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Religion & Liberty: Volume 26, Number 3

Servant leadership in a Louisiana kitchen

Good leadership involves a lot more than ordering underlings around, and one prominent businesswoman, Cheryl A. Bachelder, has built her career on being a different sort of leader. In early June 2016 Bachelder discussed her views on leadership, business, faith and more with Religion & Liberty’s Sarah Stanley at the Popeyes’ headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bachelder has a long list of accomplishments. She’s currently the CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, which she joined in November 2007 after serving as an active member of the company’s board for a year. At Popeyes, she promptly established a “Road Map for Results that focused on four key tenets of growing a restaurant chain: build a distinctive brand, run great restaurants, grow restaurant profits and ramp up new unit growth.”

Before joining Popeyes, Bachelder was president and chief concept officer for KFC Corporate, and before that she served as vice president of marketing and product development for Domino’s Pizza. Prior to her restaurant experience, Bachelder served as general manager of the LifeSavers Division of RJR Nabisco. Her early career years included brand management roles at Gillett and Procter & Gamble.

She is the author of Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others (Berrett-Koehler 2015). Bachelder holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and a Master of Business Administration in Finance and Marketing from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

R&L: When you took over the helm of the troubled Popeyes organization, you worked hard to restore trust with franchisees, many of whom felt that they’d been let down by the company. How did you begin that process?

Cheryl A. Bachelder: Well, the company is 35 years old. So it’s been here a long time. A franchisee signs a 20-year contract to represent our brand, so it’s a very long-view investment for them and for their families. In the seven years prior to my arrival, they had met four different CEOs. There had been a lot of turnover in the role. And I was just another one. Their first look at me was, “Well, what’s so great about you?” It so quickly became evident that I had a lot of work to do to restore any kind of trust and credibility with them that would allow me to lead.

Trust always begins by one thing: listening. One of the other execs and I went on a seven-city listening tour. We had small group meetings with our franchise owners, our restaurant general managers and our customers. And we just took notes. It took us about three weeks to get to all seven cities and absorb all the feedback. But I think that’s the key—to not assume you know. And also that you never forget that the people closest to the business actually do know what’s going on. It’s a way to demonstrate respect, that their input’s valuable, and they do have some ideas they’d like to share about how to turn the business around. So we collected all that input and those ideas, and that’s where we began to form a thesis about our business plan, where we should put our attention, what needed to change in what order.

We created the Roadmap for Results, a one-page summary of the goals and strategies we would pursue to turn the company around. But we didn’t just start doing it. We went back on the road and did town hall meetings in multiple cities to give people a chance to look at our thinking and to test it and say, “Does that ring true? Is that what you were trying to tell us? Is that a plan you could be excited about?”

In your book, Dare to Serve: How to Create Superior Results by Serving Others, you talk a lot about solving problems and managing with a fact-based approach. It’s been said that not everything one measures is important and not everything important can be measured. Do metrics have a limit to their usefulness in managing a large corporation?

I suppose you can measure too much and confuse the organization by having so many measures that nobody knows what’s important. But in our company we’ve typically focused on four to six measures. We evaluate all of our restaurants and our company performance on the same measures year after year. And now people understand that if we do those things well, they deliver sustained performance. And so they’ve become real guideposts. We just set new bold goals for our investors, and we announced that at our last investor call earlier this year. We said, “It’s time to stretch again and go farther faster.” We have a saying that one of our operations team members created that says you move what you measure. And we haven’t found a way to improve ourselves without a measure.

It’s a marker. It’s feedback. It tells you whether you’re going forward or going backwards. And so we are incredibly focused on measuring the things we think are important to move.

With a lot of political momentum behind the push for minimum wage hikes, which is happening in Seattle right now, for example, how will Popeyes cope with these mandated costs? How much can be automated?

Well, you’re right that the cost of wages is probably the single pressing issue on a restaurant operator today. And people forget that restaurant operators typically own four or five restaurants and live in a small town. These are not big corporations. People also think that restaurants make a ton of money. They don’t. The average restaurant in our business has sales between a million two and a million four. And they make less than 10 percent after tax profit. So then $120,000 to $140,000 a year. Or $10,000 a month. That is not a lot of money.

The total wages we pay in an average restaurant are $350,000, more than double the profit for the restaurant. So what people forget is that economics is an ecosystem. I believe we should pay fair wages. I also believe we should charge fair prices to our guests. And I also believe a small business person has a right to fair profits.

