If you're not familiar with Cheryl Bachelder's compelling story as the former CEO of the once-struggling Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, she has documented the "turnaround" success of Popeyes in what is now a classic bestseller, Dare to Serve (an updated and expanded second edition was released in September).
When Bachelder took over as CEO in 2007, the company's stock price had plummeted to $13 per share, customer visits had been declining for years, restaurant sales and profit trends were dangerously low, the brand was stagnant, and relations between the company and its franchise owners were strained.
By the end of her tenure in 2017, average restaurant sales had grown by 45 percent and profitability had doubled. Franchisees jumped on the opportunity to remodel or build new restaurants, and the stock price shot up to $79 per share.
The turnaround in two words: servant leadership
What did Bachelder do differently from other CEOs before her? (Four, in fact, in a span of seven years!) In Dare to Serve, she shares how servant leadership became the clear path to "achieve superior results."
While the book offers a complete framework equipped with tools, strategies, and practices she used to drive superior results, I'm going to cover six key principles Bachelder laid out that guided her company's daily actions in support of its purpose statement: "To inspire servant leaders to achieve superior results."
Personally, having studied Bachelder's servant leadership methodology over the past few years, I feel, and I think Bachelder would agree, these important principles can transfer to any business in any industry, as long as leaders are eager to learn what it takes to achieve superior results.
1. "We are passionate about what we do."
Sometimes, getting to the source of the passion of the people you serve comes with hard lessons. In 2011, Bachelder and her team presented Popeyes franchisees with a new design for remodeling their restaurants. Franchisees hated the new look and did not support the remodel.
Were they passionate? You betcha. Was Bachelder and her team disappointed in their response? Absolutely, and they considered arguing their point of view. The difference here is that, in many other companies that operate through power, ego, and command-and-control, pushback would be swift, voices would be snuffed out, and the top of the hierarchy would have final say.
Not so with Popeyes' leadership team. They respected the passion of the franchisees, fully accepted their feedback, and went back to the drawing board. Two years later, they presented a new remodel design that "franchisees loved at first sight."
In Bachelder's own words, "The franchise owners' passion for this new look led our system to remodel 80 percent of the restaurants in a two-year period, a task that would typically have taken five or more years. Passion drove performance results."
2. "We listen carefully and learn continuously."
Bachelder agrees that these two traits are essential to servant leaders' performing well. To serve her franchisees, Popeyes' leaders had to listen carefully, they had to be open to feedback, and they had to be agile and willing to change when they made mistakes. This was critical in building credibility with her restaurant owners; when you listen well, you earn respect.
Bachelder says that listening and learning are especially important when there are differences of opinion and emotions get charged. Here's Bachelder in Dare to Serve:
When leaders get mad, listening and learning go out the window. Mad leaders know exactly what they want to say. They cut to the chase and tell you exactly how they feel--which is highly efficient but very ineffective. The unfortunate truth: efficiency with people ruins relationships.
This is especially true during meetings, where leaders may be ready to steamroll over people with their own agenda. Leaders at Popeyes reinvented their own meetings. Being direct with leadership concerns right off the bat can be off-putting; instead, they learned to be inquisitive and ask questions to clarify issues, and spent more time listening carefully to the franchise owners' points of view.
3. "We are fact-based and planful."
Bachelder says facts are the counterpoint to emotion. Yes, passion is great and needed, but you want it to be governed by reality. So the leadership team at Popeyes built a stable of metrics around their business that told them what was really happening. And they kept those metrics in the room and had passionate conversations take place. Together, the facts and the passion led to better planning and decision making.
4. "We coach and develop our people."
Bachelder is quick to admit that Popeyes' comprehensive leadership development program, called "Lead From the Heart," was in the beginning stages of implementation before she left, but she and her team had invested heavily into building leaders who are coaches with skills to develop their people.
In an interview in 2015, at the height of the company's turnaround, Bachelder said,
I grossly underestimated the opportunity I've been given to influence and change lives for the better. And what that's changed in me is the amount of time and attention I now devote to coaching and developing leaders. To looking to understand who they are, where they are, and how I can contribute to their growth has been a difference-maker in my leadership effectiveness.
5. "We are personally accountable."
Bachelder says no company with one leader acting alone can deliver superior performance; it requires everyone doing what they said they were going to do and living up to their promises. Here's Bachelder in Dare to Serve:
We wanted them to own the roles and responsibilities of their job. We wanted them to quickly fess up and ask forgiveness if they made a mistake. We wanted them to solve the problems they discovered, not deny responsibility or point fingers and blame.
6. "We value humility."
Bachelder is quick to note that "if you say you are humble, you are not," which makes this the toughest principle for any company to pull off. But the absence of humility runs counter to achieving superior performance. In all their combined years of career experience, Bachelder and her leadership team came to the final conclusion that "leaders without humility are hell to work for. They are concerned primarily with themselves. They rarely consider the views or needs of others."
Bachelder's incredible 10-year tenure and turnaround success story came to an end in 2017, as the fried chicken chain was sold to Restaurant Brands International, the owner of Burger King and Tim Hortons, for $1.8 billion.