Importance of being yourself with Saima Khan – The Potential for What? Podcast
Saima Khan, Founder of The Hampstead Kitchen joins Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent this week to discuss her journey from the world of finance to private chef, finding and nurturing potential, the importance of being courageous enough to just be yourself. Saima also shares stories about how her mentor has helped her in her journey to date.
Also in this episode we talk about:
🔍 Finding kindness, empathy and potential in food banks
🧘♀️ Importance of being yourself
📈 Treating your team with respect
💰 Having Warren Buffett as a mentor
🎧 Some brilliant podcast recommendations
Join us on the latest episode of the “The Potential for What? Podcast”. We’ve got a lot to get through, so let’s jump straight in.
How to listen to this podcast:
Links shared in this episode:
- Saima Khan on LinkedIn
- The Hampstead Kitchen’s Website
- The Hampstead Kitchen on Instagram @hampsteadkitchn
- [Podcast Recommendation] Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett
- [Podcast Recommendation] Lewis Howes’ Podcast
- [Podcast Recommendation] Esther Perel’s Podcast
- [The Times] The high-flyer whose life changed when she cooked for Bill Gates
- [The Financial Times] At your service: inside the booming business of private dining
- [YouTube] The 5 factors of potential
Related Podcast Episodes
- [Podcast] Episode 16: How to unlock your leadership potential
- [Podcast] Unlocking potential through job fulfilment with Ewa Priestley
- [Podcast] Why is Succession Planning often neglected in organisations
Related Blog Posts
- [Blog] Reaching the performing stage of team development
- [Blog] Coaching, Managing, or Mentoring? What’s the difference?
- [Blog] 6 key differences between leaders and managers
Transcript of today’s podcast episode with Saima Khan
So hi, everybody, and welcome to Let’s Talk Talent’s podcast. As you know, we’re focusing on everything about potential. So what is potential, and potential for what? And I’m really excited because we’re joined by Saima.
She is the founder and private chef of the Hampstead Kitchen.
So Saima, welcome to the Let’s Talk Talent podcast. How are you doing?
I’m doing good. Thanks for inviting me, Jo.
Awesome. So I’m going to dive in really quickly, and ask you the age old question: how do you define potential?
Organically, authentically. So basically, before I even started this business, I was very heavily involved in food banks – and food banks are a bit more widely known now. And so I would just be watching people; I’m a people watcher, so if I see an act of kindness or a smile… that’s how I’ve actually hired my team.
So that is something that you either have, or you don’t, it can’t be taught – how to deal with people, how to manage a stressful situation.
And I remember most of my staff have come out of an alcoholic unit, or one of the homeless shelters I’m working in. So much compassion and empathy for others, despite them being in the situation. I remember, you’re not supposed to give it your number, but I remember saying, if you ever get yourself off the street, if you ever need a job, let me know.
And at that point, I was in my banking career, but I knew people who needed good manual workers. And then those people tend to know – it’s like that pay-it-forward model – they tend to know people. I have never to this day used an agency. It’s always like, ok, we need three or four extra people, do you know somebody similar who would really enjoy working with our team, and then they know lots of people.
So that seems to work. And of course, in order to attract, in terms of what potential is, you’ve also got to be those things that you’re looking for as well.
My team have had a bad day, they enjoy, they know that when they come and work for me, they’re going to feel really zenned out.
So I think, for me, potential means being that potential, and mirroring that, so that you attract…like attracts like.
How did someone spot potential in you?
You have to be slightly quirky. God, if I’m going back to my old bosses now, I mean, you have a CV, you have a name, you’ve got a proven track record.
But ultimately, you bring something else to the table, right? So it is your personality, it is your character, you’ve got to let that naturally shine through and not just be a robot. So I think that takes a little bit of courage.
I am quite courageous in being quite quirky and, you know, controversial. That gets you noticed. But in an industry like finance, you need that kind of character. I’ve been running programmes, and pretty much my business is like running a programme, right? But it happens in one day.
You have a start, middle, you execute something, you deliver something, and then it’s ended. And then the client tells you whether the measurable benefit is if they’re happy. It’s the same skill set. You know, as I said, I’m still in touch with my bosses, and they still say that I’m still memorable. They haven’t forgotten me.
