AFC Enterprises CEO Cheryl Bachelder – Achieving System Cohesion
As excitement builds for the International Franchise Association’s 54th Annual Convention in New Orleans, conventions goers are sure to get substantial take-home value from keynote speaker Cheryl A. Bachelder, CEO of AFC Enterprises, Inc. franchisor of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Franchising World conducted a recent telephone interview with this industry leader.
Q. What do you believe had the greatest impact in revitalizing Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen?
Bachelder: If I had to attribute it to one thing, I would attribute it to our revitalization of our relationship with franchisees. Six years ago when we began this journey, and our franchisee-franchisor relationship formed, there had been years of turmoil, change in leadership, change in strategic direction, declining guest counts, declining restaurant profitability; there was simply no alignment and no trustworthy relationship with the franchisor and the franchisee. It was my belief that the fundamental foundation of franchising is to have a strong, healthy and aligned relationship with the franchisee.
Q. Which step was the most difficult in that transition?
Bachelder: I would say that the slowest progress was restoring trust in that relationship. We very quickly set a clear strategic direction, we have a great brand. We knew how to go about marketing better, innovating better. And we also knew that we needed to help our franchisees make more money and begin the task of improving the P & L for our restaurants. Those actions were much easier than the actual trust building with the franchisees. We had regular meetings with our associates in leadership. We asked them to be part of the decisions that we made. We asked them to help us to bring the rest of the system along with those decisions. It took at least two years before the relationship was in a trust kind of phase. During the following three to four years, we’ve been able to move far more swiftly on our business strategies because of the alignment and trust between us.
Q. How do you describe your management style? How did that help you in this process?
Bachelder: I would describe my management style or my management philosophy as: my job is to serve well those that are entrusted into my care. And serving people well is understanding what helps them to be effective and successful and reach their goals. It’s probably one of the reasons I love franchising so much. I believe deeply in the entrepreneur opportunity and I find it a privilege to be responsible for helping entrepreneurs reach their goals. For me, this is the perfect kind of work because I get up in the morning genuinely enthused and concerned about the work that we’re doing, serving well the franchisees in our system.
Q: Has there been any misconception about your leadership style?
Bachelder: Probably my strategies have been difficult at times for the franchisees to sign up for. We’ve chosen to do a new, bold, big thing at Popeyes, not just a lot of small tasks. Bold strategies cause anxiety. For example, our marketing moved from local media to national which has served our restaurants very well, but it was a huge decision for our franchisees to give up control of their local media dollars and advertising campaign with the hope that it would be effective for them and for the total system. The good news is it was effective and that builds our trust and credibility for the next bold decision.
Q. What advice would you give franchise executives to excel in the marketplace?
Bachelder: My advice would be to love your franchisees. My friend Joel Manby at Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation said, “Love is an action verb. It’s not soft and it’s not mushy.” If I approach Popeyes business with genuine concern that my actions serve well the franchisees, it builds not just the relationship, but it builds effectiveness and the opportunity for success in the company and the organization. Love is an action verb, love delivers results, love builds relationships that are powerful and creates high-performing teams. I think it’s a wonderful word for business.
Q. What best prepared you to take the helm of AFC Enterprises?
Bachelder: As I look back on my career, I think the best preparation for Popeyes was my first work in the restaurant industry at Domino’s Pizza. I had the opportunity to work for Tom Monaghan, the founder, for four years. He was a fabulous restaurant operator and he had pulled together a system of one-store operator franchisees. They were financially committed, they were emotionally committed and they were in their restaurants every day. But when I arrived, there was strife in the franchise relationship at Domino’s. It was there that I practiced how to overcome strife in that relationship and one of the first things we did was form a franchisee advisory council. We met with them often and we brought them into our thinking, we shared with them the same data we were looking at and we began to make better, more aligned decisions. Some of the Domino’s franchisees are still good friends and colleagues today and one of them is now the president of Popeyes U.S., Ralph Bower.
