November 7, 2022

Leadership lessons from my Thanksgiving table

The more time I spend coaching leaders, the more I notice leadership lessons everywhere.

Mountaineering. The night sky. Literature. Childhood. My garden.

Last year, around this time, I came across a new one. My kitchen, as I prepared to lay a welcoming Thanksgiving table. 

It started as a way of managing the many tasks I had on my plate and staging the order of operations … plan, shop, prep, chop, cook, bake, arrange and serve, among others.

To manage it all, I turned to a project management model I first learned about many years ago. It’s called a Kanban board. This approach to project management is good for tracking and optimizing workflows. It’s also helpful for jobs that are easily broken into discrete tasks, such as preparing a complicated meal.

As you might expect, it was a wonderful help keeping me on track and mostly on time. But it also left me with a lot to chew on as I pondered what it takes to get any big project done. It takes time management, yes. But it also takes leadership. Whether it’s a big report, a stressful presentation or a new product or service.

Or, it turns out, a bountiful holiday meal.

Kanban, explained

Kanban and the boards used as part of the model are tools for managing projects and optimizing workflows. As you start learning about them, you’ll see there are many types, but the general themes involve a visual representation of a workflow.

Typically, they are set up with columns that delineate stages in a process. This clear example involves four – order received, payment collected, order dispatched, and delivery completed. A more simple framework that will work for almost anything is “to do” … “in progress” … and “done.”

Then, the tasks are placed in each column according to their stage in the process. Tasks are listed on sticky notes or “cards” in Kanban parlance, and they are moved to new columns as they progress through the system.

So, in the “order received” example, the order itself becomes the task. You can imagine it appearing on the board when the order is placed, then moving through the columns as payment is received, the order is shipped and the package is received.

The beauty of the board is it provides a clear, visual representation of where bottlenecks have occurred, and where there is capacity. It also allows tracking of tasks through to completion – so no task is forgotten.

In the example above, your board allows you to ensure no orders are lost. That’s a great outcome, but your board can also help you learn where orders typically stall, so you can diagnose and fix the issue.

For teams and organizations, this means identifying and addressing inefficiencies, so teams can operate at maximum productivity.

Kanban boards can be very simple (just a few columns, and paper notes for tasks), or complex, reflecting detailed processes that are best represented using digital tools. In either scenario, though, the concepts of clear workflows and tracking tasks through a system are common themes. And while they are most often used to keep workplace projects on track, they are a wonderful fit on the home front as well.

A very Kanban Thanksgiving

I was introduced to the idea of bringing the Kanban model to my Thanksgiving kitchen in this post. It was a year ago, and Cindy and I were facing our first big hosting event after many months of pandemic isolation. I was out of practice, and I knew my efficiency in the kitchen would be compromised as a result. I needed a system to help me pace myself and ensure nothing slipped through the cracks. Kanban seemed like the perfect solution.

I organized my board simply, with three columns: “to do,” “in progress” and “done.” My cabinet doors served as the columns, and tasks were written on small sticky notes. As I started on projects, I moved them to “in progress” and then “done” when they were finished. I invited guests who volunteered to help to choose something from the left-hand column to work on. When that column was empty, they were also welcome to ask how they could help with things that were in the center column. As the day wore on, we all moved tasks toward the “done” column, and ourselves toward the table.

The meal was less stressful to prepare, and we all enjoyed the collaboration and the resulting feast. But reflecting on my experience as the dishes were washed (not by me, I assure you!), I noticed that I took something else from the experience beyond the satisfaction of preparing a meal for loved ones.

5 lessons from my Kanban Thanksgiving

Time and energy management matter

One of the most critical skills for leaders to master is time and energy management. Leaders experience many demands on their time, and expectations for follow-through are typically extremely high. They need the ability to organize and track tasks to ensure nothing gets forgotten. For most people, this is not an innate skill, but one that must be developed. Finding the right system is key. For my holiday meal, Kanban was that system. Which leads me to …

Leaders build systems

If I could impart just one leadership lesson to everyone I work with, this might be it. Leaders with brilliant ideas are great, but ideas don’t mean much unless you can bring them to life. That’s where systems come in. The very best leaders build and refine systems every day. Systems to close gaps, solve problems, overcome challenges, seize opportunities, and even systems to make their systems better. When I imagined myself wide-eyed in my kitchen facing a mountain of tasks before Thanksgiving, I put on my leadership hat and built a system.

Visualizing progress is meaningful

Have you ever written something you’ve already completed on your to-do list and then immediately crossed it off because it feels good? Lots of people do this, and why not? Having a record of your progress is satisfying. Moving tasks from my to-do column toward the right-hand cabinet last Thanksgiving felt great – I was getting things done, and we were moving closer to the gathering we were all looking forward to.

Delegating is the best way to get it all done

I’ll be honest – seeing my lengthy to-do column early the week of Thanksgiving was a little overwhelming. Chipping away at the tasks was helpful, but once I started sharing tasks with others, we really started making progress. If you like to be in charge of your kitchen (guilty as charged!), this might be a concerning prospect, but I promise you can find something to delegate. When you do, you will be better able to focus on what you simply must handle. And you’ll very likely have more fun.

Progress feels good

Something I really didn’t anticipate was how seeing all the tasks laid out – and being moved efficiently from left to right across the cabinets – helped people understand and vocally acknowledge what it takes to pull off a Thanksgiving dinner. Although my goal in cooking for loved ones is not praise for my hard work, it sure does feel good after a few days in the kitchen. And those who helped with the meal shared in the sense of accomplishment we experienced as we finished the preparations.

An annual tradition

As I watched some of the dearest people in my life tame the mess of Thanksgiving meal preparations, I reflected on my sense of gratitude. My gratitude for all of them and so many other wonderful people in my life. For the opportunity to be together. For a holiday that helps us pause and give thanks for all the blessings of life. And for all the parts of life where unexpected lessons pop up.

Of course, I was pretty happy about the project management system I’d made for myself, too. It will certainly have a place at my table again this year.

My best wishes to all of you for a wonderful Thanksgiving and a meaningful holiday season!

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