of the things that can paralyze business leaders in uncertain environments is the belief they need to get their strategy exactly right.

In research we conducted this year, 41% of corporate leaders agreed with the statement “we tend to overthink things.” For those whose growth was slowing, the number jumped to 55%.

The important thing to remember is that momentum beats perfection. As business leaders, we’re chefs, not chemists. Our task is to make something of the tools and ingredients available to us — nothing more and nothing less. The odds of what we come up with being exactly right on the first try are next to nothing. So what? We have to keep chopping, keep stirring and keep experimenting with a pinch of this and a dash of that. After all, we have mouths to feed. 

Even if you really are a chemist in your professional life, when it comes to corporate leadership, you must operate as a chef. You’ve got to start cooking and be willing to mix things up mid-course. While (unlike your grandmother) you’ll likely never perfect the recipe, you will find that you’re becoming an increasingly good cook.