Now interestingly, in a policy talk, if we decided to double our prices overnight, there’d be a bit of a problem in the media. Or if our franchise owner said, “I think it’s my right to make twice as much money,” there’d be a little bit of a problem in the media. But we think it’s just fine to double wages overnight? The ecosystem won’t work. There isn’t enough money to make that work. The only levers in a profit and loss statement are to raise your prices or cut your cost. It’s very simple math. And so what we will see, if wages move too rapidly, we move from $7.25 to $15, which has already happened in several cities, prices will go up very fast for guests, hours will come down for the employees, because we will find a way to do it with less. We have to. We will have to seek automation. There will be no option. We’ll just eliminate the need to have people talk to you. And then, finally otherwise, if it only comes out of the profits, there will be no restaurants. And if you read the follow-up on Seattle, for example, the restaurants have left the city limits of Seattle because they can’t make a fair profit.

Does Popeyes operate in Seattle?

We do. In the suburbs. Our franchisee operates near Seattle. And not only does he have wage challenges, but he also has beverage taxes, sick day policies. The amount of regulation in the West Coast states is almost defeating to an entrepreneur. In fact, some restaurant companies have decided to retreat from West Coast states. These things are really making it difficult for entrepreneurs to make a living, a fair living, for their families, to put their kids through college. And what people forget in the restaurant business, in Popeyes, 41 percent of our owners are immigrants to this country who came here to pursue the American Dream. They are some of the most hardworking, cool people you’ve ever met. And all they want to do is get a nice little apartment for their family and put their kids through college, things that all of us take for granted. I often say that entrepreneurs are not being defended in today’s policy conversations because they’re too busy working. And what we need is a millionperson march on Washington, the hardworking entrepreneurs who really are the backbone of our country, of economic growth and of this thing that we’ve always held dear—the American Dream.

Focusing on this idea of the “American Dream,” you say in your book that “democratic capitalism creates conditions for entrepreneurs to invest and grow small businesses.” Do you think the hope for that American Dream has become more difficult today?

Yes. I’ll give you one specific example of how it’s more difficult. Today, because the economics are not as strong in the business, it is harder to borrow money to start a business. And therefore, the banks are only lending money to larger businesses. And so you’re seeing in the restaurant industry, the mom-and-pop businesses are declining. The small chain operators are becoming big and the opportunity for that one-restaurant person has declined materially—and with that, the opportunity for that onerestaurant person to become a hundredrestaurant owner.

We have people in Popeyes who started as a fry cook in an inner-city restaurant in Chicago and are multimillionaires today because they own 50, 60 restaurants. The opportunities are huge in this business. And you don’t have to have an MBA. And you don’t have to have a ton of money to get in. You have to have a work ethic and a passion for putting together a good team and taking care of your customers. Why would we want to discourage that? That’s why we work at this task. Try to influence it.

You worked for Tom Monaghan for years at Domino’s Pizza. You credit him for instilling in you a zeal for operational excellence and an emphasis on character. Could you describe some of the character lessons you learned there?

Well, the first thing I learned from him was how you run a restaurant company, which was huge. I’d never worked for a restaurant company before. And Tom had literally started the first Domino’s with $200 and a Volkswagen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When I was there they had 5,000 or 6,000 restaurants. So he was a phenomenal restaurant operator and created a model that’s gone to take on the world, with over 9,000 stores today.

The reason I went to work for Tom is that I really wanted to work for a man whose character was an important part of his convictions about how he led. And I met Tom in his life, after he’d sold off a lot of businesses and rabbit trails that he’d gone on in his life, and he was very focused on Domino’s, and he was very focused on charitable work. I got to watch up close how his character and his values impacted the company. And I got to watch up close how he, the man, was living his life at the age of 60 or so at the time. I then got to watch him sell the company and make a big announcement. The headline of the Detroit paper was, “I’m Going to Die Broke,” because he had a plan to give it all away between that day and the end of his life. And he’s doing that today.

He talked a lot about the Golden Rule. And I don’t think I even realized how deeply imbedded that’s become in my leadership thinking. But it actually is one of the central ideas that you hear me talk about when I write about the turnaround of this company, because a huge part of leadership is being the leader you wished you worked for. I find lots of people tell me that they want to be a great leader. And I ask them, “Describe a great leader that you’ve worked for.” And they quickly tell me all the traits of that leader. And I say, “Are you being that leader to the people that work for you?” And there’s always a long pause.

As in small things, we struggle to hold ourselves accountable to the Golden Rule in leadership as well. We struggle to be the leaders that we would want to work for ourselves. And it’s become a very provocative theme that I discuss with my leaders all the time. You know, they’ll come in upset about the performance of an individual. And I’ll say to them, “Well, how would you want to be treated in this circumstance? What conversation would you want your boss to have with you right now? Where would you like them to start?” Because it flips the frame around. And it makes the leader far more accountable for their actions than just to lash out at the person they’re upset with because of their performance. And I always say, “Look first at yourself and then to the other person. Look first at your behaviors, your actions, before you criticize the next,” but, boy, that’s hard to do. None of us are good at it.

