Leaders who actively invite others to the table and design organizational and team structures that encourage collaboration and empower the people who are the actual experts (i.e., the people doing the hands-on work) are the ones who are leading the way. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to challenge your team or make tough decisions — the true mastery is in being able to both harness the power of collaboration and get team-wide buy-in for the direction you ultimately take.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Renee Guilbault.

Renee Guilbault is a veteran food-industry consultant and author with expertise in large-scale, global, multi-unit food and beverage operations. Before launching her consulting firm, Essayer Food Consulting, she held leadership roles at Pret A Manger, Bon Appétit Management Company at Google, Compass Group, and Le Pain Quotidien, where she was instrumental in developing revolutionary menus and executing high-volume strategies all over the world. Her book A Taste of Opportunity: How to Boost Your Career, Make Your Mark & Change the Food Industry from Within focuses on the abundant, often little-known career opportunities within the trillion-dollar food industry that exist for anyone, from any walk of life (regardless of background or educational achievements) and combines Guilbault’s personal story of climbing the ladder with first-hand career and leadership insights from a truly exceptional group of 15 global food experts. Today, she lives in Boston with her family. www.essayerfoodconsulting.com

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

What a delicious question! I am currently obsessed with shining a light on the food industry as a place of wild opportunity, where anyone, from any background, can earn their way into leadership and even go on to change the world. I know this from direct experience: I have worked in leadership roles in massive global food organizations and I now run my own consulting company, but I began my career as a server and high school dropout. It just kills me that the narrative around working in food is so limiting and even negative when in reality there is so much incredible opportunity to build a meaningful, joyful, and financially rewarding long-term career. So, debunking those narratives and sharing the stories about what you can build in this industry has become my personal mission. My new book is designed to show people who are just starting out what they can gain from throwing themselves into that opportunity, but I am also taking part in the intense conversations on the executive side that are finally starting to happen around the evolving role of leadership and what we all need to be doing to help good people develop their skills and invest their talent into the food world for all of our shared success.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

There have been so many incredible leaders who have shaped and influenced my career. One who had a huge influence in my early years was David Weinberg, a commodities broker who had a small and mighty business buying and selling raw ingredients between suppliers and food manufacturers. He hired me as an 18-year-old to help him organize his digital business files and I ended up working side-by-side with him for almost six years, learning so, so much about that side of the food business and how to navigate high-pressure situations and multi-million-dollar contract negotiations (at a time when I wasn’t even legally old enough to rent a car). He gave me my first shot, and saw a potential in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. He has since passed away, but his legacy lives on and he is always in my heart. His confidence in my abilities opened the door for me to take risks, to believe in myself, and to reach for the things I wanted for my life and career.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

How much time do you have? With all seriousness, mistakes are a part of every journey, and, as you know well, they are often where we learn what we need to learn to reach our greatest successes. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my early management years was holding back too much of myself: my personality, my fears, and where I needed to learn more. I thought I needed to demonstrate steady, confident leadership without ever revealing my insecurities or uncertainty, and that I was supposed to “have all the answers.” In the end, maintaining those walls made it more difficult for my teams to relate to me or to approach me with their own struggles. It was only when a senior female mentor gave me some very pointed feedback that I realized I needed to change my way of working. It took time, but I grew to understand that I had to bring my real, full self to my leadership. And that included connecting with my team authentically and being open about my mistakes, because that honesty lifts the impossible pressure of perfection from all of us. As I grew into more senior roles, I made sharing stories of my experiences, learnings, and especially my failures a priority in how I related to my teams. It was truly hard to hear that critical feedback at the time, but today I am so grateful to that leader for challenging me to show up differently.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

My early understanding of leadership was very confusing to me. I had been working in this collaborative office environment where we were encouraged to discuss things and share our opinions, and then suddenly I was a chef, spending long, rigorous hours in kitchens under leaders who were all about responsibility, control, and one-way communication. Like many chefs, I was trained in the classic Brigade system, which is super rigid and hierarchical, and does not traditionally support any pushback or any questioning. Your boss tells you what to do, and you execute flawlessly, no questions asked and no opinions given. Feeling like an anonymous body with a pair of hands and no insight to offer was a painful shift, and it really shaped my awareness of how your leadership style can either ignite an innovative and high-performing workforce, or suppress that creativity and foster a culture of fear, risk aversion, and mediocre results.