Q. Who served to mentor the development of your leadership skills?
Bachelder: I think the beauty of a long career is you become wiser about your personal beliefs and that approach to leadership. The mentor that stands out for me in the restaurant industry is Aylwin B. Lewis, current president and CEO of Potbelly. He was a colleague when I worked at Yum! Brands and he truly understood what mentorship is. He offered full access to his experience and his thinking on helping me to be successful. And he specifically taught me a set of skills that were transformative for me. Aylwin taught me how to manage an incredibly big workload and get 85 percent of it done well. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and he taught me how to plan the work, how to track my progress and how to be satisfied with a B+ because it was impossible to do it all. He had the single biggest impact on my productivity as a leader of anyone I’ve met.
Q. How do you mentor others?
Bachelder: I like to say I mentor both intentionally and informally. Every year I choose one or two people at Popeyes to intentionally mentor in a structured way with monthly meetings. They set the agenda for what they want to work on personally and I make available the time to counsel and support their growth and development. Last year I did that with a vice president. It was a rich two-way learning experience because when you mentor you always learn something as well. But I also believe we have a mentoring opportunity every minute of every day. A friend of mine, Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, who recently co-authored a book called “Touch Points: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments,” said, “In today’s fast-paced world, you have about four minutes to influence another human being.” So I started to coin the phrase “four-minute mentoring” and asking myself, “Have I viewed every touch point I have with people at that opportunity to encourage, develop them, mentor them in some way.” In today’s pace, I think we have to look at all of our interactions as mentoring opportunities.
Q. How do you create work environments for people to excel?
Bachelder: Most leaders are results-driven and spend very little time thinking about the nature of the environment.
We have to create places where people feel comfortable enough to speak truth, offer their strengths and input into the decision-making process, to speak out when things aren’t good and call out problems that need to be addressed. That only occurs in a safe work environment. The best teams take risks together; the best teams go out boldly and do things that are fraught with risk and opportunity for problems. They have to be in a place where they feel supported, aligned with their teammates and comfortable bringing their whole perspective to this decision.
I try to create environments of tight trust, tight candor and I think the two words required for that are vulnerability and courage. I try to create a place for people to become comfortable being vulnerable and that means admitting you don’t know it all, admitting you made a mistake, admitting an approach didn’t work that you tried, really truth-telling in the room. That’s why the second word is important: courage. You have to create an environment where people will step out and take a risk with themselves and be vulnerable with the team; that takes courage.
And if there were two characteristics that I spend a lot of my time working on in our environment to help people understand, they would be how openness and vulnerability creates better outcomes.
Q: What do you believe is the most significant aspect of leadership?
Bachelder: I believe the most significant and important aspect of leadership is accessing the talents of your team’s members. I am a big proponent of strength-finder research that says every person is designed with distinctive capabilities and strengths. That person and the organization have discovered the strengths, married them with the right role or position in the company and then encouraged those strengths to come full tilt against the challenges and opportunities of the organization. Most companies focus on an individual’s weaknesses and all the things they have to fix to become some kind of perfect leader. The most significant role of the leader is to seek out and understand the strengths and talents of team members and align them so that collectively, when you bring it all together, the capabilities are there for the organization to succeed.
As a leader, whether you’re leading a restaurant, a group of restaurants or you’re a leader in a franchisor organization, I really want to encourage leaders to understand their role as being stewards of the next generation of leaders. In our business, we essentially develop leaders for a living. I see a huge need and opportunity for leaders to invest more in developing the competencies and the character traits of our next generation of leaders. Today, the institutions no longer fill that role; our schools, our homes, our communities are not up to this task. Business leaders must own that opportunity and take responsibility for bringing up a strong, high-character next generation of leaders.
Laura Fenwick is manager of publishing at the International Franchise Association. Find her at fransocial.franchise.org via the directory.