So I’m not sure what that is, but it’s just being yourself, I guess.
So when you’ve taken that into your entrepreneurial life and, you know, setting up the Hampstead Kitchen, what, when you think about the factors that bring out the best in people that kind of drive high performance, but also, you know, you spot the superstars – what do you think those factors are? Is it environment? Is it care? Is it leadership?
What are those factors that enable you to create that environment ultimately, for potential to reach its fullest?
I think first is respect and understanding. So if you have staff from all walks of life, then the basic foundation is respect, I treat others in the same way I want to be respected. And I make them feel like I can’t do my business without you guys, you’re in the front line.
So I can make the most gorgeous food. But if the service isn’t good, it’s not efficient, and it’s not personable, people aren’t going to enjoy the end product. So I make sure that they know that so already they feel like they have the responsibility. They are the business too; they’re not working they’re just delivering something, but they have quite a big responsibility.
So I think the respect, the trust, and that this is our business…it’s something that I think works for me. I don’t see that in other similar businesses that are like mine. It’s very transactional. I pay you this daily rate and whatever…so then people don’t really have that kind of passion, excitement to come and work for you. And equally people have bad days, and then we can talk about stuff, then I think people bring their real self to the table when you bring your real self to the table, right? But you’re not having this kind of divide between boss and employee. That’s what I think.
I think you’re right, I think that what you’re talking about is bringing the human. And I read something recently, across the sort of inclusivity/ED&I agenda where people are saying, we’re moving away from kind of protected characteristics and putting people into boxes, much more into the space of people wanting to belong. And that’s what I think you’re talking about when you engender trust, and you encourage people to be themselves, you’re asking them to belong to something that’s got a higher purpose.
Yeah, you’re also being brutally honest. I mean, right now, everybody’s feeling the pressure, whether you’re a boss or an employee, we’ve all got different, economical, there’s political pressure, there’s also mental, physical pressure. And there has to be a bit of empathy, a bit of trust. And that’s quite important.
But in order for someone to belong in the team, they’ve got to be themselves. And you’ve got to recognise which people are quieter, which people are extroverted, and make sure that they do certain roles. Like there’s a lady who’s mega mega quiet, she won’t be perfectly, literally very out of her comfort zone, if she’s client-facing, but she’s meticulous in the kitchen. So you have to spot and sort of kind of fit them in into your organisation where they all work together really well, not everybody can have…we’re not looking for the same kind of personality. I just hosted a beautiful party for one of my closest, closest friends that I’ve known for 22 years. But I had to be a guest, but my staff were serving the drinks. And the amount of people who came to compliment my staff. I’m like, you guys go to so many parties, like what is it because it’s just the detail, they’re just like on it all the time. They weren’t lazy. They were there to just look…we felt looked after – we felt like we were really cared. It wasn’t just someone serving drinks. And what is it? It’s because my staff are relaxed, they can just be themselves. They’re not performing a role. And I think, then people kind of warm to that, you know, they can see that.
So how did you learn that? I mean, because that’s something, you started off, we started off this chat saying, actually, you can’t learn a lot of these things, it’s kind of innate in you. You can’t teach someone to care, ultimately, they either do or they don’t. So how did you learn in your career to this point with running your own business around how to unlock those elements and allow people to be themselves?
I think there’s two things: I think exposure to different working cultures, and true diversity. You know, now it’s become quite fashionable with certain political movements, a tick-in-the-box kind of thing, right?
But actually, if I look at myself, I’m a daughter of immigrant parents, I could have stayed in my silo culture, but actually I had parents – more my father – saying assimilate, and actually find people outside of your religion, race, gender, all sorts, because that’s where your mind broadens. And when your mind broadens to different ways of thinking, both East and Western philosophies, that actually then translates.
One thing I realised is that also living and working abroad in Asia and New York, and also in other northern Europe, every working culture has a very different way. And some of it is great, and some of it is rubbish. And then you’ve got to see what naturally feels in line for you.
