If you're leading a company, it's safe to bet that you've probably had a few years experience in the industry. This would make sense for an organization of any size. For Arby's CEO, Paul Brown, however, that wasn't the case. Instead, he was hired by Roark Capital after being an executive of Hilton Worldwide for years. At the time, the restaurant chain empire was drowning -- so why did they choose someone who knew very little about the fast food industry to bring them back to success

The fact that Brown didn't have expertise in this field is actually what enabled him to develop his winning strategy. Since he did not have all of the answers, he needed to find the right people to find out what needed to be done. The critical decision he made was to reach out to his employees -- those who worked at the many restaurants around the country. But what he asked them was even better. He asked them one thing, a question that entrepreneurs, small business owners, and c-suite executives alike would greatly benefit from:

"What would you do if you were me?"   

That single, simple question opened the floodgates about Arby's. He learned what was working, what was broken, and most importantly, what they thought the company should do to turn the business around. The proof of his success was apparent -- Arby's had its best year ever under Paul's management. And Roark recently announced they're acquiring Buffalo Wild Wings, another restaurant chain having problems where they expect Paul to do his magic again.

Here are a few takeaways to keep in mind about Paul's strategy:

1. Get out of the office.

Paul Brown joined Arby's when they were losing market share and struggling to appeal to their customers. The answer couldn't't be found while sitting behind the CEO's desk. That's why Paul traveled to over 50 locations and went to the front lines of his company to speak with the employees that worked with his customers directly.

When I speak with clients, this is a strategy I always encourage. Go out and speak with the employees that work for your company and be open to their opinion -- you may find innovative answers, even from entry-level employees. They are valuable assets that you should cultivate.

2. Check your ego at the door.

Arby's executive turnover rate was abnormally high -- which gave him the task of regaining employee engagement and trust. Instead of coming in as an outsider thinking he had the all of the answers because he was the CEO, he engaged others in on the problem-solving process. Of course, he was new to the industry and the company, and did not have any preconceived ideas as to the way things had been run. You  may not have that particular advantage but you can still do this successfully. 

When I encourage clients to speak to employees, I occasionally get an eye roll. Some leaders' egos won't let them even consider the opinions of lower-level employee, especially if they contradict current processes and approaches. Please understand that every employee can offer new suggestions from his or her unique point of view. The point is to listen and not get offended by someone's thoughts if they disagree with how you run things. Get ready to consider new and often challenging ideas. You're in this to learn and improve, not for a series of compliments.

3. Put your discoveries to action.

Here's where Brown succeeded where many others failed. He spent months gathering ideas and formulating a plan -- then he put it into action. He understood the position Arby's held and realized it was extremely difficult to compete head-on with restaurants such as McDonald's. Instead, he embraced his brand's own unique appeal, something his predecessors missed and took for granted.

After you've spoken with your team, don't waste too much time on the plan. Instead focus on implementation and ensuring all your employees are on the same page. Without action, all of the above steps are pointless. Today you see Brown's plan being put to use with Arby's witty marketing that incorporates what he learned on his journey.

4. Real conversations lead to real results.

Brown blended his outsider's perspective with real, raw answers from his employees that made success possible for Arby's. He utilized the Fresh Eyes strategy I often promote, and leaders always discover innovative paths to success. Keep these techniques in mind when faced with a challenge and you will find the answers you need in unlikely places.

As for Paul, I'm sure he will be shortly visiting 50 stores of Buffalo Wild Wings --and asking their front line store associates what they think is needed to fix the chain--plus, he now has the benefit of the successful results at Arby's.  

Published on: Dec 7, 2017