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mba diary

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Aubrey Chapnick is an MBA student with a focus on finance and strategy at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver. He previously worked as a consultant at the global leadership development firm Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge and has experience in business development, sales and project management. Currently, Aubrey is working as a capital markets rotational intern, focused in mining investment banking and Canadian consumer products/retail equity research. This is his third entry for MBA Diary.

I feel fortunate to have had varied career experiences. Being able to try out a bunch of different roles has provided me with a lot of clarity as to what I ultimately want to do with my career, and it has taught me a few important lessons about myself and business.

While I've been in roles ranging from a martial arts instructor, a speaking agent, a management consultant and an investment banker, one of the most invaluable experiences was working as a catering chef assistant and wait staff for about two years while I was an undergrad.

In retrospect, the things I learned in that industry have stuck with me and guided a lot of my thinking about careers, jobs and business.

Here are some of the key things that working in food services have instilled in me. I suggest everyone who wants to be in business experience these for themselves.

Leadership, culture and people are everything

The kitchen is a fast-paced, high-pressure and dangerous environment. It's dynamic, changes rapidly, is filled with lots of emotions and is team-based: a difficult situation to manage, to say the least.

Working in food service clearly shows what leadership and a good culture can do in terms of executing a task (or larger strategy) and getting things done right.

The main chef I worked for was deliberate about how he treated his staff, helping them improve and giving his employees runway to fail without major repercussions. He understood the importance of building a culture and I could feel that while in the kitchen and on site with him.

As such, he was able to attract the best supporting staff in the industry. They worked hard for him and ensured that he was able to deliverer high-quality work to his clients.

Without such emphasis, employees might have become apathetic and unengaged, which would lead to subpar service, among other things, and pin a bad reputation on his company.

Good leaders realize that they achieve their goals not by themselves but through others. Giving others the leeway, opportunity and training to get better only pushes them to work harder.

This is something that I have seen firsthand and is a theme that has never been more important in business than it is now. Unlocking the discretionary effort of others is often a big driver of performance (something I learned from consulting) and leadership needs to take notice.

Understand what affects margins, pricing and cash flow

Food service is one of the lowest-margin businesses. Every expense hits the bottom line hard and directly.

While managing margins is a core business principle, many employees in non-management positions aren't aware how their actions affect a company's EBITDA and profit.

The same boss that I mentioned took every step to explain how ingredients, rentals, supplies, kitchen space, labour and so on eat away at profit, impact pricing and drive order cycles (which influence cash flow).

Food service often is also subject to lots of waste in terms of supplies, labour and time. Figuring out how to optimize these moving parts was an important thing to learn about.

This kind of thinking has helped me in business school and throughout my current internship in capital markets when trying to assess the financial health of larger companies. It also serves as a good generic framework to conduct baseline analyses of a company in any industry.

Attitude goes a long way

The reality about food service is that there are a lot of dirty and unsexy aspects of the industry. When I first started, my job was to wash dishes, manage the garbage levels, chop vegetables (mostly onions) and mop the floors.

While that wasn't the most fun part of the job and didn't last long, it was actually integral to the kitchen's overall success. Without strict adherence to cleanliness standards and readily available ingredients, the kitchen can't function.

Thinking this way and approaching such tasks with a good attitude made my boss trust me more, showed that I wanted to learn and, ultimately, made me feel that I was making a meaningful contribution to the kitchen team.

My responsibilities gradually increased, but it was my attitude and outlook which helped me become a more-involved and skilled member of the kitchen.

In any role in any business, there will be tasks that will suck. But when working with and for others, maintaining a positive attitude, checking your ego at the door and digging in does a lot for how people perceive you and makes mundane things more digestible.

I got my first exposure to this kind of thinking while working in food service and it's certainly been one of the most valuable lessons I've taken with me through business school and to my other jobs to date.