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Leadership Lessons from the Great British Baking Show

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Leadership lessons can be found in surprisingly sweet places. What the Great British Baking Show taught one baker about leadership.

image of Leadership 480 podcast guest Hermine Dossou, with a person in the background getting a tray of cookies out of the oven to show that this episode is about leadership lessons from the Great British Baking Show

A 480 PODCAST

Leadership Lessons from the Great British Baking Show

25 minutes | June 8, 2021

00:00:00 00:00

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Hermine, DDI associate and baker, shares leadership lessons from her time on the Great British Baking Show

Beth Almes:        

Hey there leaders, and welcome back to The leadership 480 Podcast. Today, we have a very special guest with us who many of you may know if you are a cooking and baking fan, you may have seen her on her appearance in series 11 of the Great British Baking Show. Or if you're based in the UK, you will know it as the Great British Bake-Off.

Our guest is Hermine, who made it all the way to the semifinal this season and was a fan favorite. She also happens to be one of our colleagues here at DDI and wanted to share some of the lessons of leadership that she learned from the show. 

I think you all will find her insights deeply powerful, yet refreshing as a way for us to reframe the way we're thinking about leadership on the lighter and sweeter side of things with baking. So Hermine, welcome to The Leadership 480 Podcast. We're so glad to have you.

Hermine:             

Thank you there. Thank you for having me.

Beth Almes:        

So, let's start with the basics. What brought you from your career in DDI's UK office onto the Great British Baking Show? How did you find the courage to try out?

Hermine:             

Well, since it was my passion for baking, but mostly I have to say it was my colleagues and my manager. Without their encouragement, I would not have found the courage to apply.

Beth Almes:        

Oh, that's amazing. So, they were the ones who kind of mentioned that you should go on the show?

Hermine:             

Absolutely. So, we have these monthly breakfasts that we do in the London office and I would always bring something in and they would all the time say, how lovely it is and how I should join this show and I would always be like, "Yeah, sure." Just to sort of get rid of them and it became so repetitive that I just felt one day, I'm going to do it now just to put this at rest with no intention of sort of taking it further. So, it was a great surprise to have made it to the show at all.

Beth Almes:        

That's amazing. So, one of the things you mentioned to me in some of our discussions about what the show taught you and how to think like a leader was in terms of strategy. So, being ambitious yet ensuring that you're able to deliver. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Hermine:             

So, as a leader, you want to think strategically. And that's been taught to me on the show with developing my recipes. I wanted to showcase my skill, but also wanting to be able to deliver those skills. You compromise fancy ideas and not deliver on it. So, it takes planning and strategy to deliver showstopping result within the allocated time. It is about finding the right balance between both, achieving great results within the allocated resources.

Beth Almes:        

That is such a powerful lesson. I think a lot of leaders go through that. You come into a leadership role, you've got big ideas for something, but without the people and the resources and the time to do it all, it's unrealistic and you're going to end up struggling. So, what a powerful lesson you learned.

Hermine:             

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more.

Beth Almes:        

So, as you were mentioning that one of the things that comes to my mind is also time management, another difficult aspect of leadership, how does that factor into your strategy?

Hermine:             

So, what I've learned during my time in the tent is that if we were giving all the time that we could, we would all come with amazing bakes. So, the idea of the show is to put us under that extra time pressure and see how we perform, which we'll often get in a business environment. So, leaders often face the unknown, and have to navigate through challenging obstacles under pressure and the pandemic is a typical example of that.

So, during the technical challenges, for example, in the tent, you are given a sheet of paper with instructions for a bake you have never heard of before or never attempted before. You are under time pressure as well as the pressure of having the camera on you. You are faced with the unknown and you have to make a decision.

You are told to make a dough and you ask yourself, "How?" And then next you've been told to proof the dough and you're thinking, "For how long?" And then to bake the dough and then you're think thinking, "At what temperature?" And none of that instruction is given to you. And so, you have to turn on all your previous experiences and use a bit of intuition and navigate the situation to the best of your ability.

So, being a leader is to have the humility, to recognize sometimes that the initial plan that you had, plan A, is not working and have the agility and ability to take a moment to pause and reassess the situation in order to steer the ship around.

So, there's a time when I came to the tent with a plan that looked like it wasn't going to work. I was able to quickly change course and produce something that works and Jelly Week, the Famous Jelly Week, where everyone loved the beautiful jelly flower that I've done, where I also won star baker was a typical example of that.

Beth Almes:        

I love that and I wish we all had Jelly Week as part of our weekly challenges. I would love that. I'm curious how my team would say I did on Jelly Week, but I think your point about dealing with the unknown is so important. Leaders are facing that a lot right now. We don't know what's ahead. There's rarely a roadmap that says here's exactly what to do similar to the way you were saying for a recipe.

