Chef Alice Waters founded the landmark American restaurant Chez Panisse forty years ago and, in doing so, created a revolution in culinary culture that swept the world. In her new book, 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering, Waters talks about a question she puts to everyone who applies to cook in her restaurant: “What do you like to cook for yourself?”

My days of thinking I would like to work in a restaurant are far behind me, but my love of cooking is an everyday presence. My first answer, throwing caution and concern for my waistline to the wind, would be a perfect bowl of vanilla ice cream, served at just the right temperature, elegant and complete in itself. My second would be something like a bowl of yellow rice with Andouille sausage sautéed in good olive oil and drizzled on top of the rice, elemental and pure. I don’t know what that would tell Alice Waters about me, but I know it would give her plenty to coach me on.

In a similar fashion, one question I ask leaders who want to build a great company culture is this: “What was the best job you ever had when you were young and why did you love it so much?” I ask the question because the answer can help me understand what lights them up and what kind of culture they could authentically create and lead.

Here’s an example: In a recent session with a team creating a new division in an older company, one leader talked about the six years in high school and college when he worked before and after school in his local golf course pro shop. His description of the work was electrifying and everyone could feel it: the way each day offered its own challenges of wind and weather; the way they focused on providing the best possible experience for their customers; managing the pace of play which sometimes meant managing the customers themselves; helping people improve their game without seeming to criticize the way they played; building a team of enthusiasts who couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning and could seem to break away at the end of the day.

Today this leader and his colleagues are about to launch a game-changing medical product that has the possibility to change the world, and the lives of their customers, in important ways. What would it be like to lead a company that could attack the market the same way that team of golf pros once attacked each morning’s line up of tee times? How can they create that in the framework of the giant corporation of which they are part?

Asking the question of what kind of cultural experience lit them up in the past is our signpost for the direction we’re helping them head now.

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