You know, you can’t dictate the working culture for somebody you work for. But when you’re creating a business, it kind of…I didn’t sit there and think, how’s the culture of my business going to be? It naturally gravitated towards that way. Because you don’t really think about how you are. But I did a 360 last year with my team. And so like, what is it, why do you enjoy working with me? Why is it that when I can prepare something last minute, you’ll run to me? One: we pay very well. Because then people come to work happier, and it means that they’re not going to just… they’re dependable. I’ve had staff from day dot, which is you know, staff retention in hospitality is very hard, and the pandemic sort of proved that. But people panicked, they got rid of their staff. And then when they needed them, they said, well, not interested, right? How do I know that I have it? When your clients compliment you, you’ll intrinsically feel very good about what you’re producing and giving out. Then you realise that something that you’re doing is working, just carry on doing it that way.
And who’s kind of influenced you during your career? Because I know that for me, there’s been bosses, but they’ve also been friends. So I know that if I need a talking to in terms of, you know, pulling my big girl pants on and have to have a courageous conversation, I’ll ring my friend Nadia, who is a GC of a FTSE. And she’ll tell me just to get on with it.
When I need somebody that’s perhaps going to give me a bit more empathy, I might go to my mother, for example. Who is those role models for you that kind of exudes the sort of leadership qualities that you are exhibiting in your business?
The biggest mentor that I speak to on a quarterly basis is Warren Buffett, because I used to work for him. And he’s somebody that I would go to for more structured advice. So in terms of expanding my business, and obviously, we’ve recently made a change in our business where we’ve made it more small and unique, because we’re finding that that’s what we enjoy, that there’s a higher percentage of revenue coming from smaller events. And it’s something that I enjoy.
If I have one or two people who just know my personality very well, they know my backstory, some friends just listen, sometimes you just need to voice it out. And I think sometimes when you’re on your own kind of managing a business, you need…because I don’t have a co-founder. So sometimes it could be something little. So I wouldn’t go to someone like Warren for something as little as that. But you just need to be heard. And the answers are always within you. There’s no…I’ve got amazing friends. And they will just say: you know what, breathe, what you’re thinking is right. I often think that everybody knows the answers within, they just need to be heard and listened to, and then their friend or their business partner to say, I hear you, I see you. The ones who are good will let you come up with the answer yourself.
I think you’re right, because I’m very much driven by my guts when it comes to the decision. And sometimes I need that sounding board. And I think that comes from, you know, when we think about the factors of potential, there’s that drive, you’ve certainly got drive. So the drive to make a difference is really tangible in what you’re talking about. But you’ve also got the curiosity from the experiences that you’ve had, your background, the people that you employ. And when you look at, you know, CEOs of FTSE businesses, drive and curiosity are the two major factors.
Absolutely. Post-pandemic, it was a lot of survival. And then I came across somebody who was more of a holistic business coach, and I wasn’t really a fan of this kind of business coach, that just tell you what you need to be doing. I kind of wanted to figure out like, when you work for somebody, you have timelines and deadlines, and I have timelines and deadlines for my clients. But the time when you have to yourself, the kind of things that elevate your business, or refine your business that have no time constraints around it, I was struggling to be productive, right? And so I’ve had a business coach for five months. It’s been excruciating, because he gave me: “how does this make you feel, and what’s your value?” And I was like waiting for this magic answer. But in the end, all the answers came within me. He was just able to put a mirror up and saying, “well you’re passionate about this, you want to do this, what’s stopping you from doing this?” So I’ve said I’ve got to take my stabilisers off and see if I can be productive. And it’s been a huge challenge.
But then I listen to a lot of podcasts where I hear all these amazing billionaires and CEOs who struggle with productivity, and recognising their own potential. They’re great for their staff.
But it’s like to touch base with yourself and realise, ok, this is how my business is going. But could I refind my potential?
I totally agree. And I, I’ve definitely used it over the last seven years, and I’ve probably had two or three different coaches. The biggest gift that someone can give you, and I think that’s where great leaders show their potential, is time.
Time. Time is the most precious thing we have.
100%. And I think if we can give people our time, the answers on how you unlock someone’s potential is within them. It’s not for you. Performance can be taught. You can teach someone to turn up on time, to deliver something in the right way, but potential, I think, is innate. And therefore it takes a special leader a lot of the time to understand where you can support and where that person has to do it themselves.
When you have life coaches or business coaches and you speak to your friends, you just need time to sit. Because you’re just too busy doing doing doing doing.