You were handed something that said bake this, and you're thinking, "How long do I... What the temperature is?" And it's not dissimilar to a lot of times leaders are given the results of expectations. Here's what you need to produce, but not much about how to get there. So, tell me a little bit about what you learned about dealing with the unknown.

Hermine:             

So, for me and through that experience, pioneering leaders, the kind of leaders that change the status quo and come up with great ideas, the ones that are not afraid of the unknown, that are not afraid to challenge themselves, and that are not afraid of failure, because failure is part of the learning journey. We always learn something out of failure. And so, through this journey, I have learned to tackle things I have never done before.

For example, in week one, we had a cake bus, and I mean, that cake has been a nightmare and there were a few frustrating moments doing my practice at home. There were hours of work just lost because we put everything together and then the cake crumbles before your eyes and you have to restart again. And I was dedicated to succeeding and I always picked myself forward to try again. And every time I felt I learned to do things differently.

Beth Almes:        

That's such a powerful lesson, I think. We talk a lot about failing forward for leaders and how it's not often as visible as the cake that's literally crumbling right before your eyes. But I think that failing forward, learning to take those failures in stride as part of your process.

One of the things I loved about the show was, well, it's good and bad, right? That they always judge you on the week that you're in, not on your past weeks. So, it's bad if you've been successful in the past. And you're like, "But I did a great job last week." And then you mess up now, but you know what's also very powerful and refreshing in terms of, if you had a bad week last week, that doesn't mean anything, you come in today and you start over.

Hermine:             

Yeah, absolutely. And as they say, "You're only as good as the cake you bake that week when you are in the tent." But yes. I mean, there's always that opportunity to pick yourself up and start clean again and show what you are capable of in the tent. So, I agree with that.

Beth Almes:        

Yeah. It's a lot of resilience that's expected of you on the show and of leaders, who have maybe had spectacular and very visible failures. And I think the visibility is another one that struck me on the show and something you talked about that how vulnerable you have to be on the show. I mean, everything you do is on display from the moment you start creating it, people are watching you, you're getting interviewed every single step of the way. 

They're kind of looking at it when they think it might be going bad and commenting, and then you put it out there and it could be ripped to shreds. Very similar for leaders, everything they do is on display for others, how they go about everything you can't really hide. So, how did you learn to accept that vulnerability?

Hermine:             

When we grow as a society, we are taught that vulnerability is a weakness, but actually vulnerability is a strength and that is what makes you human. And when you show vulnerability, you are able to create trust between you and your team as leader. So, when you bake and submit it to the judge, it is literally like, it's a work of love and so it's like putting your heart on a plate and subjecting yourself and your performance to judgment, and sometimes it goes well and sometimes not so well. 

It's about picking yourself up, making the most of the constructive criticism and applying them to the next episode if of course you make it to the following week. And a great leader must have the ability to take criticism to introspect and to make positive changes.

Beth Almes:        

I think that's a great point. And I'm curious how you felt about, not only did you put your finished product out there, but everybody could see everything you were doing every step of the way. And when I watched the show, it occurs to me most of us in our daily work, it doesn't, if you're an individual contributor, you can do whatever you need to do and it just matters. 

You show your final product to your boss, but when you're a leader and like you on the show, it's every step. How did being on display like that change the way that you actually went about your work?

Hermine:             

Naturally, I mean, I like to do things to the best of my ability. And then also, because you are on the show being seen by millions of people, you obviously want to give your best but also within the time constraint. And sometimes you come with a product that you'll feel not disappointed with, but almost feel like, "Well, I'm better than this. I could do better than this if I was given the time." 

And I found that in the first few episodes, I used to be really disappointed about myself, almost thinking, I mean, I can produce better than this, but then it's about showing yourself empathy as well. And acknowledging that you have done your best given the circumstances that you were under and you just take the criticism in stride to do better on the next episode.

Beth Almes:        

I think your point about empathy is critical for leadership. We talk about it all the time that empathy is really one of the foundational skills. If you do nothing else as a leader, start here. And it's one of the things I've found as a leader myself, that it all looks a lot easier until you're in the role yourself. 

As an individual contributor, often you'd be like, "Oh, why is my boss doing this?" Or it's not that if I were the boss I would do something differently, but it's a lot harder when you're there. And I imagine that's the case on the show as well.

Hermine:             

Absolutely. I mean, when it comes to leadership, I'm putting goals a long way. And I actually have a story for you, I remember when I was watching the show as a viewer, I'd sit on my sofa and then, my couch, and then see the contestant during the technical, and obviously they will fail miserably and I will be like, "Well, you can't bake something this simple, I mean, come on." 

But of course they, you, as a viewer, you have seen the end product. So, you know what it's supposed to look like. But then when you actually go in the tent, you don't get to see the final bake and what it's supposed to look like. So, you are navigating blind. So, having experienced it from the other side puts things in perspective, and the supposedly simple bake is all of a sudden, a lot more challenging.

