During the closing keynote at ASAE’s 2017 Annual Meeting & Exposition, Chef Jeff Henderson cooked up some leadership lessons, as well as a foie gras dish, for attendees.
Chef Jeff Henderson’s life trajectory wasn’t always pointed toward the kitchen—though he has manned the stoves at the Bellagio and the Ritz-Carlton in Las Vegas. Coming from a poor home with a single mother, he began his adult life with drug dealing and a nine-year stint in prison. But during his time behind bars, he discovered cooking, and his life turned around, eventually leading to TV fame and a best-selling book.
Henderson suggested that leaders are “hustlers” in the best sense of the word: “a person who is driven; a person who wakes up every day laser-focused; a person who understands their gift, their strengths, and their weaknesses; a person who takes ideas and puts wheels underneath,” he said.
Recalling his dealing days, jail time, and work in some of the world’s most high-powered kitchens—while whipping up a great-looking foie gras onstage, which he shared with a lucky cameraman—Henderson shared some leadership lessons with attendees as ASAE’s 2017 Annual Meeting & Exposition came to a close Tuesday afternoon.
Lesson 1: Recognize your a-ha moments. “Inspiration is driven by change,” Henderson said. “When you’re going to change and you’ve had those a-ha moments and you identify your weaknesses and you want to get better, it’s because you’ve been inspired by something.”
For him, that moment was in prison when he discovered the value of knowledge and learning. He built relationships with inmates who had come from Wall Street who recognized his intelligence and taught him how to lead and market himself. But those moments can also come from new opportunities or watching others pursue their passions.
“It doesn’t matter who you are and where you come from—homeboy from the neighborhood, Latino boy from the barrio, white kid from the trailer park—God gave us all a gift and the ability to achieve greatness,” Henderson said. “And that gift is only developed through inspiration” and grown through opportunity.
Lesson 2: Establish your brand. When Henderson was released from prison, he had to change his image to make it in the restaurant world. “I knew I couldn’t walk into the Bellagio, the Ritz-Carltons of the world,” he said. “Everything about me had to say brand, brand, brand—the way I walk, the way I talk.”
This included changing his values, his demeanor, his appearance, and his clothes. “I had to build this brand and pull my pants up,” he said. “Successful people wear tight pants. CEOs don’t sag.”
Lesson 3: Understand leadership. “A true leader, an effective leader, the leader that leaves a legacy makes people better,” Henderson said. “They make those organizations run smoothly even when the leader isn’t there. They offer hope, they inspire.”
But each person on a team is motivated differently. Henderson explained that during all stages in his life, he led a diverse workforce and developed a unique motivation plan for each team member.
“People don’t quit jobs, they quit leadership. … When you look at hiring people, recruiting people, retaining people, we have to sell them on the dream,” he said.
Lesson 4: Build a strong team. In the kitchen and on the streets, Henderson knew he needed to surround himself with a team of subject matter experts who could fill each role needed in an effective operation. And he made sure to put each member in a role where he or she would excel, “which created loyalty, which created brand evangelists.”
Lesson 5: Pay it forward. Engaging in social responsibility and paying it forward defines a leader and an organization. “Reach back and grab the little homeboy or the little homegirl and share the knowledge,” he said, because that will be your legacy.