As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul McKeon, CEO of Team Building with Taste. Paul has merged his love of cooking with his previous business experience building and running high performance sales and marketing teams. Paul has seen the benefits of teamwork from the trenches. Before entering the culinary world, Paul founded and sold two successful marketing and creative firms where he learned that teamwork and collaboration where keys to success. He went on to run a global marketing practice for Ketchum, one of the world’s largest public relations agencies. Since 2013, Team Building with Taste has used kitchens, and its unique culinary team building curriculum, to bring teammates together and enhance the performance of more than 2,000 organizations.
Thank you so much for joining us Paul. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
This is a second career for me. I spent most of my career in technology and marketing. My big claim to fame was helping in the successful establishment of Nokia cell phones in the U.S.
But after a while I tired of technology and was looking for something else to do. I always liked to cook, so I went to various culinary schools for their adjunct/adult programs and solidified my knowledge.
We began in 2011 by building the first food truck commissary (“shared” kitchen) in Atlanta. It was a success and then in 2013, we started to hold corporate culinary events in this large commercial kitchen as well. This blended my love of cooking with my previous experience of running and engaging large teams in a common purpose. That was the beginning of Team Building with Taste. We expanded the team building to Dallas, TX in 2015.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We made lots of mistakes. If you don’t make them, you are not pushing yourself or learning. A simple one that stands out:
Like most event companies, we have a waiver that participants must sign before joining the event. Basically, it says that if you cut or burn yourself in our kitchen (which rarely happens, but could), you take full responsibility and exonerate us. It’s a fairly simple one pager that people signed as they came in the door.
After a while, we had the idea to make it electronic and send it out ahead of time to get it out of the way. Well, the corporate organizers started to send it to their legal department. The next thing you know, we were negotiating our basic waivers and they were going from one page to five after their corporate lawyers revised it. We even lost a few deals because of the waiver of all things. So, we went back to the old paper-based format.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s How I Built This. It tells the personalized stories of well-known companies and how they got started. You’d be surprised at the genesis of many of them.
I’ve devoured hundreds of business books and have been influenced by many. One of my favorites is “Positioning” by Al Ries and Jack Trout. I think it was written in the ’70s, but it still has merit today. It reinforces the notion of being known for something in the prospect’s mind and staying true to that. For example, if you are in the food business, are you a breakfast or lunch item? If breakfast, are you a cereal? If a cereal, hot or cold? Etc. The lesson of the book is that people think and make decisions associatively. In other words, they need to know which aisle and shelf in the supermarket you are on.
On our aisle, there are a lot of team building companies and coaches. At Team Building with Taste, we’ve worked hard to carve out and stay true to our positioning in the culinary team building category.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Someone told me once that “everybody is smarter than somebody.” I believe that. Most work gets done in teams, and it is important to have cohesion, respect and collaboration in those teams. They will perform better. That is what we try to help organizations with. Team Building with Taste helps build higher-performing teams by pairing team building skills with cooking to optimize familiarity, trust and collaboration among participants.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I’ve always been a big believer in flat organizations and lots of collaboration and communication. I don’t like hierarchy and think that it stifles innovation. As part of this, I try not to hire people that I have to spend a lot of time “managing.” If they don’t have a self-directed sense of urgency and purpose, then you have to “manage” them, which is mostly a waste of time. It takes away from the other really important things you have to do.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like others, we are huddled together as a family. My youngest just graduated from college and, of course, there was no graduation ceremony or anything like that. She received a job offer from a well-known company that was supposed to start in June, but they have pushed it back until the fall. It also looks like she will be working from home for a while. So, that’s a little tough on a 21-year-old, being stuck with your parents for another year or so.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I won’t sugar coat it. COVID-19 has severely impacted our business. We’re essentially a part of the corporate hospitality industry, which has been decimated. We closed our Dallas, Texas,
facility and are doing the best we can to make a go of it in Atlanta. Our plans for further expansion, which were looking very positive a few years ago, are on hold right now.
In-person team building experiences are at a standstill due to the pandemic. But the need for team-building still exists, maybe even more so. After months, and still counting, of endless Zoom calls staring at each other’s makeshift offices in the spare bedroom, keeping spirits high and teams united requires some extra creativity in this current work-from-home environment. Employees need to feel connected more than ever, and shared experiences are key.
So, we migrated our culinary team building offering to a virtual/Zoom platform. It’s not the same for us or the participants, but it still serves the purpose. We should be able to “ride it out” with that strategy.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Well, I tell them it is all relative. Yes, things are different. But life could be much worse. You could be a Syrian refugee. You could be struggling in Brazil. Think positively.
There are some intangibles. For one thing, it is much quieter outside. There is less ambient noise. Less pollution. A lot less traffic. We are all taking many more walks and enjoying the outdoors when we can.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
History shows that times of crisis engender the most creativity. That’s probably true post-COVID. When it comes to business trends, I think COVID is mostly accelerating trends that are already under way, including work-from-home, food delivery, eCommerce, the decline of retail, etc.
I think the real action and creativity will come in civic and governmental areas, such as urban planning, social work, politics and healthcare services. I think the changes to society will be more profound than the changes to business.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
As many have said, the pandemic is exposing some basic weaknesses in our society. In particular, how thin the social safety net is for many people and how easy it is to have it wiped away. I would hope post-pandemic we can look to issues like healthcare and income inequality and do something to make life more equitable for everyone.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our focus in the short term is on virtual team building, which is doing pretty well under the circumstances. Our strategy is to continue to emphasize that in the short term. In the long term, things will improve. They usually do. Humans are by nature social and collaborative beings. They will start to crawl out from under the rocks and engage with each other in a physical way again. It’s in our nature.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
For business people in particular, I would encourage them to realize that not everything in life is about climbing the corporate ladder or making money. If there is not much you can do in the short term other than ride it out, then read the classics, garden, write something, learn to cook. Take advantage of the time (if you can), you never know where your next idea may come from.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Well, with the advent of GPS, it may be an outdated metaphor, but someone once told me, they “don’t make too many decisions, just read the road signs.” By that, they meant trying to make sense of where life was leading you and making the best judgement available to you at the time. That seemed like good advice then and now. After all, who could have predicted COVID-19?
How can our readers further follow your work?
Through our website, www.teambuildingwithtaste.com and by following us on our LinkedIn account, https://www.linkedin.com/company/teambuildingwithtaste