Getting to know you: Stephen Waters

What do you currently do?

Watershed School specialises in management development exclusively for restaurant and hospitality companies. We help these businesses achieve exceptional rates of promotion from within. I run the business, which means I am responsible for the marketing, administration and performance of our six teaching associates.

What is the inspiration behind your business?
The inspiration for Watershed came when I was running the Pitcher & Piano training development programme. Increasingly, I saw training that ticks boxes was ineffective in the hospitality field. The training management companies we were working with at that time didn’t fully understand people who are good at running restaurants tend not to have conventional leadership skills.

In general, they are more led by their heart than their head – Part of what we do at Watershed is helping businesses to understand the successes and drawbacks that come with that sort of leadership.

I believe with the right energy, support and focus, everyone can do better than they think they can. Most days, restaurant managers work on automatic pilot, only delivering 60-70 per cent of what they are capable of – with the right guidance this can be improved upon.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Plenty. I would have secured the necessary funding, rather than relying on my own finances. I was advised by a former colleague the business would fund itself, but that turned out not to be the case; this caused a lot of heartache and difficultly. Like all businesses there were sudden uncontrollable leaps forward rather than growing in a straight line. It’s not as easy as it seems on Dragon’s Den – not by a long way

Another thing I wish I had realised sooner is that management development programmes are quite subtle. You can either educate people quickly or deliberately slowly. When I started Watershed, I reproduced an in-house three-year training model, which had worked very well at Pitcher & Piano. It aimed to educate people slowly in order to retain them. That was the wrong model for me to start an outsourced programme with.

It needs to be fast and furious, and there needs to be frequent injections of good practice, which people can learn from.

What defines your way of doing business?
Stick to what is real and what works and take opportunities when your gut tells you – sometimes you have to follow those hunches. At Watershed, we’d rather use flip charts and pens than PowerPoint – we want true engagement. We have talented, learned, and interesting associates who know a great deal about management development. As a result of this, they can confidently sit down and talk to a whole team without the use of a PowerPoint presentation. We are more activity based.

Who do you admire?
I admire any entrepreneur, I really do, working with anyone who has the confidence or courage to do what they want to do. One of the people I really admire is co-founder of Hawksmoor, Will Beckett. When I met him in 2004/5, Watershed had nearly died and I’d pretty much just stopped doing it. But he totally believed in everything I was proposing; It was the right person, at the right place, at the right time.

At the time, Hawksmoor in Spitalfields was just getting started, but it was certainly a meeting of minds. Beyond that, he continually encouraged me, told me to stick at it, and assured me that success was just around the corner. He was totally right.

I also really admired Luke Johnson. He attended our Directors’ programme a couple of weeks ago. He’s incredibly realistic about how to run a business. Emotion is a key component of the restaurant business, but if you’re not careful, emotion can turn into sentiment rather than emotional intelligence. Listening to Luke Johnson is an antidote and a safety net against that type of sentimentality.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have loads customers who are very small entrepreneurs at the moment that I really admire too. Businesses such as The Blues Kitchen, Voodoo Ray’s, and Le Coq.

What advice would you give someone starting up?
I would say that it’s important to have a business cycle of the following: do, reflect, plan, do. And be quite rigorous with yourself, it is very easy to pretend that something isn’t happening. Also I would advise you to have a couple of mentors and enough money to help you sleep at night. If you don’t sleep you are rubbish the next day.