HER MAGAZINE

HER take on team-building: A conversation with Nina Swan-Kohler

Photo courtesy Nina Swan-Kohler
Photo courtesy Nina Swan-Kohler

Sometimes, the best team-building exercise can mean taking your team out of the office and putting them in a kitchen.

“It’s a great way to get people out of their comfort zones,” said Nina Swan-Kohler, owner of Cooking with Nina.

Swan-Kohler — a nutritionist, cookbook author and someone who’s “all about food” — offers team-building cooking lessons in the mammoth kitchen at her home in Robins.

Swan-Kohler begins by dividing participants into teams to create appetizers, soups and salads, sides, an entree and dessert. Each team takes turns serving the others, according to a schedule Swan-Kohler prepares.

“Top chefs,” who help lead their team, are chosen either in advance or on the spot. Often, the top chef isn’t someone in a supervisory role in the company.

“Barriers are broken down, and it gives managers a chance to see how people operate in a totally different setting,” she said.

Participants sometimes don’t know what they’re going to be doing until they arrive at Swan-Kohler’s kitchen. The element of surprise helps minimize pre-class jitters for those who may be embarrassed by their lack of skills in the kitchen.

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“When you come to a class, you’re going to learn something new in a safe, friendly environment,” Swan-Kohler said.

The recipes can be complex, but as long as people are open to learning new skills, they’ll have a great experience.

“If you don’t know how to do something, it’s OK to ask,” she said.

To keep the meal on schedule, teams must manage their time and work together to get everything prepared.

“In your real job, you’ve got a lot to accomplish in a day,” she said. “If everybody does their part, you’ll get it all done.”

Still, it’s not about speed — Swan-Kohler encourages participants to follow her recipes before they start experimenting. The recipes are ones she’s developed and spent years fine-tuning.

Even when following a recipe, though, mistakes can happen, which Swan-Kohler said is a team-building opportunity, too.

“How are you going to make a plan to fix it?” she said. “At work, people make mistakes and have to adapt all the time.”

She encourages teams to add garnish to their dishes, which doesn’t change the taste of the dish but takes it up a notch.

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“At work, that extra effort — perhaps making a presentation look more professional — can make the difference,” she said.

At the end of the meal, participants discuss what went well, what problems they faced and which teams were the most successful.

“One company said, ‘I thought there was no way we could get that done in four hours,’ ” Swan-Kohler said.

Other participants were surprised by the number of skills they learned.

Unlike other team-building activities, the skills can be applied at work and at home. Through the classes, co-workers bond and also can go home and prepare a new meal.

“One of the main things that set my classes apart,” she said, “is that you can apply these skills in your real life.”

Quotes on team-building

“Whether you’re a founder, a leader, or an individual contributor, building a strong team is critical to your success.” — Julia Hartz

“Usually, when you’re taking over a team, you’re restructuring, you’re tearing it down, you’re building it up again.” — Anne Donovan

“Building product is not about having a large team to manage. It is about having a small team with the right people on it.” — Fred Wilson

Books on team-building

• “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable,” by Patrick Lencioni

• “The Power of a Positive Team: Proven Principles and Practices that Make Great Teams Great,” by Jon Gordon

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• “You Are The Team: 6 Simple Ways Teammates Can Go From Good To Great,” by Michael G. Rogers

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