Leadership Q&A

Cheryl Bachelder
Cheryl Bachelder,
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

My first memory of “career planning” was at the age of nine years old. I lived with my parents and siblings in Kokomo, Indiana. My mom was working on her master’s in special education at Ball State, and my dad was working on his master’s in engineering at Purdue University.  They both worked a day job and then went to school on Thursday nights every week. I started dreaming about going to college, and I decided I would go to Purdue and study nutrition. So, even then, I was thinking about the food business.

There’s a lot of talk about being vulnerable at work. How often do you show vulnerability as a leader? Do you think it’s important?

I believe that evidencing vulnerability is an essential trait of a leader. Vulnerability makes you approachable and “real” to your followers. People want to follow someone who is authentic – a leader who is willing to share tough learnings from their career and willing to admit they have made mistakes. Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines, says, “People admire your skills but love your vulnerability.”

As a leader, I tell people about my trials – having breast cancer, getting fired from my job, raising a difficult child. These things happen to a lot of people – no one is protected from life’s troubles. Yet, when a leader talks about their difficulties, people think, “Wow, they are a real person with real challenges, just like me. I can relate to them.”

In business, this is not a popular thought – that vulnerability makes a leader more effective. Our culture suggests that leaders need to be polished and perfect, exhibiting no weakness. But anyone who has worked for a polished, perfect leader knows the truth. Under the polished exterior are plenty of imperfections. Why not just be honest? We all have imperfections.

What is the worst decision you ever made, and what did you do to resolve it?

Too many to list. There is a bad decision behind every good decision I’ve ever made. Your bad decisions are where you learn how to make the right decisions. Isn’t that the case? We learn that as teenagers.

My worst business decision was to launch a new candy brand named LifeSavers Holes around 1990–91.  The idea was that we would finally sell the punched-out middles of the famous LifeSaver candy.  But, unfortunately, we had to MAKE that small dot of candy and then package the “holes” in a plastic container that cost more than the candy. The capital investment was huge. The manufacturing equipment was complex. And, after putting the candy in national distribution we had to recall all of the packages because kids were biting the caps off with their teeth. The company suffered a huge write-off, and the brand was a short-lived fad.

I helped the company unravel the challenges of LifeSavers Holes. Then, we launched a far better idea, LifeSavers GummiSavers, which turned out to be a brand bigger and stronger than the original hard candy brand.

Which leader (dead or alive) would you most want to have dinner with? Why?

There are two, and I would want to have dinner with them at the same time: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I admire both of them for the leadership they gave the world at a tumultuous time. I would have loved to listen in on their conversations. They were both strong, principled people with a real vision for their nations and the world. Working together to end the Cold War and to bring down the Berlin Wall are accomplishments that will be long remembered in the history books. Hillsdale College has bronze statues of Reagan and Thatcher, and they gaze at one another across the courtyard. I’ve always thought they would like how that turned out – that they could shout across the lawn and continue their conversations.

Popeyes Store

What book is on your nightstand?

If you came to my home or office, you would quickly understand that I am a “bookaholic.” There are books everywhere – strewn across multiple tables and rooms. Now I read on my iPad as well, which hides even more books. Perhaps it would give you more insight to know the books I am currently reading:

  • The 4 Disciplines of Execution – by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling. I’m fascinated by the discussion of leading and lagging indicators (Discipline #2). Too often we focus our business measures on lagging indicators instead of acting on the leading metrics that could cause a real change in performance.
  • The Book of Daniel from the Bible. I’m currently studying the lessons of Daniel’s leadership. He was an Israeli servant of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, yet he came to have tremendous leadership influence on the king and the nation. This reminds me that we can be leaders from any place and position.
  • Finally, I just completed Where the Wind Leads by Vinh Chung. It is a true story of Vietnamese refugees who were rescued from certain death in a sinking raft in the China Sea and re-settled in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The story is a remarkable account of how this family endured and then overcame huge obstacles to become prosperous Americans.  It is a gritty, inspiring account of the American Dream in action.

Cheryl Bachelder serves as CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc., a chain of more than 2,300 restaurants in 26 countries around the globe. Cheryl has led a remarkable turnaround of this chain, applying the principles of servant leadership and implementing a bold, ambitious business plan. Set for release in March 2015, her 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. www.daretoserveleaders.com