Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Performance by Serving Others

Below is an excerpt from Cheryl Bachelder’s new book Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Performance by Serving Others. Bachelder serves as CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc., a chain of more than 2,300 restaurants in 26 countries around the globe. She has led a remarkable turnaround of this chain, applying the principles of servant leadership and implementing a bold, ambitious business plan.

Why Does Meaning Matter?

The Gallup organization publishes a study each year called State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders[1]. The 2013 study states that 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work. Of course, this means 70% of the workforce is not engaged in their work. More than twice as many people are “checked out” as are “checked in.”

Gallup’s study goes on to explain that the companies with top 25% of engagement scores have significantly higher productivity, profitability, customer ratings, and less employee turnover. Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy $450–$550 billion per year.

I’ve been reading this study every year it has been published since the year 2000. The statistics haven’t changed much. The only thing I can conclude is that leaders haven’t changed much.

What are two of Gallup’s recommendations to increase employee engagement?

  • Hire the right leaders, who support and engage their teams
  • Encourage leaders to connect with each employee; each person has different needs

Gallup concludes by saying, “Know that every interaction with an employee has the potential to influence engagement and inspire discretionary effort.”

What can the leader do to drive engagement? Help people find purpose and meaning at work. Until you do, the people are just biding time, paying their bills, and waiting for something better to come along.


The Business Situation

As part of the turnaround of Popeyes, we decided that the organization should have clarity about the purpose of the work we do. Our leadership team came together, looked at our experiences in this industry, reviewed the values and beliefs we have about restaurant careers, and thought about the role we have in developing leaders.

The conversation started with these beliefs:

We are proud of the career paths our industry offers. Many of our franchise owners began as a fry cook or front counter person and now are successful entrepreneurs owning multiple restaurants. Many of our restaurant general managers started at the front counter and now run a restaurant business with sales over $1.2 million annually. We develop leaders in this business – and we celebrate that fact.

We are proud of the quality of food that our teams prepare each day for our guests. We are proud of the training that we offer to teach people good work habits, food sanitation skills, teamwork, and problem solving. We are proud that we earn our living serving other people – our owners, our team members, our guests. We are proud of the opportunities we bring to developing countries around the globe. We are in the service industry – and we celebrate that fact.

This discussion led us to declare the purpose of our work at Popeyes:

Inspire servant leaders to achieve superior results.

We decided that servant leadership would be our philosophy. This makes sense. We are in the business of serving others a delicious meal. Why not lead from the same vantage point?

Servant leadership simply means service above self. We decided to serve others well.

Superior results are the measure of how well we serve. Serving and performing go hand in hand.

We created the Popeyes purpose in the fall of 2011, nearly three years after we had begun the turnaround of the company. Why now?

The turnaround of the company was well underway. We had begun to experience some success in the bold, ambitious goals we had set for the enterprise. We were serving our franchise owners well. We were not sure that the success would continue. We worried that we would be just another “one hit wonder” leadership team who came together for a few years and generated good results then went our separate ways. What could we do to lead the organization to sustainable success?

While we believed that the work we were doing was purposeful, we weren’t sure the rest of the organization shared our conviction. Maybe it was purposeful for us – and “just a job” for them.

We analyzed what we had done well – and what we needed to do next. We realized that we had not explained to our followers why the work we were doing was important – why we passionately believed in the future of Popeyes. The organization needed to share in that purpose.

At the very next company meeting, we revealed our newly crafted Popeyes purpose to the team:

Popeyes Purpose: Inspire servant leaders to achieve superior results.

The Plaque Problem

The Popeyes purpose was well-received by the people. We had to spend a fair amount of time explaining servant leadership – helping them understand that it simply meant service to others above self. Other than that, people seemed to understand the purpose. They thought it was laudable. I’m not sure what they said privately after the meeting. I suspect it was something like “Let’s see if this purpose really changes the way we work at Popeyes.”

We ran into what every company runs into. Purpose statements are nice. A few people get excited about them and live them in their daily work. Most people leave them right where they saw them – on the plaque on the wall.

Plaques hang on walls. Plaques collect dust. Plaques don’t drive superior performance results.

Popeyes people weren’t against the purpose; they just had no personal connection to the statement.

I began to challenge the leaders of the company in one-on-one meetings and in large groups. I said, “That purpose statement is a plaque at Popeyes. It hangs on the wall. Alone, it has no meaning and no impact on our performance. The only Popeyes purpose anyone ever meets is YOUR purpose.”

No one ever met a plaque. No one ever gave a plaque credit for inspiring them to serve, for helping them reach their potential, or for driving superior results. Plaques don’t do that. People do.

[1] Gallup State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders, 2013, www.gallup.com

Released in March 2015, Cheryl Bachelder’s book, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Performance by Serving Others, shares insights and stories from this adventure to encourage leaders in their journey. To learn more about Bachelder and her work, visit: daretoserveleaders.com and http://cherylbachelder.com/.