You just need that time, whether it’s an hour and a half, to let all of it come out and then make sense of what’s going on and be very clear about what your potential is. So that’s really interesting. Just saying ok, well business has done well, what potential can I give, but what potential can the business give? Is there more that we can be doing? So that’s a really exciting time now.
You’ve touched on a really important point. It’s one of the third factors of potential that we talk about at LTT, which is insight. I’m very gut driven. So I don’t necessarily need to have a huge amount of data. But now as my business has grown, and your business has grown, I feel like I’m reading the market more. I use this phrase quite a lot recently, which is “slow down to speed up”.
Which is what I’ve been doing for the last six months, and you feel fearful that you’re slowing down. But in order to get two steps forward, you need to take one step back.
The other thing I will say is that there’s no going back really, to be honest. A lot of people want to go back to how things were, things never go back, they keep moving forward. And I think what’s the beauty of your business and my business is this: that we can contract it, we can expand it. But I also think that what’s really, really interesting is that people have realised how resilient they are.
And that’s also potential.
So if I could cope with all of that in the most horrible time in our lives, that’s made me realise then when your back is to the wall, you actually can still do so much.
Well that comes back to the balance between purpose and passion, right? If you’ve got a purpose, then the passion drives you to go faster and push yourself harder. If you don’t have the passion, and you only have purpose, then it just becomes you know, one dimensional. So I think it’s super, super interesting. So you talked about, you know, you listen to a lot of podcasts, What’s some of your favourite things to listen to that, if our listeners wanted to take inspiration from some of your inspiration, what are the things that you would say inspire you?
I think Diary of a CEO from Steven Bartlett, because he’s a young guy but the diversity of people he has on his podcast is amazing. And he asks some very hard-hitting questions. There’s a nice mix of men and women and young and old, so I think he’s the only one out there right now, who’s got the tone of a CEO. And these people are so honest, they don’t just talk about how successful their business are. And you can relate to it, all the kind of ups and downs.
Lewis Howes is another guy I like. Some very real, and it’s very humble it’s not like… Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur Magazine, they’re old school, before even podcasts were created. This guy used to write really interesting articles, and he actually interviewed me in my probably I think, fourth or fifth year, because he heard my story and thought it was ridiculous. And actually thought it wasn’t true. And then he knows Bill Gates and actually checked the story, and was really fascinated. Those kinds of people I find very inspiring.
There’s so many new people now, but I think guests dictate the quality of the podcast.
Another person I listen to is Esther Perel. She is a psychologist, I will say she’s a neuroscientist it’s not just business business business, it’s also about how to read people. And she’s somebody that I really, really enjoy listening to, because she tells you about not just relationships in terms of your personal relationships, but also about your business relationships. And I think it’s really made me listen to how I speak and how I’m received.
I don’t really have that much time, I tend to read the news in the morning, and then put on a podcast on Monday or Tuesday. And then I just scribble down one or two things. So my thing is, I can be the most laziest person on this planet. And so I am trying to… when I have nothing to do. So I remember Warren said to me that when we have less money and less time, we become more resourceful. But the more money and time we have, we tend to waste it. And that’s definitely true of my self.
So I wanted to become productive even when there wasn’t much going on in my day. So today, I mean, I’ve done two gym sessions, I went to boxing and yoga, for me to leave my house. And that’s my business coach. Like because I had this thing, oh I can’t do it because I’ve got this podcast at eleven. So now I stop making excuses. Because I was like, I was trying to… I’m so tired from the weekend before. So it’s like but I have this potential… the potential of the whole day. So why am I not doing it? And so the “doing it” now makes me really, really happy.
I love it. So finally, if our listeners wanted to find you, where can they find you?
We are on Instagram as @hampsteadkitchn, but KITCHN, without the E at the end. On our bio we have a linktree that takes us to a couple of articles that have been written, but also our web page as well. Tells a bit about our story.
You can also type in “Saima Khan The Times” or “Saima Khan Financial Times”, it gives you some background as to how we started our business. I mean, I’ve done a fair few podcasts now. But yeah, they tend to be very undiplomatic and very honest.
Brilliant. Well, I thoroughly enjoyed the last half an hour chatting to you. I count you as a friend, as well as someone who has actually hosted several parties for me as part of LTT.
I look forward to not only working with you going forward, but also seeing how your journey flourishes and where you take your business.
Welcome. Thank you.