When it comes to your career, are you a chef or a line cook?

When it comes to your career, are you a chef or a line cook?
Courtesy Michael Browning

Think about the value you bring at work. Do you play the role of a chef? Or are you more of a line cook?

What do I mean by a chef? Someone who is creative. Someone who experiments, who relies on his or her own judgment. The chef knows the first principles of meal preparation. The chef makes novel contributions — finding new dishes to make, or finding new ways to make old dishes.

What do I mean by a line cook? Here’s a useful working definition:

Line cooks are usually responsible for prepping ingredients and assembling dishes according to restaurant recipes and specifications.

In other words, the line cook is responsible for execution. The line cook relies on recipes and techniques developed by the chef.

Each role has its merits

You might read the description of a chef versus a line cook, and think the game is rigged. Of course you want to be a chef.

But that’s not always a good thing. There are plenty of times where operational excellence is the key to success. No need to reinvent the wheel. The trick is in execution. Reliable, predictable, efficient execution.

The point is that each role has its merits. Some people will bring the most value when they act like a chef. Others will bring more value as a line cook.

Peeling this back even further, you’ll play different roles at different times. Sometimes you need to be an original thinker. Sometimes you won’t have a path to follow. You’ll need the powers of the chef.

Other times, you’ll need to deliver to a precise specification. You’ll need to ensure uniformity, in terms of your output aligning with the output of others. Process and procedure will be your guide in these cases. You’ll need the discipline of a line cook.

Do you lean too much one way or the other?

There are two questions you have to answer. First, what blend of chef and line cook does your job demand? What’s the optimal mix? Second, how do you actually behave? How often do you take on the role of chef? How often do you go into execution mode as a line cook?

Like I said before, almost all jobs require a blend of the two. How close does your behavior match that requirement?

Here’s my guess. If you’re a knowledge worker, which almost all scientists and engineers are, you’re acting too much like a line cook. Sure, you occasionally make great strides as a chef. When you’re working in your area of expertise, and you’re confident…the sky’s the limit.

What happens when you’re not in your comfort zone? What happens when you’re asked to do something you haven’t done before? What happens when you think you should do something different, but no one has specifically asked for it?

I’m guessing you fall into line cook mode. I’m guessing that you ask for a ton of structure. Precise requirements. Clear expectations. Robust success definitions. Take all the risk out of the task. Turn the crank and relax knowing you’ll deliver something of value.

Act like a chef, especially when no one expects it

As a knowledge worker, your differential value comes when you act like a chef. And some of your dishes will suck. Your knife work won’t always be A+. You won’t have a perfect eye for assessing the quality of niche ingredients.

What do you do then? Do you fall back on the existing recipes? Do you stay put, until you get clear, fool-proof instructions from someone you trust?

That’s the struggle. Acting like a chef increases your risk of failure. But it also increases your chance of succeeding visibly. And visible success is what’s going to propel your career.

The kinds of failure you’ll experience as a chef are educational. You’ll learn what writing style most effectively inspires action. You’ll learn what visualizations most accurately communicate your observations. You’ll learn what questions most reliably elicit meaningful answers.

Also, the kinds of failure you’ll experience as a chef are fleeting. You’re the only one who will remember them. Sure, the one report you wrote was a dud. Or the one presentation you gave was flat. Or the one off-the-cuff conversation you had was stilted.

You’ll remember those things. But those kinds of things happen all the time, everywhere, to everyone. For everyone else, those less than fulfilling experiences will blend right into most of their lives. The trick is you’ll use them to get better. You’ll use them so that the next time, or the time after that, you’ll do something remarkable. That’s how you’ll make your impact.

As you explore, don’t forgot the idea of balance

I’m guessing you too often play the role of a line cook. As you experiment more with being a chef, remember to strike a balance. Don’t go into 100% chef mode.

Your success as a line cook is important. That’s how you earn trust. Reliably executing against well-formed expectations is important. As a line cook, you’re placing deposits into your relationship banks.

Then, you can make some withdrawals to experiment as a chef. Sometimes you’ll blunder. You’ll go off the beaten path, and you’ll get chastised for it. That’s okay. It’s a small price to pay for the inevitable contributions you’ll make down the road.

In short, don’t be too quick to rely on the cookie cutter. Do things your own way. Use your own language. Create your own visuals. Craft your own narrative. Find opportune times to stray from what’s expected.

Better yet, find those opportunities where expectations don’t even exist. Maybe you’re sharing new insights that aren’t often discussed. Maybe you’re drafting a new kind of report that doesn’t yet exist. Maybe you’re analyzing a new data set that no one has studied. Roll the dice in these circumstances.

Find a chance to practice being a chef. You might not make the tastiest dishes in the very beginning. But you’ll quickly find your way. And your career development will reflect it.

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