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Unexpected lessons from an industry group-think

Any note-taker at the Global Best Practices Conference might be suffering hand cramps right about now. Insights were flying like Jell-O squares at a reform school food fight. Even a court stenographer would’ve struggled to capture just the highlights-reel wows.

But even if attendees took down every word, they might’ve missed these between-the-lines lessons:

--We Baby Boomers could never learn more than we can today, courtesy of these strange new animals called Millennials. A presenter from Coke joked that the youngsters of that vintage who work for her are collectively treated by the rest of headquarters as a petting zoo because of their novelty. For one thing, they wear jeans and sneakers unabashedly in a button-down corporate world, and bring no pre-programming from their elder siblings or relatives. They are decidedly free spirits, unbound by the social or business conventions of their elders.

Speaker after speaker attested that the generation cares less about money than experience, quality of life, and being part of a cause. That’s hard for executives of an older vintage to grasp, but it’s a learning opportunity that smart business people will seize.

--Still, don’t think Millennials are as biased toward technology as their popular depiction would suggest. Face-to-face meetings are still the preferred and most effective ways to foster best practices within a staff, regardless of the employees’ age, said Randy Miller, chief administrative officer for Boston Market. Cheesecake Factory has learned that the most desirable form of interaction for new Millennial hires is one-on-one time with a manager.

--Rare Hospitality may have inherited Steak and Ale’s mantle as the finishing school for many of the restaurant industry’s standout executives. Once, almost every casual dining chain was run by an expat from Norman Brinker’s pioneering beef and brew chain. Consider the big-marquee names who’ve come up through Rare’s farm system in the decades since: Gene Lee, Phil Hickey, John Martin, Gerry Fernandez and Kristi Nyhof, to name a few. Rare founder George McKerrow can lay claim to being the reigning Yoda of the business.

--Restaurateurs should relinquish hope that the freer spending of seven or eight years ago will return once the economy accelerates to even a moderate pace. Futurist Walker Smith offered a convincing argument that the frugality adopted by consumers during the Great Recession has morphed into a new perspective he dubbed slimming down: A yearning to live large, but without the pain of overloaded credit cards or empty wallets. His assertion fits the paradox of customers spending more to get a better deal, a la a Starbucks latte or a Wendy’s premium LTO.

--There are still developed countries in the world where the men won’t deign to shake the hand of a woman—and don’t hesitate to let her know that they won’t.

--The industry has to sharpen its skill as a storyteller if it wants to get some respect in government. Indeed, that need for stories about the positive contributions of the business was cited again and again as a potent defense against well-intentioned but crippling government burdens. The consensus: Politicians don’t understand the business, and the educational void is being filled with damning stories about the trade from labor activists and other adversaries. There was near unanimity that the industry has to stress its positives by spotlighting success stories, or countering blatant lies about how the business works.

--Who knew Denny’s CEO John Miller had the heart of a poet, the humor of a Jay Leno, and a sense of higher purpose that should inspire the clergy? His success in business makes you expect a numbers-citing, EBITDA-focused suit who’s all about dollars. Like many of the industry leaders here at the Best Practices Conference, he’s kryptonite to the notion that chain executives are heartless Fagins, unhesitant about cramming kids with junk and exploiting the under-skilled if that’s what it takes to get richer.

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