Leadership lessons from the Cake Boss

tumblr_m54n8bh6Mn1rwbs4uo1_400I enjoy stumbling on good leaders in unexpected places. Buddy Valastro, the fourth-generation owner of Carlo’s Bake Shop in Hoboken, NJ and star of TLC’s reality show Cake Boss, is my latest discovery (thanks to one of his biggest fans, my nine year-old daughter).

Buddy is a master baker who conjures up extraordinary cakes that, at least to hacks like me, defy credibility. He’s also an appealing personality – imagine an older, more rotund version of The Fonz from Happy Days crossed with Tigger. His entertaining supporting cast, known as “La Famiglia,” includes Buddy’s large, voluble extended family, many of whom work at Carlo’s, and a gifted team of bakers and pastry artists who help bring his creations to life.

Each episode usually goes something like this: A client comes into the bakery and asks Buddy to create an over-the-top cake to commemorate a special occasion. Sesame Street is turning 40.Century 21 is welcoming 4,000 agents from 73 countries to its conference in Las Vegas. The local fire department wants to honor residents at the New Jersey Fireman’s Retirement Home.

Buddy listens carefully to the client’s high-concept, sometimes vague instructions, often chuckling good-naturedly over a particularly outrageous detail (e.g., “and we need the 1,500 lb. cake to be delivered to us in St. Louis – in two days!”). After they agree on a general theme, he makes a sketch and then gathers his crew together to share his vision for how it’s all going to go down. Inevitably, things go wrong, but even when disaster seems imminent, voilà! La Famiglia pulls off complex feats of multi-tasking, decorating and special effects engineering successfully, every time. Technical skills are an important ingredient in their success, of course, but Buddy’s effective and inspiring leadership may well be the secret sauce.

Here are a few things he does particularly well:

  1. Communicates a clear mission and vision – Carlo’s Bake Shop has the DNA of a family business, and the memory of Buddy’s father, who died when Buddy was 17, is frequently invoked. According to Buddy’s bio, the two dreamed of one day turning the bakery into a household name. The fact that Buddy accomplished this by remaining loyal to his father’s “old-world” recipes, work ethic and familial mindset, while at the same time pioneering wildly innovative decorating techniques and embracing decidedly “new-world” platforms (like reality TV), makes him interesting to watch. The fact that he is able to consistently and passionately articulate his vision about what Carlo’s stands for, where he wants to take the business and what success looks like makes him compelling to follow.
  2. Leads by example – Buddy loves a good challenge (on a recent trip to Italy, he challenged the chef at a popular pizzeria in Rome to a throw-down) and sets a high bar for himself and his entire crew. He moves easily between the big picture and the little details and pitches in on thankless tasks when the situation demands it. On mission-critical cakes, no wilting strawberry or icing mishap is too small to absorb his attention before the finished product is allowed out the door. His team is equally obsessive. As a result, the cakes leaving Carlo’s kitchen often push the envelope technically. They also look flawless.
  3. Conveys authenticity and integrity – Buddy has a wonderfully expressive face and rarely tries to censor his feelings. He rolls his eyes when he’s annoyed, tears up every time he talks about his father and has an excellent sense of humor. As a leader, he’s straightforward, candid, magnanimous and transparent (except, on occasion, when dealing with his mother!). Although he can be quick to yell under stress, he is equally quick to share credit for a job well done. From what I’ve seen, he will go to extraordinary lengths to please a customer, bold-faced name or not. You don’t have to watch many episodes to get the picture: here is a person who is extremely ambitious yet very comfortable in his own skin; takes great pride in his craft and the accomplishments of his team; and clearly adores his wife and children (although he probably sees more of them in the bakery than he does at home). I also get the sense that, while he enjoys the material fruits of his success, intrinsic motivation and legacy are more powerful drivers for him than money.

At the end of every episode, we see Buddy and a few members of La Famiglia delivering the featured cake to a crowd of gathered celebrants. No matter what the occasion, the range of responses is always the same – gasps, applause, tears and general amazement. It’s tremendously satisfying to watch, so I can only imagine what it must feel like to bask in that reception as the architects. What these scenes also drive home is that, beyond the aesthetic and epicurean pleasures of a good cake, its power as a symbolic expression of emotions like love, gratitude and joy is hard to top. For a sentimental guy like Buddy, that seems to be an integral part of what he – and Carlo’s Bake Shop – is all about.

Originally published as a guest post for 
Michelle Tillis Lederman

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