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Harvest Restaurant Group CEO Chip Grabowski: ‘Adopt A Hugging Culture’

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In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, Harvest Restaurant Group CEO Chip Grabowski sat down with Don Yaeger to discuss leadership lessons about building trust and teamwork you can really wrap your arms around.


If you are an HR director and this headline made you gasp, take a deep breath and understand no one is suggesting that all of your team should begin looking for others to wrap their arms around; but we are suggesting that if you build a culture of trust and authenticity, others will almost certainly want to wrap their arms around you.

That’s one of the great insights offered by the Founder and CEO of Harvest Restaurant Group, Chip Grabowski. Grabowski was exposed to the industry as a child; his parents owned and operated several restaurants and hotels in Northern New Jersey, making hospitality second nature to him.

But the hug? Well, that did not come from watching too much Barney the Purple Dinosaur. It evolved from playing college hockey in New York, a team that made it to two National Championship games, and seeing how players covered for each on the ice, even when it took them out of their assigned position. Those who watch hockey know that while players have specific roles to play, the speed and complexity of the game constantly require them to leave their positions and serve the system of play.

That lesson from the rink was reinforced one evening when Grabowski and his family were dining at one of his Harvest Restaurants.

“We were seated close to the door, and I noticed that as the guests were leaving, they were so happy that they gave hugs to our staff,” recalled Grabowski. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow!’ Why is this happening here and not at all our restaurants?’” He learned that his staff didn’t view their guests in transactional terms but rather as people whom they were honored to serve on a particular night.

“Why couldn’t we adopt a hugging culture at Harvest, not only toward our guests but toward our colleagues?” Grabowski wondered. And so he inculcated this concept into the business, not as a literal reaching out and touching somebody – although actual hugging is not frowned upon – but as a symbolic “hugging on someone” by communicating about and rewarding behavior that makes others successful as well as yourself.

In the podcast, listeners will see Harvest’s remarkable culture in action and come away with practical team-building tips and techniques. These include:

9:00 How to be a consummate learner, not only from your industry, but also from others.
13:30 How to better communicate to your internal team.
14:30 Three questions every leader needs to ask their teams weekly.
18:30 How to determine if your culture is “Hug-Worthy?”
21:30 How to increase the level of belief within a team.
23:30 The story behind Chip receiving New Jersey’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Check out the full Corporate Competitor Podcast interview archive and subscribe to new episodes.

In hockey, teams often comprise players who speak several different languages, and Grabowski learned that trust often formed not by what was said but by what was done: “Pushing each other hard in practice, believing in the mission and trusting your teammates to carry it out.”


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