With one of my favourite shows, MasterChef, back on TV for the winter, I’ve been watching this new batch of contestants simmer with the pressure. Over the years I noticed how similar the contestants’ evolution in the competition is to entrepreneurship.
What have I learned?
Observation 1: It takes boldness
As choices go, signing up for a reality cooking show is putting yourself firmly in the firing line. It is a bold life choice, because failure and humiliation are almost as likely as growth and success.
Entrepreneurship is a demanding taskmaster – self mastery and resilience are like collateral advantages for committed entrepreneurs. We humans are naturally comfort seeking, but it is adversity and pressure that build character and contribute to rapid growth, for yourself as much as your business.
Observation 2: He or she who learns the fastest – and grows the most – wins.
The eventual winner of MasterChef 2014, Brent, never dominated the competition, nor looked a likely finalist at the half way mark. He didn’t start with the best skills or deepest food knowledge, but he did soak up the pressure, reacalibrated effectively and improved rapidly.
As Brent said during the finale: “I’ve grown more than I ever thought I could grow, I’ve exceeded my own expectations”
Entrepreneurs have to constantly learn and challenge themselves to grow – this is the new world – and it belongs to the person who learns the fastest, spots the most opportunities, gets there early and executes.
Observation 3: Develop your Pressure Muscle
In MasterChef contestants are put under enormous time pressure and have to stay very organized and calm. If they make mistakes (which they do every cook) they must rapidly weigh up whether the error will destroy the dish and must be redone or if it is something they can cover and push forward.
Favourites have missed out on finals week because clear thinking deserts them under pressure in the semi finals. In contrast, Other contestants think fast to fix a mistake improved on the original idea.
The nature of entrepreneurship means you are often under pressure from a rapidly growing business, a never ending to do list and opportunities to catch. It is very easy to fragment and start chasing your tail. Striving to keep your thinking clear and pause when necessary to problem solve is definitely a winning attribute
If you find your thinking fragmenting, take a breath, allow yourself quick rethink and prioritise your problems. Look for some small wins to get you back on track
Observation 4: You Won’t Succeed without Good Planning
In MasterChef team challenges, the biggest and most intractable mistakes are invariably made in the conception and planning stage. Many teams chose the wrong dishes for the buyers, the environment or the time available. Sometimes it was a preconceived idea that they failed to adapt for other factors.
Chefs know that a recipe is not going to work for every person every time. Likewise entrepreneurs should not fall for the line that there are perfect / must do tactics that will change everything. Every business has unique variables, there’s no “all purpose” solution. Smart entrepreneurs develop the discipline of critical thinking, learning to extract the strategic principles and adapt to suit their own clients, brand or offer.
In both cooking and entrepreneurship success follows self-awareness, so play to your strengths be smart about your choices and capabilities
Observation 5: What is the Hero?
On every plate of food is a hero, a main element, that must be well executed if the dish is to succeed. You can support this with attractive presentation, interesting garnishes and theatre, but if the hero element falls short, the prettiness is redundant. Never lose sight of the hero, the real “meat and potatoes” of your business.
In business your hero offer must leverage your Sweet Spot – what it is that you do better than anyone else. When you promise to relieve symptoms, your content or programs must deliver relief. Concentrate most on the work that will set your clients up for success, and when they succeed, inspire them to tell others.
Observation 6: Structure Supports Creativity
Whilst MasterChef elevates the preparation of food to a creative art, it also shows that success lies in foundational disciplines and respect for process.
Chefs live and die by separating preparation (mise en place) from execution (service).
They have a huge range of tools, at their disposal – there is art in learning to make the tools work effectively and which tools to use and when.
Time management is vital. The results must be good enough to exceed expectations but you must work fast enough to meet the deadline. So you must balance working well with working quickly.
Reading and understanding the instructions also proves vital. On the final challenge, the contestants were presented with a nearly impossible dish, “Ethereal Chocolate” which came with a 6 page recipe. As Peter Gilmore said at the time “I hope they don’t get overwhelmed and panic, I hope they can take one step at a time and get it right.” A contestant who previously had never had mis-step misread the recipe and the inevitable mistakes cost her dearly.
The parallel for true entrepreneurs is learning to balance your creativity with disciplines. Once the big ideas are there, work through implications and understand all the steps before plunging in. Action is important, but the wrong actions can be costly and demoralizing. Scoping projects and understanding the consequences of each decision is vitally important to business building.
Observation 7 – Listen to Mentors but Sometimes Follow Your Gut
Masterchef is a great show to observe some different mentoring styles, George uses his energy to create urgency and push contestants to go faster. Mentor Kylie Kwong helps contestants clarify their ideas with questions that direct attention to a weak part of the concept. Kylie leads people gently to their own conclusions.
Gary’s challenging interventions are never welcome as it breaks focus, but he helps contestants check their assumptions, re-prioritize and adapt. An “intervention” saved the winner from disaster when he cottoned on to the hint that he had to immediately start an element or fail to deliver the dish.
Pitching proves to be important too – sometimes when contestants described their vision for the dish the judges didn’t get it at all. Many brave contestants backed their own ideas against mentor’s concerns and the calculated risk turned out really well for them.
At times the mentors were proud and full of praise, there was also a time for empathy, time to push hard and time for ass kicking. Mentors make us better and it is important for entrepreneurs to be mentors and seek mentors.
Observation 8: Be Kind to Yourself
The smallest mistakes will cost you and exasperate you, but you have to forgive yourself or risk completely derailing your efforts. In MasterChef, one contestant cooked an amazing sauce, that was perfect for his dish and in the pressure of competition he left the sauce off the plate – even though he had time.
Perfectionism is the hardest of masters, and it sets up a difficult dynamic for entrepreneurs because it slows you down, drains your joy and sets you up to perceive every setback as a failure.
One contestant in 2014, perfectionist Emilia was hard on herself. She often drew attention to tiny mistakes and didn’t appear to celebrate her achievements. Even though she didn’t win the show, she demonstrated incredible attitude and leadership. She impressed her mentors with strength, confidence and great self belief. However some people found her arrogant, as perfectionistic people can seem unable to connect emotionally. Surprisingly, people warm to us when we show imperfections and admit vulnerability.
As entrepreneurs we are incredibly privileged to be in a position to design our destiny. Yes, there is always more to do and someone doing it better, but ensuring you appreciate, enjoy and celebrate even small achievements will feed your soul and help you build a confidence bank to draw on in the difficult times. And when you are doing it tough, it is OK to say so and ask for support.