Sunday, May 12, 2013

New President Interview -- Part 18 The Set Table Theory

The Set Table Theory*

Q: I recently read Setting the Table by Danny Meyer.[fn 1] Meyer is the owner of eleven restaurants including the iconic Union Square Café in New York City. Some of his idea about the “set table” theory seem similar to what we discussed in the last interview. He talks about the skills needed to run and manage a restaurant and how to address mistakes and correct them. They are: be aware that mistakes happen, acknowledge what happened, apologize, act in way to correct the mistake, and offer additional generosity.

The tables are set for the patrons and they have the tools to accomplish the goal of having a fine meal with excellent company.

How does this work for a college or another business?

The “set table” is a metaphor for the way administrators and support staff should behave to support the instruction. Danny Meyer in an article in St. Louis Magazine [fn 2] tells of a time when he was a teenager and went to a St. Louis restaurant with his grandmother. Danny was playing with ketchup packet. He squeezed too hard and the red ketchup flew to his grandmother’s hair. The staff immediately helped clean her up and greatly impressed the teenager.

Imagine the teenager and his grandmother were teachers in the College and the restaurant staff is the College non-instructional support staff. The support staff is not interested in placing blame or pushing the problem to someone else. They need to solve the problem without making excuses; apologies and explanations, but no excuses. In a colleague’s college my friend told me about an assessment committee meeting. They were reviewing comments by faculty concerning improving instruction. Some of the comments were predictable such as better lectures, better communications with students, etc. One person said, “We have to stop standing on a shaky foundation. We need the facilities, business, and technology people need to understand their role in the educational process. Teachers should not have to waste time with people saying no to requests. All the support people need to find the way to say, ‘yes.’”

Finding a way to say “yes” has always been part of my management practice. Of course I need to manage resources; I can’t schedule two groups for the same space at the same time. I can’t give everyone everything that they want. I can offer alternatives. If we have a conflict of wants, I attempt to negotiate what is the real need for the students or the good of the College. If room A is not available, we can offer room B. The need is not the room, but a proper space to meet, In the restaurant metaphor, the customer has a need for table and utensils. The customer may want a special place and special utensils, but those are their preferences and wants not requirements for eating the meal.

Q: How does the “set table” theory affect the budget?

The people who control the money in a college are the same people who create the budget and spend the money. The president, the deans and other managers create the budget and spend the money. The business and accounting staff should be finding ways to create controls to prevent overspending or fraud, and not impeding the spending of budgeted funds. My people spend a long time preparing the budget. Once approved, we should be allowed to spend it to support our programs. There is long history of a culture that told the business people that not spending the budget is favorable to spending every penny. This causes many institutions over buy at the beginning of a fiscal year because they are not sure if there will be money at the end. They want to supplies on the shelf in case there is no money the month before the fiscal year ends. This way of thinking is hard to reform and I have been only partly successful.

Q: What have you done to change the culture?

I have created a strict budget and a contingency fund. For example if a department has a budget for copier toner and they run out before the end of the budget year, they are not stuck with no photo copying for the period. Two things happen—first they have to figure out what they ran out and second they may have to use funds from other lines or contingency funds. It could be that they did not plan from several big jobs or the costs out ran the estimates. If fraud or misuse is involved, the offending parties need to be confronted and dealt with. The contingency funds are not “lost” at the end of the fiscal year. They remain the department’s account.

We have devoted many internal training hours to help supervisors creates budgets that are reasonable, flexible, and supportive of our core mission (serving the education needs of our students.) We want the students to be our supporters when they leave. Even if they are not contributing money, they will be voters, relatives of voters, and friends of voters. As a public institution, the voters are the controllers of the revenue. Since our College and our graduates benefit the community, we need every one of the graduates, their friends and family to be our ambassadors. A well run institution along with high quality education goes a long way to creating a better future for the College and our graduates. I do not want anyone telling stories about the silliness or stupidity of our rules, practices, or professional practices. I want students to be proud of their education and remember the example we set as a well-run institution.

Q: What is the role of leadership in changing the way people perform?

Leadership sets the goals and the mission for reform. Donald Moynihan [fn 3] (and co-authors) in a 2011 article, “Setting the table …” talk about performance in the public sector. Leadership is making the high level strategy and mission for the organization so that everyone can be inspired and work toward the same goals. Management focuses on the technical and procedural aspects of getting the job done. Moynihan (et al) concluded that leadership can influence changes in the culture that enable management processes to succeed. They agree with me in saying that leaders “set the table” for success by creating and making sure the conditions exist to enable the system and the daily processes to work smoothly. Leaders not only support reforms, development of systems, and inspire commitment, but they also make sure the tools exist for these processes. Setting the table or rather creating a system for continuous improvement is the legacy that a leader leaves when they are no longer present.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m going to remember to make sure my people have the tools they need.


*Part eighteen of an imaginary interview with the president of the College. Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.

Footnotes: 1. Full citation" Setting the table: the transforming power of hospitality in business / Danny Meyer. New York, Harper, 2008.

2. “St. Louis Innovators: The Restaurateur, Danny Meyer” November 2011 (found at:

3. Moynihan, Donald P. “Setting the Table: How Transformational Leadership Fosters Performance Information” in Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory Advance Access May 9, 2011 (retrieved from: on May 12, 2013)

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