A Burger-Flipper's-Eye View Of Fast-Food Management Styles

By Andrew H. Card Jr.

January 17, 2007; Page D11

As White House chief of staff for almost 5½ years, I faced many significant management challenges. The incoming tasks never seemed to let up and expectations always seemed to exceed realization. I described the job as drinking from a fire hydrant or working a fast-food counter during a lunch-hour rush that never ends.

I knew something about life behind the fast-food counter. My first experience was in high school in Brockton, Mass., at the hamburger restaurant Kemps of America, where a meal of a burger, fries and a drink cost about 35 cents. While at the University of South Carolina, to support a wife and growing family, I worked at McDonald's in Columbia. At 85 cents an hour, I clocked as many as 50 hours a week and could eat all I wanted during 10-minute breaks. I did time at the grill, the fry vat and the counter. I loved the counter job. It was well before computers calculated the tab, so I enjoyed the challenge of adding up the bill before it could be punched on the cash-register buttons. It wasn't long before I became a shift leader and then the night manager. Boy, did I learn how to manage!

Jerry Newman has learned about fast-food management as well -- "My Secret Life on the McJob" is the college professor and business consultant's first-person case study of life at McDonald's, Burger King and other restaurants, where Mr. Newman took jobs to covertly assess management styles, techniques and performances. He offers entertaining anecdotes and wonderful descriptions of the personalities working at every station of responsibility, from the fry guy to the consistent MVP, the "jack of all trades." Mr. Newman writes with respect about the tasks that too many see as menial but that must be met with efficient excellence in order to satisfy the demands of corporate brand-owners, franchise holders and hungry, impatient customers. Mr. Newman worked at seven different fast-food restaurants around the country and never earned more than $6.50 an hour.

My Secret Life on the McJob

By Jerry Newman

(McGraw-Hill, 203 pages, $24.95)

"My Secret Life on the McJob" shows the diversity of management styles that permeate the fast-food business. Despite the understandable corporate demand for uniformity of product and presentation, Mr. Newman recognizes that "managers and companies simply can't establish protocols for every contingency." He bemoans that "mentoring" is a casualty of "downsizing and delayering" and proposes the reliance on a "sensei" -- the Japanese word for teacher or master -- as a solution. He counsels that "good managers cultivate a sensei," a worker who has "mastered key skills and internalized the formal rules" and "whose social presence makes it easier to transmit the informal rules."

At a Burger King where Mr. Newman worked, the manager told him to work with an assembler named Daniel, and the author soon sees why: Daniel worked expertly and "Daytona 500 fast" during rushes, honored the industry-wide managers' mantra "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean," but he was also a friendly young man who was the "social glue" among workers at the franchise. In other words, Mr. Newman writes, Daniel was "the sensei of Burger King."

To his surprise, Mr. Newman found that fast-food store managers differ in the way they operate: "How employees were treated was part of an individual store culture." Mr. Newman describes Toxic Managers who used sarcasm or disrespect toward workers. Mechanical Managers were just doing their job, "as if fast food was a slow death." On rare occasions Mr. Newman discovered Relationship Managers whose caring and kindness extended to workers even when they were not on the job. He defined Performance Managers as leaders who built relationships to serve as a "means to ensure performance."

Mr. Newman writes that the "rhythms and rituals" that make up the culture of the work environment had the strongest effect on his own job performance -- a common enough phenomenon, of course, but Mr. Newman says that it is more pronounced in fast-food restaurants than in other businesses. He captures various aspects of fast-food culture in boxed vignettes, called "From Behind the Counter," sprinkled throughout the book. The anecdotes range from the innocent (cheering up an unhappy little girl by putting a "heaping mound of extra hot fudge" on her sundae) to the almost indecent (at one restaurant, a female manager gives lap dances to favored co-workers in her office, "a classic case" of hostile workplace harassment if "only one crew member feels uneasy," Mr. Newman writes). Sometimes the vignettes are downright alarming: Cleaning up outside a Wendy's near a pond in Florida, he is advised to watch out for alligators.

As he worked at different franchises, Mr. Newman was frustrated by the general lack of training and by the high employee turnover rates. He includes a chapter called "Training the Utterly Confused," citing the often missed opportunity to instill the right work habits "the first time." He echoes other experts' advice to "give applicants a realistic preview of what to expect on the job" because, he says, the customer's-eye view of working in a fast-food restaurant can be misleading: "What you see," he says, "is not what you get."

It is refreshing that Mr. Newman shows considerable respect for the daily pressure of fast food and for the workers and managers who get the job done. Unusual for a business book offering management advice, "My Secret Life on the McJob" is written from the perspective of a crew member on the receiving end of the boss's expectations rather than from that of a manager who faces the challenges of building a team, running a business and earning a return on investment. While the book often reflects a keen grasp of the obvious, it offers many lessons that would be helpful to managers in almost every segment of business -- or even government.

Mr. Card, President Bush's chief of staff from January 2001 to April 2006, was transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, 1992-93.

My Secret Life on the McJob
Lessons from Behind the Counter Guaranteed to Supersize Any Management Style
Author: Jerry Newman

ISBN 0071473653
Hardcover, $24.95
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