Your team is a precious and powerful resource, containing curiosity, insight, excitement, fresh ideas, real-world knowledge of how to do a job well, and a passion to create new things and see them succeed. And all that goes double for the food world! If you can show respect for that passion, and show your teams that you value collaboration, you can open the door to true innovation. The trick is that you have to maintain that culture even when failure is on the table — that’s how you build trust, and that’s when the real rewards come.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

When I was just starting to climb the ladder, I really believed that a good leader held things “close to the vest,” meaning you shared as little information as you could, and gave orders only on a need-to-know basis. The idea was that this made things simple for your team and prevented confusion, but I eventually connected the dots between how difficult that same behavior made my job when my own leaders acted the same way. Now I know that leaving your team out of the planning or problem-solving process and relying only on one-way communication creates so many missed opportunities for achievement. When everyone on your team feels the same sense of ownership, the resulting business solutions are far superior to those that are made behind closed doors.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

I think it is clear in the hospitality and food industries more so than anywhere else that when you strive to serve and support your team members as much as you strive to serve and support your customers, everyone thrives and you can all achieve incredible things. I have found the most valuable and meaningful opportunities to unlock performance and positive, profitable outcomes just by looking at leadership as a responsibility to be in service to others.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

Leaders who can’t evolve won’t last long in today’s work environment. Employees have more options and more agency than they’ve ever had before, and they simply won’t tolerate a leader who will not help them thrive. So if we find ourselves missing targets, struggling with retention, or not getting the performance we want from our teams, we can’t point fingers anymore — we have to take a look in the mirror, and have those hard conversations with mentors and colleagues to get to the truth about what we need to change in ourselves to turn that tide around. Ego is a classic trap in leadership, and one of the biggest barriers to success. Commit to continuous improvement and seek out those who will tell you the truth, and better results will follow.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

First, I would say: you are not alone! Nobody is born into management, and every person who holds a leadership position had to learn at some point how to manage other people — and that’s the real beauty of it: we can all learn together, and we can all learn from each other. When I was speaking with the 15 food industry leaders who contributed their insight for the interactive videos interviews linked throughout A Taste of Opportunity (hat tip to the amazing folks at Google, sweetgreen, Bloomin’ Brands, Founder’s Table Group, Everytable, Bon Appetit Management Co. and more — you can see a bunch of these on my website and I strongly recommend you check them out) the themes that came up again and again about growing into leadership were the importance of relationships, of giving and receiving critical feedback, of learning to listen well, and of collaborating with both your colleagues and your teams. Committing to these lessons is a double gift in terms of building leadership skills: you learn from listening, and you learn to listen as well.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. They adopt a collaborative approach.

Leaders who actively invite others to the table and design organizational and team structures that encourage collaboration and empower the people who are the actual experts (i.e., the people doing the hands-on work) are the ones who are leading the way. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to challenge your team or make tough decisions — the true mastery is in being able to both harness the power of collaboration and get team-wide buy-in for the direction you ultimately take.

2. They prioritize trust.

Good leaders are able to share their own perspectives, failures, and insights in order to broaden the perspectives and practices of their teams; to expose their teams to different ideas and ways of working; to remove roadblocks and let their people take risks and excel; and to embody the principle that leadership is being available and in service to others. In practical terms, this means that they build their teams with two-way trust in mind.

3. They listen.

Despite everything we know today, listening is still so underused and underrated. Learning the skills of deep, active listening — to your teams, colleagues, leaders, and customers — is the only effective way to foster a culture of collaboration, curiosity, and learning. And true listening isn’t just a passive act! It also involves asking thoughtful, intentional questions designed to open communication, knowledge, and deeper understanding, and seeking out feedback from all levels of your organization as well as from outside counsel.

4. They foster transparent communication.

There is so much value to be won in collaborating with people with all sorts of different experiences, opinions, personalities, and backgrounds, but too many leaders can’t see their way through to building a unified culture. So instead, they hire for sameness in order to maintain sameness. But you can absolutely build a unified culture out of diverse people — if, that is, you foster transparency, open communication, and an environment that supports psychological safety. When you have that foundation, encouraging discussion and debate in your teams will result in a steady flow of innovation, relationship building, adaptability, and, ultimately, growth. Respectful inclusion also helps you maintain the trust and support of your team even when you have to make hard decisions or take a direction they don’t all agree with.

5. They embrace failure.

Sharing what hasn’t worked well with your organization and inviting collaborative problem-solving from your teams and colleagues is the only way to drive real innovation, iteration, and bold ideas. But it’s important to understand that embracing failure isn’t just about rolling with mistakes, trying to seem easy-going, or even saying “my bad.” It’s also about valuing curiosity, encouraging experimentation, and not just actively inviting ideas from all levels of your organization, but actually showing that you are taking those ideas seriously, and willing to find out if there is a way they can work.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, I have a soft spot for Coach Wooden! The most practical way I can answer that is to share a simple question that I’ve long used to hold myself and my teams accountable: “What do you think your team members said about you last night around the dinner table?”

The truth is that, as much as we try, we all have times when we fail to reach our team members, and we can’t make everyone care about the goals of our organization. What we can do is prioritize the experience of our teams. If our team members feel respected while also feeling challenged, they will be actively engaged and motivated to drive the results everyone needs. If you want your team members to be sharing positive stories and experiences with their friends and family when they go home at night, you have to give them a goal they want to reach, each day they come to work. For me, that’s what turns every day into a masterpiece.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

Ultimately, it’s a simple one: I want to unlock opportunities for others and empower people to achieve their goals.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

You can find me on Twitter @GuilbaultRenee, through my website, www.atasteofopportunity.com, or on LinkedIn.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!

Thanks so much for this incredible opportunity to weigh in. I appreciate your work so much — leadership is such an important topic these days, and I am grateful to be a part of the conversation.