Your book, Dare to Serve, offers a path for corporate leadership that we don’t get often enough. What we usually get is the Hollywood stereotype of the greedy, selfish Wolf of Wall Street character who tramples down everyone in his way. Which of these two paths do you see more of in corporate leadership?

The leadership approach of our culture is what Robert Greenleaf called “Leader First.” And too often that means that the power of the position assumed by the leader is used to accomplish the leader’s ambitions. And if it, by chance, serves the people in the enterprise, well, great. But the primary motive of a leader-first leader is his or herself. It’s the leadership model we teach, reward and celebrate in our culture. It’s on our magazine covers. It’s in our business schools. It’s in our universities. It’s in our homes.

Greenleaf said at the other end of the spectrum is a leader who serves first. And he said this over 40 years ago. And he was not an academic or a consultant. He was kind of a Dilbert. He was in middle management at a large corporation called AT&T, just observing human behavior. He said there’s this other idea where you could be serving first. You would understand you have power (because leadership does come with power), but you would understand that you would use that power for the benefit of those that have been entrusted to your care. Very novel idea. And interestingly, he’s looked at as kind of an interesting essay writer from a long time ago. He’s the one who coined “servant leadership” as a phrase in the secular business world. But his ideas have not taken hold.

Interestingly, other people have tried to make them more mainstream. The book Good to Great by Jim Collins is a seminal business book. It’s all about servant leadership. He calls it level 5 leadership. But it basically proves that humble, courageous leaders deliver the best financial performance. He decided not to call them servant leaders because it wasn’t a popular term. So he called them level 5 leaders. Then another guy recently, Adam Grant, the youngest tenured professor at Wharton, wrote Give and Take. It’s another book just like the first which says these people who think of others first or give more than they take actually outperform the rest. So it’s been documented. There’s another one called Firms of Endearment. So there are three major research-based, documented reports that companies that led in this fashion outperform the S&P 500 and their peers competitively. So why not more? It’s really countercultural.

It’s so hard for people to even comprehend— after they’ve been raised up through team sports to be winners, through college to be ambitious, through jobs—how we promote ourselves and become the top dog in a company. All of that is aimed at self-development, with little regard for anybody else. This is deep-rooted in our culture. And the reason I wanted to write about it is I wanted to be a provocative voice of how you might actually do this, because I’m not an academic or a consultant either—I’m a doer. And there hadn’t been a doer book written since Bill Pollard wrote about ServiceMaster more than 30 years ago. And Max De Pree wrote about Herman Miller, the furniture company in Michigan. Those are the last two people that wrote about doing it.

So my hope is that we can rejuvenate the conversation. But in our culture it’s going to have to be about performance, because that’s all we care about. If we did not have results, no one would be listening to this story or reading this book. It has to yield results to capture the attention of our culture. And that’s what we’ve set out to kind of prove here, “Hey, take a look at this. It’s counterculture.”

You’re very open about your faith. Is that ever a problem as the leader of a major public company? Is there a certain mode in which the faith expresses itself—words or deeds?

I believe strong leaders have strong convictions and beliefs. I think you could prove that if you look at leaders who have impacted history or change or business. They had a point of view. My point of view is faith-based. My convictions are biblical principles. And yet I work in a publicly traded stock environment. I believe I can live out all those principles without citing chapter and verse. And that makes the principles real, approachable and interesting to other people who may never have heard of the principles before or where they come from. So I love living them out. You mentioned words or deeds, and, you know, that thing your mom used to say, “Actions always speak louder than words.”

I spend my energy checking to see if I’m living my convictions, and I try to rein in my instincts to talk about my convictions. Talk is cheap. Action is where the hard part comes and where the tests come of your convictions, the place where people see if you’re true to those convictions, right? So I’ve tried to put my energy into how I withstand the pressures of this job, how I treat people in good times and in bad, how I share my convictions in a concerned, loving way for other people, not a preachy, I got-it-all-together way.

I am very open about my faith. I speak in many faith environments. And I decided, at some point, that that was who I am and that was who I was comfortable being. And if it’s a problem for people, they haven’t told me very often. So I don’t know. It’s worked so far.

Are there any Biblical or religious themes that you apply to your corporate leadership?

