Culinary education is a challenging environment facing radical change. Looking ahead one doesn’t need to be a clairvoyant to understand a fundamental shift is on the horizon. There are specific, vital leadership qualities that will suit today’s managers shepherding in tomorrow’s changes.
The current landscape
One year ago, in December 2018, 23 Art Institute schools closed their doors. Sixteen months ago, 16 Le Cordon Bleu schools shut down due to declining enrollments and dwindling profits. Falling student enrollment continues to be the most challenging aspect of college culinary programs today.
Potential new students to culinary programs are weighing their options of paid on-the-job training, which is readily available at a 3.6 percent national unemployment rate, versus accepting personal debt incurred while obtaining a diploma or degree. Employers are clamoring for workers with a modicum of skills to fill their vacant positions. Attending school or working is a critical decision nearly all culinary students face.
Once students do commit to an education, instructors may be teaching students whose technical knowledge may be far superior to their own. Students may also be learning in culinary classrooms lacking the most advanced technological bells and whistles available. Another characteristic of today’s younger culinary student, which is different than previous generations, is their need for their future careers to have an equitable work-life balance; they already have plans for their time even before beginning their profession.
These teaching challenges occur against a backdrop of rapidly changing culinary trends and shifting consumer desires. Examples of new lessons from the past few years include teaching a global cuisine component, an understanding of ingredient sourcing in a sustainable environment, and a focus on plant-forward fare. Another significant addition to the culinary scene is the rising interest and use of cannabis in food and beverages. Although not nationally legal, its effect on the industry is already being felt.
Playing it safe is rarely a safe strategy
Effectively managing during challenging times requires curiosity, decisiveness, courage, optimism, and thoughtfulness, among other values. One corporate leader has exhibited these traits and more while successfully steering his company through difficult mergers, economic downturns, large acquisitions and future-altering projects that have positioned it to thrive long into the future: Robert Iger. He is Chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company and began his career at ABC in 1974. He joined Disney’s senior management team in 1996 and became president of Walt Disney International in 1999. Author of the New York Time’s Business Top 10 Best Seller, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” Iger has put into words how his ideas and the values he embraced reinvented Disney and inspired its people.
Innovation, curiosity and optimism
“Innovate or die,” Iger is fond of saying. Innovation has long been a tenant of Iger’s success. He describes how innovation helps keep a company relevant in its industry and ahead of the change curve. He also notes that innovation is impossible if leaders operate in fear of the untested or new.
Iger described the competitive landscape and its effect on Disney’s competitors when he wrote, “Of great interest to me was the fact that almost every traditional media company was operating out of fear rather than courage, stubbornly trying to build a bulwark to protect old models that couldn’t possibly survive the sea change that was underway.” Iger’s answer was to push creatively forward and develop new strategies to redefine the media industry. “I’d much rather take big risks and sometimes fail than not take risks at all,” he wrote.
Innovation can only occur when there is curiosity and creativity. Disney, similar to most culinary arts programs, is in the business of making something great and it takes a sense of wonder and curiosity about the idea of “what if.” This is the point where innovative, creative people take off and begin to define a different, unique path forward.
But, not all creative ideas are successful. Effective leaders supporting creative people must also give those same creative people permission to fail, according to Iger. Fearless, empathetic managers urge creative people to think outside the box and take chances, while at the same time helping them rebound from failures. “You must learn the process of failure to be great at creativity,” Iger said.
Iger also describes how an optimistic attitude is necessary for true leadership even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes. Pessimism saps energy and inspiration and can lead to paranoia. He notes that optimism is especially challenging in difficult times and, “Nobody wants to be led by a pessimist,” he said.
The intersection of the foodservice industry and Iger’s leadership principles
Michael Carmel, Culinary Institute of Charleston department head, has viewed college enrollment traverse from a high of 1,000 students to a low of less than 300 students three years ago. However, through his multifaceted initiatives of reaching out to high school students, embracing the community through Continuing Education courses, and redefining the credit classes both in scope and class sequencing, he has grown the program to 600 students today.
“Nothing in this world remains constant,” he said. “I have to be vibrant and progressive. What worked 10 or 15 years ago is not what young people want today.”
Part of his leadership strategy is to “throw 10 pieces (ideas) on the wall and see what sticks,” he creatively said. What Carmel does not do is initiate one program, determine its success, and move on to the next idea. “I am always thinking about what will work five years in the future.”
Class design and sequencing was an area ripe for innovation. Carmel moved from semester classes to two seven-week programs. During each seven-week block, students take two classes twice per week. This change better addressed the attributes and challenges of the community college population. “Some of our students have personal issues and they found it possible to be successful in a seven-week class,” he said. Up to 95 percent of students pass these classes with at least a C, which has increased retention and been positive for accreditation.
Another change Carmel implemented was that more classes are taught online. He commented that today’s students don’t read textbooks or E-books. Classes are designed to give students microbursts of information delivered in packets with less reading. “Students learn small snippets of information, they are quizzed on it and then they move on,” Carmel said. “You build this until you have an entire class.”
He combined Continuing Education classes with credit classes by offering students an option to earn certificates for proficiency. Continuing Education students are still expected to take quizzes and complete the coursework, however their grades are not taken into consideration. “This has really increased enrollment and been a bridge between Continuing Education and credit classes,” he said.
Engaging the high school community was another program Carmel spearheaded. Each faculty member is assigned at least one high school teacher to work with or mentor, which may mean guest lecturing in their classroom or administering the Safe Serv exam. Also, high schools are invited to tour the campus and culinary kitchens every Friday where they view a demonstration and are provided a free lunch. “Through our efforts, we have 68 new students this year directly from high school,” he said. He is also working with Good Will to provide culinary workforce training for people who receive Good Will services.
Carmel, like Iger, describes himself as an optimist. “I am a firm believer that one has to embrace change and that nothing in the world remains constant,” he explained. “To be a great leader in any type of business, one has to roll with the changes. The key in our industry is to embrace change mold it to your personality.”
Fearless innovation in the face of unflinching change continues
Part two of this article will appear in the January 2010 edition of “Gold Medal Classroom” where additional traits Iger put forward in “The Ride of a Lifetime” will be detailed as well as additional examples from culinary leaders exemplifying Iger’s wisdom.