Exec Mom’s ‘Kitchen Captain’ Hack Makes Dinner Way Easier for Her Family of 5


Sarah Elk is a partner with Bain & Company. Here’s her advice for smoother family dinners:

A herd of Elks eats at my house. Five little ones, ranging from a newborn to teenager, plus my husband and me. Balancing family and a demanding job as a partner at a management consulting firm leads to what I like to call “a very full life.” And I love it.

I have spent much of my career studying how to transform organizations, and the last year and a half researching and writing a book about building agile businesses that thrive in a world of unpredictable and accelerating change. In this season of sheltering in place and digital schooling, I’ve been thinking about how I can apply some agile leadership principles at home, too―and in particular to that major working-family stressor: dinnertime.

Teaching Leadership

In a family, things are always going to be a little messy. So I lean heavily on the agile principle that the best outcomes come from embracing imperfection and adapting along the way. The mess is good.

In that spirit, I recently launched a new idea called “kitchen captain.” It’s both an attempt to get the kids to pitch in and an object lesson in leadership, feedback and teamwork.

Here’s how it works: One sibling, the captain, gives out the tasks for after-dinner cleanup—who wipes the counters, who puts the dishes in the dishwasher, who puts the food away and so on. When all is done, the captain receives feedback from the others on how they did and why. The job rotates so that everyone gets a turn.

My 14- and 12-year-olds already know how to clean up, and now they’re teaching the 9-year-old and the 4-year-old. As kitchen captain, they have to determine if a younger child is ready for a task. If they teach the 4-year-old, she can potentially do it next time, but they will have to invest the training time up front. The long-term incentive, however, is to help the younger kids build their skills.

Getting Feedback

It’s hard to learn and improve without good feedback. While all communication in a family is important, sibling-to-sibling communication is a minor obsession of mine. I don’t want to be in the middle of sibling disputes, and I hope the kitchen captain project will make giving and receiving constructive feedback more natural for them.

At the end of cleanup, the kitchen captain has to ask me if they have met the cleanliness standards. Do they still sometimes forget to wipe down the counters, overlook a pot or fail to start the dishwasher? Yes, of course. But we are all learning, and that’s the true goal.

Sarah Elk is a partner with Bain & Company. She is based in the firm’s Chicago office, and she leads its global operating model practice. Elk is also a coauthor of Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020).


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