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Why I disagree with Robert Kelly: Gordon Ramsay isn’t the best project manager

An interesting article recently found its way to me titled Gordon Ramsay is the best Project Manager! It was the sort of title was always going to attract my attention given that Gordon Ramsay is…… well Gordon Ramsay. The article was written by Project Manager, blogger and #PMChat’s resident twitter master Robert Kelly. I enjoy Robert’s articles and the PM chats he facilitates each Friday, usually when my side of the planet is deep in slumber. If you haven’t checked out Robert Kelly’s online presence, it’s very hype worthy. You’ll get a lot out of it regardless of whether you’re a young PM-in-training or a seasoned master.

But when I saw the title of this latest peice, I couldn’t help but wonder for a moment whether Kelly had written the article while under the influence of what would turn out to be a sickly and mind-altering chicken cordon bleu. Best project manager? Gordon Ramsay?

There are indeed times when Ramsay behaves like a brilliant project manager, leader and project executioner and Kelly’s article highlights many of them. Most observant project managers who have been around the block a number of times would see it. I have thought about the idea since the article was published. The subject of Gordon Ramsay, project management, leadership, what ‘the best’ means and acceptance criteria of which one may judge it, has swarmed around my own head. And despite challenging my beliefs and assumptions, I am yet to be convinced that Gordon Ramsay can be described as such. Kelly’s points, while indeed valid for the most part, are narrow in scope. It tends to focus at the operational aspects of project management within the context of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, a show where you do indeed (occasionally) see Ramsay at his very best. It also helps that they are project-based episodes. But this is just a single piece of the puzzle. To be given the title of ‘best project manager’ the person being assessed should personify and exemplify all the key criteria of a successful project managers and leaders both in a professional capacity and a personal one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying one must be perfect in every way. Outstanding project managers falter from time to time. They have to! It’s actually an important part of learning. You don’t really get good, really good, at Project Management without watching some monumental cock-ups along the way. But the characteristics and traits that create the best project managers must be present and accounted for to some degree in order to be the best. You don’t even need to be oozing awesomeness in everyone of them. But a cinnamon donut is just not as good without that extra sprinkle of sugar on top.

So what are these characteristics and traits I speak of? Depending on which source you choose, you’ll find slightly different answers. But I think it can be reasonably argued that the characteristics of a leader compiled by Santa Clara University and the Tom Peters Group are a very good place to go.

Key Characteristics of a Leader:

  • Honesty – Display sincerity, integrity, and candor in all your actions. Deceptive behavior will not inspire trust.
  • Competent – Your actions should be based on reason and moral principles. Do not make decisions based on childlike emotional desires or feelings.
  • Forward-looking Set goals and have a vision of the future. The vision must be owned throughout the organization. Effective leaders envision what they want and how to get it. They habitually pick priorities stemming from their basic values.
  • Inspiring – Display confidence in all that you do. By showing endurance in mental, physical, and spiritual stamina, you will inspire others to reach for new heights. Take charge when necessary.
  • Intelligent – Read, study, and seek challenging assignments.
  • Fair-minded – Show fair treatment to all people. Prejudice is the enemy of justice. Display empathy by being sensitive to the feelings, values, interests, and well-being of others.

  • Broad-minded – Seek out diversity.
  • Courageous – Have the perseverance to accomplish a goal, regardless of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

  • Display a confident calmness when under stress.
  • Straightforward – Use sound judgment to make good decisions at the right time.
  • Imaginative – Make timely and appropriate changes in your thinking, plans, and methods. Show creativity by thinking of new and better goals, ideas, and solutions to problems. Be innovative!

Another defining characteristic we cannot allow to pass by the wayside, and in fact deserves a special mention, is communication. Project Managers must excel in communication. It’s the one characteristic you cannot cheat at or get around.

So how does Gordon Ramsay really stack up? One can only honestly describe it as a double-edged sword. When he is [on], he is brilliant. A clearly serious contender for the title of ‘best project manager’ if ever there was one. But when Ramsay crashes, he does so the most spectacular fashion imaginable. Furthermore, when he does fall, he seems to want to take people down with him. He is the car crash you cannot bear to watch yet cannot take your eyes off. And on any given day, you never know which Ramsay you will get. And can we really give Ramsay the title of ‘the beat’ when we never really know which Ramsay today will bring us? Will it be the amazing Ramsay who can inspire and lead? Or the catastrophic delinquency of a man who gets his rocks off by verbally abusing anyone who stumbles into his pathway and exploiting his status and power in a way that results in the misery of others? And does it matter if the scary stuff is played up a bit from the cameras? Yes. Yes it does.

It’s not just the profanity. Profanity in itself may be unprofessional, depending on the context of its delivery, but it not a reason to outright discard him. Some of the best Project Managers I’ve worked with drop the ‘F-bomb’ like it’s going out of style. But the difference is that they do not verbally abuse and embarrass people in public or exploit their power in a way that causes genuine harm to others.