The Bible verse that’s on my calendar every day is Philippians 2:3. Because I haven’t found one that’s more paramount to how I want to lead in my family and in my work. And that is, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” That’s an ESV version, because I really like the choice of words around counting others more significant than yourselves. I believe we’re all born with an inner 2-year-old. And we’d really still like to be laying on the floor, kicking and screaming because we didn’t get the candy bar we wanted. It’s pretty hardwired that we’re self-absorbed little people. And we learn to fake it well, but we’re still pretty much that 2-year-old on the inside.

I find that biblical perspective really challenging in every aspect of my day—how I’m spending my time, the decisions that I make. To put them through a filter of whether I’m thinking about myself or whether I’m thinking about others. I mean, it gets you into some really interesting conversations. “Am I doing this because I’ll get a bigger bonus check? Or am I really thinking about the long term interest of this company? Am I doing this truly for my franchise owners, or am I getting some personal benefit that I haven’t been willing to acknowledge?” Those kinds of provocative self-mirror questions hold you to a higher standard. I always say servant leadership is an aspiration, because you can really never claim you’ve arrived. Because as soon as you do, someone will find you—and in a trap of self-interest. It’s something you’re always working toward. Because we all are. We’re all in that trap. So the only question is, are you going to aspire to it, or are you going to use that as filter for your actions and decisions? And try to hold yourself more and more accountable to that over time.

With your success, how do you measure achievement in a personal sense?

One of my favorite lines from Robert Greenleaf is, “The only test of leadership is that somebody follows.” That’s a simplified version of the question. But I love that text. And I think what I’ve come to understand about my purpose and my calling is that I’m supposed to use my leadership to have an impact on the lives of others and specifically to develop better leaders for our communities, our families and our country. And so I have a personal purpose statement. Mine is to inspire purpose-driven leaders to exhibit confidence and character in all aspects of their lives. And that again holds me to, what am I doing today?

As a woman in a prominent leadership role, can you talk about your experience as a businesswoman both now as an influencer, but also when you had positions that were lower on the totem pole?

I often get asked, “When did you first know you were a leader?” And I think because I’m an oldest child, I thought I was a leader at a very young age. My first remembrance is when I was directing the family musical play at a reunion at nine years old and telling my sister she was the tree and my brother what song part he was supposed to sing. My siblings would tell you I’ve been giving direction for a very long time. That’s not necessarily leadership. So I think I grew up with a personality for leadership, a desire that helped organize and make things happen. And I experienced my father, who was an incredible business leader. I learned so much about both competence and character from my father, the single most important person in shaping who I am. So I didn’t enter work to be a working woman. I didn’t enter work to change the world or make an impact at all. None of that was really operative.

I was trying to figure out how to take the things that I felt gifted to do—I loved marketing in college, and I loved leadership— and figure out, you know, how could I jump in this pond and do some of the things my father was able to do? And he always made it clear that he was impacting lives in business. He never saw it as just a paycheck. He ran 16 factories in Asia and knew people of every culture in the world. He had a deep-rooted love for developing leaders in those countries, in those factories, and he did. So I lived in this bubble where leadership was a cool thing to aspire to. My dad told us, “Do well in school. Work really hard. Give it your best, and things will turn out OK.” He was a deeply faith-based man—always talking to us about character decisions and what’s true and what’s not true in culture— and so that’s had a tremendous impact.

The woman question is one I really didn’t think a lot about. Now, I was always among men. It was apparent that I was one of very few women, in particular when you get to the VP level, there are very few women to look to for role models. I can tell you that I was largely confused by the lack of women role models, because if there are no women role models, you have to look mostly at men for your cues. And I believe men and women are different. And so I think it was hard to find my leadership approach without role models. I think it would have been easier if I’d had people to check in with and say, “I do this a little differently. Do you think that’d be ok?” Rather than trying to constantly live by the standards of men that have been doing it this way for years. Trying to fit in.

So I always tell particularly young leaders that the most important learning for me as a woman was learning to lead out of my authentic self, my wiring, my gifts, my calling. I needed to stop thinking about what the rest of the world thought about it. Did they think I should work? Did they think I shouldn’t work? Did they think I should do it this way or that way? That really was tripping me up and making me less effective than when I kind of figured out who I was and how I would contribute to the conversation. I’ve been a better leader since. So the sooner you can get to that version of your authentic self, the better. It takes experience. It doesn’t happen overnight. I’m watching that now in my daughters. But that’s where you want to get to. And from a faith perspective, live your life for an audience of One, not all these other people that have opinions about how you should live your life. So I really think that’s where I encourage young leaders to sort out, who do you live your life for? What are your convictions and beliefs? And are you living them authentically in your leadership?

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