Popeyes Louisiana Kitchens were a collection of struggling franchise and company owned restaurants serving very average fried chicken, despite the ability to order it “spicy”. No one involved was really happy or making money. Not the franchisees. Not the corporation. Not even the customers. My grandfather refused to eat in restaurants explaining that he’d stood in line for food all he was going to when he was in the War; he wasn’t doing it anymore. Somehow and for some reason, he would occasionally stand in line at Popeyes when we visited though and as I aged, I was touched by the act but the food never seemed worth it.
In 2007, Cheryl Bachelder, a Popeyes board member, took over as CEO and things began to change.
Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others is Bachelder’s book the first half of which:
“is the story of the turnaround of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. … The second half of the book is about how you can become a Dare-to-Serve leader.”
In the book Bachelder describes her leadership philosophy, regularly quoting other servant leadership authors such as Robert Greenleaf, as the following:
“My message is simple, but unconventional. If you move yourself out of the spotlight and dare to serve others, you will deliver superior performance results.”
Essentially this book is a case study that uses the turnaround of Popeyes as the narrative and it is effective, though admittedly there is nothing completely new or remarkable in the book. In the first half of the book, Bachelder lays out a framework for Dare-to-Serve leadership that is a series of critical questions, each of which becomes a book chapter.
- One – Whom Will We Serve?
- Two – What is the Daring Destination?
- Three – Why Do We Do This Work?
- Four – How Will We Work Together?
- Five – What is the Legacy of the Leader?
Again, there isn’t any secret formula here that will transform you and your organization overnight. You would be mistaken however, to not do deep work on the five questions above. Whom Will We Serve is a great example and the easy answer, in the case of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchens, Inc. would be the customers. You’re a restaurant selling fried chicken. Surely you exist to serve the customer. Importantly, the leadership of Popeyes at the time realized that the most important constituency they could serve was not the customers but the franchisees.
“This decision was not typical in our industry. Franchisors and franchisees are constantly in conflict…Interestingly, unresolved conflict with franchise owners never leads to operational excellence or superior sales and profit performance.”
In Dare-to-Serve Bachelder is arguing that our markets and society have permitted, perhaps even encouraged, a type of leader to rise to the top of companies that isn’t effective. It’s a leader that seeks the spotlight, demands the credit, and doesn’t care who he or she has to run over along the way to get to the end goal, which isn’t success of the organization as much as it is success of the self. It’s the same type of mentality that see benefit in strip mines, mono-crops, or selling sugar-based food-like substances to children. It’s a winner-take-all mindset and it’s no use arguing these types of leaders don’t exist. We’ve all seen them and worked for them. I work with and for a few right now, though it does beg the question of why these types of leaders can be successful at all.
Bachelder argues for a different path in which true leadership is exercised by stepping out of the spot-light and allowing your teams to step forward and be successful. In many ways it’s a page from The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. If you want to be successful, the first step is to get out of the way, put your needs last, and put the needs of your teams first.
“Your favorite leaders have been decidedly different. Their motives go beyond self-interest. They challenge you to pursue daring, bold aspirations that create an exciting place to work. They shun the spotlight in favor of serving a higher purpose. They evidence principles in their daily decisions. You not only love these leaders but also perform your very best for them.”
It’s a bold, inspiring message but I can tell you that it’s hard. Really hard. It’s hard to lead teams with a servant’s heart when there are those around you who are not and are reaping near term rewards for their behaviors. It’s hard to be patient when your efforts go unseen and unrewarded by your own leadership, maybe for years at a time. But it is the right thing to do.
As a leader of people your teams and their families put a tremendous amount of faith and trust in you. These good people have the option and opportunity to work in lots of different companies for lots of different leaders and, by showing up to work in the morning, they have chosen to work for you. In that choice they are saying, “I trust you to help me feed my family, I trust you to enable me send my kids to college, I trust you not to screw me.” As leaders of people it is our responsibility to acknowledge and honor that trust by leading them well and not using our position to advance our own careers and financial situations, but to use our position to advance theirs.
In Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others, Cheryl Bachelder makes a case for a different kind of corporate leadership that is based not on the lord/serf model but on acknowledging that everyone you work with is a human being and deserves to be treated as such. It’s a point we should all think more about and put into action even when it’s hard…or maybe because it’s hard.
In 2017, after the successful turnaround of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchens, Inc. the company announced its sale to Restaurant Brands International (RBI) for $79 per share, more than $70 a share higher than when Cheryl Bachelder became CEO. Earlier in 2019 Bachelder became CEO of Pier One Imports, a struggling retailer that is in desperate need of her magic. It will be fascinating to watch as she tries to pull another rabbit out of a hat and I hope she is successful.
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Full disclosure…I currently own shares of PIR and have a vested interest in seeing Cheryl Bachelder succeed as CEO of Pier One Imports. That position is what led me to find her book in the first place.