Timothy R. Clark: How the Cake Boss builds culture

Published: Monday, Dec. 10 2012 8:00 a.m. MST

In this 2009 photo provided by the star of TLC's "Cake Boss," Buddy Valastro, is shown outside his family bakery in Hoboken, N.J.

Associated Press

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“Bring it, bring it, bring it!”

Did you know the modeling behavior of the leader is the single most important factor in building culture? If you don’t think so, meet my friend the Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro.

At the urging of my daughter, I watched a full episode of this reality TV show the other day. Lo and behold, it was a study in leadership.

The star of the TLC network shows "Cake Boss" and "Next Great Baker," Buddy Valastro, is a master baker who owns and operates Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, N.J.

They say Buddy has taken cake decorating to a new level, bringing skill, artistry and innovation to a rather mundane business. That’s true because I stayed tuned for the whole 30 minutes. I actually sat down in front of the TV with a pen and yellow pad and took notes.

Buddy was my subject. I watched his every move. I listed to everything he said. I watched his body language, gestures, interactions, emotions, reactions — everything. For 30 minutes I played cultural anthropologist. I conducted my version of an ethnography — or deep study of culture. Normally, the ethnographer lives among the subjects he studies as a participant observer. Maybe I’ll get an invitation to Hoboken next time.

Here’s how Buddy builds culture:

1. Setting the tone. “I want to see what you got!” rings through the bakery. Can you feel the vibe? If you want to know what passion and enthusiasm look like, Buddy is a model. “Who wants to be a team leader?” he asks the budding bakers. When a few hands go up, he scowls, “Everybody’s hand should be, like, ding! Come on, guys.” And then he sprinkles his favorite line throughout the session, “Bring it, bring it, bring it!”

Wow. Are we playing football here? Up to this point, I have no life experience that would suggest it’s possible to get so fired up about baking cakes. And guess what? I’m smiling. This guy’s enthusiasm is infectious. He makes boring things interesting. The teams were stamping out flower patterns in the dough and I’m engaged.

2. Setting the standard. There’s absolutely no confusion about what makes it in the bakery. Buddy now transitions to teach the teams how to make a “groovy girl cake.” He explains. He shows. He demonstrates. He’s exacting. He’s clear. It’s impossible to misunderstand. And he’s not kidding. When the teams finish their cakes, he does a quick inspection, points out flaws and throws all of the first-round cakes in the garbage can. On the second try, the teams pass inspection and meet the standard. There’s zero chance anyone will approach Buddy and say, “Well, but I thought you meant such and such.” There is candor. There is quality control. There are no excuses.

3. Setting the pace. We can’t always be on the clock, but Buddy uses a timer to set the pace and instill a sense of urgency. At the beginning of each contest, he asks, “What time is it?” Everyone responds, “It’s go time!” Yes, we’re artists. Yes, we’re creative types. And yes, we have customers and deadlines. But we don’t have time to waste. As they say, the pace of the leader is the pace of the business.

4. Setting the goal. In the next contest, Buddy asks the bakers to make a cake that tells a story. It’s a stretch goal. He doesn’t under-instruct. He doesn’t over-instruct. It’s a “figure it out” project. He knows ahead of time that most of the teams will fail, which accomplishes at least two things. It humbles the teams to know they have a lot to learn. Second, it gives them a chance to stretch, fail and learn from the experience. When the teams present their final products, Buddy asks a lot of questions and gives a lot of feedback, without being demeaning, to help them do it better the next time. He challenges them, but does not deflate them. When justified, he praises them with “Congratulations. You did a good job.”

Buddy is building culture. He’s establishing the prevailing norms of the organization. People accept them, learn them and then repeat them. That’s culture. It matters. Ultimately, it’s your most important competitive weapon. So bring it!

Timothy R. Clark is the CEO of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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