When it comes to delivering your projects on time and budget, the results, or the ‘end game’ matters. But it isn’t the bee-all and end-all. How you achieve your end game and the manner in which you conduct yourself during the journey from start-to-finish matters a great deal. Your behaviour towards others’ must be professional and respectful if you are to build successful lasting professional and mutually-beneficial relationships. You cannot buy respect, nor threaten someone into giving it to you. Project Managers are nothing without the ability to build successful professional relationships, a trait Ramsay seems to lack or possibly, doesn’t give a shit about which is worse. Don’t believe anyone when they suggest that only the results matter project management. People who say this are conveniently ignoring some of the most important elements needed by successful project managers that can last the distance. It is probably the words of someone who had a short, sharp foray into the Project Management territory before heading off again. They are ignoring one of the big defining qualities of a great leader.

The lombastic boom-town approach may be ‘his style’ or maybe is played up for the viewing audience and enabled and encouraged by his handlers. I think it’s both. But regardless, it is no excuse. If anything, it’s problematic. Rightly or wrongly, it helps people to think that it is acceptable to behave this way in a professional environment. It isn’t. And the leadership traits of ‘Competency’ and ‘Integrity’ and ‘Fair-mindedness’ demand we take it into account when we talk of who is ‘the best’.

When you scream profanity-laden and personally hurtful insults at your subordinates in front of others knowing it will humiliate them, you’re a workplace bully of the worst possible kind.

When you show a picture of a woman, naked on all fours, with multiple breasts and the facial features of a pig, saying: “That’s Tracy Grimshaw”, this is sexual harassment.

When you leave a workplace saying you are tired of “the rages and the bullying and violence”, then conduct yourself in the exactly same manner that you say you despise, you are a hypocrite.

And when TIME gives you the title of #1 worlds’ worst boss (2010), you are not a boss that has enough good standing to allow a pass. Chances are, there are a select few who can work with you. And with just a handful of people who are willing to put up with your ‘crap upon crap upon crap’ to borrow one of Ramsay’s more politely-worded phrases, your usefulness outside your narrow scope has a serious credibility problem.

Gordon Ramsay may show glimpses of being a sensational leader and project manager when turning around a flailing restaurant on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. I certainly wish I saw a lot more of that Ramsay and less of the Ramsay that unfortunately, keeps the viewers watching. Arguably, the shows and Ramsay wouldn’t be as famous without it. But it cannot be ignored. It may help his fame, increase his empire and expand his power base, but it also precludes him from being able to be called a truly great project manager.

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2 Responses to “Why I disagree with Robert Kelly: Gordon Ramsay isn’t the best project manager”

  1. On December 7, 2011 at 1:27 am Robert Kelly responded with... #


    I love this post! Most of all, I like the debate. Too much of social media has come down to folks simply retweeting information or forwarding articles. The purpose of my post was to hopefully stir up some discussion and I am glad you took it on…and in great fashion might I add.

    To stay with me position, I do believe Ramsay is in the running as the best project manager for a few reasons.

    1) There has been this movement across Project Management that says we must be team builders, mentors, and so on. While I agree with much of that…I need to win this debate 🙂 Seriously though, we can’t put lipstick on a pig and the situations in which Ramsay is working are very serious. People that eat those restaurants could get seriously sick because of their actions.
    2) Artists, idea owners, business owners, and business unit leaders do not do well when told their baby is ugly. There is a certain pride that goes into it. I would say the small business owners and chefs align closely with Artists and Musicians who are extremely sensitive to feedback other then praise. So when Ramsay says the food is horrible and their storage/handling of food will kill someone, they get irate right from the get-go. Aside from this being a show and ratings, Ramsay only has 1 week to turn an entire restaurant around and make it a success, so he doesn’t have the luxury of team building and slowly gaining wins and trust. He has to come in, hit them in the mouth and build them up. If I was given 1 week to accomplish what he needs to, I may be a little more abrupt as well.
    3) Ramsay and Project Managers are not being brought in to lift the spirits and develop employees (at least PMs in very short, pointed projects) for the long haul. Neither of them have the authority, budget, or long-term ability to see it through when their project is done (that is the owner’s job…functional manager in corporate). Ramsay is brought in to save a company and that is exactly what he does. Remember what I had said in my post…when Gordon leaves, the owners are hugging him with tears of joy and thanking him for everything, the Chef is standing tall with pride, employees are excited to be a part of the team, and most of all the customers are smiling.

    While it is not how I would ever run one of my projects, I recognize the teams and situations he is working within. The military is similar in that they operate under very different circumstances and leverage a completely different approach. I would never run my project like a drill sergeant, but they accomplish what they need to in the situation they are in…and those young men & women walk away with the confidence to succeed, an amazing comradere between the team, and pride that many have never experienced before.

    Thank you so much for your post Sharon. This is more fun then simply passing it around the internet.


  2. On December 8, 2011 at 9:21 am Andy Bud responded with... #

    A very engaging post and response by Robert, weighing up both sides I would have to say there are elements of his work that do make good project management behaviours, but on the whole he would make a bad project manager. I am a strong believe in successfully winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of your team and the stakeholders, you need an open and transparent environment where real dialogue can take place. Ramsey uses fear and intimation, behaviours that only work because of the tv cameras and payment/benefits the production company provide. In a real project where Ramsey in all likelihood would have no line management authority rather than deliver each time he would end up alienating himself

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