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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Notes from camp

A butterfly net would have come in handy at Summer Brand Camp, the melting-pot conference held this week in Dallas for marketing, human resources and operations executives of restaurant chains. A key aim of the event was to un-cage thinking about how those divisions should fulfill their missions today, working solo and cross-silo, to serve a much-changed restaurant industry. The effort had ideas zipping around the event like pigeons shooed off a statue.

Here are five shared best practices we managed to snag. All were head-spinning utterances, and each was a specific do or don’t, not the warm-and-fuzzy bromide you might expect from a conference devoted to promoting new-age thinking and harmony. 

See for yourself.

1. Have members of your management to do their usual jobs in an alien environment

Have members of your management to do their usual jobs in an alien environment, working with an unfamiliar team to boot. “I have learned there are few things that can shape leaders like doing the same thing they always do, but with a different team in a different place,” explained Kat Cole, a group vice president with McAlister’s Deli and Schlotzsky’s franchisor Focus Brands.

She learned the benefits when she was opening overseas restaurants rapid-fire for Hooters, her prior employer.  Every time, she explained, she was expected to deliver “awesome results” from a staff of new hires, in a market she didn’t understand, contending with social rules and conventions she couldn’t pretend to comprehend, navigating a language that was as alien to her as English was to the local staff. 

“I now do it with general managers, with brand chiefs—I do it intentionally,” she said. It builds their resourcefulness, non-verbal leadership skills and confidence, she suggested.

2. Become your staff’s lover

Become your staff’s lover—in an HR-appropriate sense, of course, advised Popeyes CEO Cheryl Bachelder. But enlist your heart in interactions with those whom you lead, and in a completely transparent manner so your emotion is evident. “Love more,” she said.

Bachelder wasn’t the only Brand Camp speaker to preach that an adversarial or even neutral employer-employee relationship will hurt business in today’s workplace by turning off the team.  They want affection and respect along with a paycheck. “You might think about leadership and wonder, like Tina Turner said, what’s love got to do with it?” asked Gini Quiroz, director of team-member engagement for Rudy’s Bar-B-Q franchisee K&N Management. “It’s got everything to do with it, man. Investing in your people in a way where you can love them, it will work out.”

That’s why the balance of power in the home office is shifting, and tomorrow’s chain leaders are more likely to come from human resources than traditional proving grounds like finance or marketing. “The future of leadership is in HR,” said Chris Ebbeler, senior manager of workplace community for Chili’s. “Why? Because HR has the capacity to love.”

3. Leave the office and wipe down tables whenever you can

A chain leader looking for a compass should start with a dirty-dish tray or maybe a spray bottle and rag. “The people who are closest to the action, or the transaction, know what to do long before you do,” said Cole. “The challenge in business is compressing the time.”

For that reason, she advised, “no matter how high up you go, you are in those restaurants constantly, washing dishes and clearing tables. I can name 10 times when I made that mistake, when I did not stay close to the action.”

4. Underestimate your staff on a regular basis

Underestimate your staff on a regular basis, and don’t hide your feelings, advised Wendy Clark, president of strategic marketing for Coca-Cola. Underestimation is a powerful motivation tool, she said, using herself as an example. Question her competence on anything and she’ll take it as a challenge, a polite taunt, and one she can’t ignore. “If you underestimate my ability to skip, I guarantee I will out-skip you,” she said.  “Underestimation is really important.”

5. Be fearless

The taxi industry and urban political officials tried to kill Uber again and again. It shrugged and persevered, said Kyle Lacy, head of strategic marketing for a venture-capital company called Openview. The hotel and travel industries plotted to stomp out AirBnB, the home-sharing service that was cutting into their business. The operation continued to plug along and now has a valuation in the billions.

It’s not just a matter of ignoring the disparagers, but of listening to your convictions, said Clark. She revealed how Coke’s most famous commercial ended up in the much-watched finale of “Madmen” at no charge because the company was willing to take a gamble. The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, called her more than a year ago and asked if he could borrow a copy of the renowned “Hilltop” spot, which showed a diverse group of people singing what became a hit song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Despite Clark’s persistence, Weiner would not reveal exactly how he planned to use the 1971 ad.

“If you’re me, back at the shop, you think, ‘There are a lot of things you can play with at the shop. Hilltop is not one of them,” Clark recounted.

But on the basis of just one more call, she and her colleagues agreed to take the risk, knowing that millions would be watching the sign-off program. “There was a leap of belief there on our part because we had no idea how the crown jewel of our company was going to be used. In those moments, you have to be brave.”

The airing became a sensation, in part because it was only the second time the commercial was shown on TV since 1971. 

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