Servant Leadership and Creative Service in a Louisiana Kitchen
Good leadership involves a lot more than ordering underlings around. One prominent businesswoman, Cheryl A. Bachelder, realizes this, and has built her career on being a different sort of leader, yielding a long list of accomplishments.
After becoming the CEO of a struggling restaurant chain, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, she turned things around by focusing on a culture of service. In her book, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others, Bachelder maps this journey, and she was kind enough to share her experiences and perspective with us in the following interview.
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?
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?”
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.
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?
This post is an abbreviated and adapted version of an interview that originally appeared in Acton’s Religion & Liberty.