This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
Here’s a secret everyone knows but no one does: if you have no experience in a particular field, reading and learning from the canonical—most important—books in the industry will accelerate your path to leadership.
I’m often asked what I did to become a general manager of a large restaurant with no previous restaurant experience. My short answer is that barriers to entry are optional. If there’s a job or opportunity I want, experience requirements will not be the factor that turns me away. My preparation and work ethic will always be the deciding factors.
My long answer, however, is a bit more nuanced. In 2017, I had just quit the desk job I had for three years as the “payroll tax specialist.” I liked the job because it was a small company, and two of my best friends worked there with me. But the job itself was miserable. I knew there was much more for me to do in life than to file small to mid-sized companies’ taxes and stare out the window as W2s printed every January. So, when I left, I decided to test my mental and physical limits. I walked the Camino de Santiago—a grueling 500-mile hike across the meseta in Northern Spain. When I returned home after five weeks abroad, it was just in time for the dawn of the fidget spinner craze. I spent the summer going around to county and state fairs setting up tables in an effort to really learn what it’s like to work for myself. It was my own version of a lemonade stand (we didn’t do those in my hometown), and I had a fair amount of success that summer.
By early fall, when the fidget spinners stopped spinning, a mentor of mine mentioned that he knew a local restauranteur who was planning on building and franchising a few new restaurants in the Philadelphia area. The plan was simple: I would train at an existing location and my mentor, a successful businessman in his own right, would put up most of the money for the new location, which I would manage and have the option to buy in as part owner when I had the money. At first, I was humbled that he would come to me with this opportunity, but I didn’t know anything about restaurants—I had only ever eaten in them. But the more I learned about the restaurant, the owner, and the opportunity in front of us, I knew I had to make it happen.
We wouldn’t get to meet with the restauranteur until after the new year in 2018. I wondered what he would think if he realized I had zero restaurant experience, so I did a quick Google search on “best restaurant books.” I kept seeing the same books on list after list, so I ordered the top three at the time: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, Restaurant Success by the Numbers by Roger Fields, and The Restaurant Manager’s Handbook by Douglas Robert Brown. I spent the last quarter of 2017 poring through each page of each book, highlighting, jotting, practicing, and war-gaming every possible scenario. I learned every line of a restaurant P&L (profit and loss statement), I learned the basics of setting up and running a full-service bar, and I learned the fundamentals of managing restaurant employees. I was determined to know more about the restaurant industry than anyone who worked there. I could learn the physical skills on the job, but if the owner were to ever hand me the keys to one of his restaurants, I needed to offset my lack of experience with an abundance of knowledge.
Sure enough, during our first meeting with him in the new year, I was speaking his language. The meeting went so well, and he was so impressed with me that he offered me the job on the spot. I trained for a couple months, and it was during that time that I switched from book-mode to work-mode. My drive, work ethic, and determination to learn and make his restaurants succeed was on full display. Soon enough, he handed me the keys and I was managing two of his restaurants.
If you need a playbook on how to become a leader without experience, there it is. Sure, it helps to have connections, but that only gets you the meeting. What happens at the meeting and thereafter are entirely dependent on your preparation and mindset. By reading and learning the canonical books of your industry, you’ll know the foundational ideas, you’ll know what to look for, and you’ll gain trust through your preparation alone.