So, what that has taught me is the importance of understanding, or at least trying to see or acknowledge things from others' perspective, because you're seeing things from your angle, but there's so many other different angles that you're probably not seeing from your position, from where you are and that's where empathy comes in, trying to put yourself in others' shoes and reflect on the situation from a different angle.

Beth Almes:        

Absolutely. And you bring up another point that I think is highly relevant is knowing what success looks like, can sometimes be half the battle for a lot of leaders. You don't know what it looks like, and until someone tells you, this is what it's supposed to look like, it's hard to say, in retrospect you might say, "Oh, well obviously I should have done something differently." But getting that picture and painting that picture for yourself of what success looks like in advance is so crucial.

Hermine:             

Absolutely. Because once you know or have seen what something is supposed to look like, it's much easier to replicate it. But when you don't know what something is supposed to look like, you're basically shooting blind and making things up as you go along and that can be a lot more challenging.

Beth Almes:        

Yeah. It's a great lesson and I think for leaders, both for themselves and what they're shooting for, but as well as the goals they set for their teams, the better you can help paint the picture of where people, I think a lot of leaders get upset. If they haven't said, "Here's where you need to, here's what success looks like. This is what good looks like." And then if their teams don't reach it, they're disappointed, but they've never said what it was.

Hermine:             

Yeah, absolutely, no. I agree with you a 100%.

Beth Almes:        

So, one of the things that also struck me is really at the end of the day, much like leadership, there's a part of this that's just about endurance. And sometimes a very grueling schedule, my understanding was you guys were, I mean, cranking these out week after week and many times when they film, people are doing this on the weekends, in addition to their regular jobs, how do you keep going through the tough schedule?

Hermine:             

I mean, it was intense, especially because we live in a bubble. So, I mean, this series, especially we lived in a bubble, so there was no going back home to your family. It was 24-7 and we did have days off, but because we wanted to keep going and being in the confusion, you were also practicing when you deal with this, we were given the opportunity to rest if you wanted to, but most of us were baking. 

So, what I've learned in terms of resilience in that perspective is that when businesses are going through a tough time, through economic downturn, it's about endurance and not speed. So, at time the aim is to be the last man standing. And I remember like Prue used to say, "You just want to not be the worst, right?

You just want to make it in an endurance situation. You just want to make it to the next day. You just want to not be the worst." And so, you just keep pushing, and the aim is to be the last man standing. And so, as I used to tell myself when I wanted to give up, but also to my fellow bakers, when they were down, is it is not over until it is over. 

So, being a leader in hard times is recognizing that you need to keep your head afloat until the hard times are over. 

Beth Almes:        

That's great. Thank you. So, one of the things we ask all of our guests on the show, tell me about a moment of leadership that really affected your life, whether it was positive or negative, a moment of leadership that changed you.

Hermine:             

So, mine comes from a bottom-up perspective on management. And my experience at DDI generally, but also at direct level has always been a surprisingly pleasant one. And I say surprisingly because it is not something I have experienced before. The emphasis has always been on trust, results, and achievement rather than micromanagement. My leader has always given me a say in my job and I always felt that my opinion mattered. 

So, for example, my direct manager to me has always led by example and has taken interest in my academic progress through the completion of my ACCA, my professional progress, for example, in working experience and gaining, taking on new challenges and getting more experience and also on a personal growth level, like my general and the teams as well, not just me, but my general mental well-being and welfare.

It was my manager that saw the potential in me and kept encouraging me to apply to The Great British Baking Show. And I'm glad that he never saw my participation as a hindrance to my job as is commonly the case, because sometimes people will think, "Oh, she's going to go on the show and that she'll be gone. She won't come back." And then he was never like that. 

He was, "Here's something you enjoy doing. I can see is your passion. Go and show what you're capable of, and yes." And so, I felt he understood that you can pursue your passion while still being a credit to your team and adding value to your company.

He saw that I had a skill even though not directly linked to my job and encouraged me to grow it. And at the end of the day, a skill is a skill and skills are all transferable. So, through the show, I received tremendous support from work. 

And so, when your employer cares about your growth and your personal development beyond the 9:00 to 5:00, you feel in return a great sense of loyalty and you want to give 200% and always ready to go above and beyond. And it goes both ways. And I feel a happy employee makes a happy business. And I think DDI has definitely cracked that code.

Beth Almes:        

I love that story of how the personal and your professional, all of that came together and being able to see how you were able to pursue your passion while adding value to your company. I think that's what so many folks are really looking for, that they can pursue those things that bring them joy while still being 100% there for their jobs. 

Absolutely. So, thank you for sharing that. Thank you for joining us today Hermine, and thank you to all of our listeners for spending part of their 480 with us today. We will all be left wondering how we would fare on Jelly Week, much like you Hermine.

Hermine:             

Thank you for having me here. It's been a pleasure.

Beth Almes:        

Thank you so much. This is Beth Almes reminding all of you to make every moment of leadership count.

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