Cheryl Bachelder: A Profile in Servant Leadership

Blog 51 - Hero - Final
  • October 24, 2018

Cheryl Bachelder follows a simple but powerful philosophy: Successful business leaders serve the people they guide, and not the other way around.

In 2007, Bachelder was named CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Chicken, putting her strong convictions about servant leadership into practice when she set out to rebrand the restaurant chain. During her tenure as CEO, which spanned a decade, Popeyes experienced unprecedented growth, all while emphasizing that the true definition of success meant leaders must be devoted to serving everyone who contributes to the company’s bottom line.

Bachelder wrote a bestselling book detailing the transformation Popeyes experienced when their leaders stepped out of the spotlight, entitled Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others. To accompany the release of the new edition, Bachelder has also created a comprehensive five-module master video course on servant leadership. Here is a closer look at Bachelder and the philosophy that turned around her organization—and has the potential to turn around yours.

Shifting the Focus to Service

When Bachelder took over as Popeyes’ CEO in 2007, she realized the leaders at the company needed an attitude adjustment. “The problem” she states, “[was that] the people we were responsible for leading were viewed as ‘a pain in the neck.’ The franchise owners were ‘difficult.’ The restaurant teams were ‘poor performers.’ The guests were ‘impossible to please.’ The board members were ‘challenging.’ The investors were ‘not on our side.’” Not surprisingly, the restaurant chain was plagued by declining sales, poor customer satisfaction, and terrible morale.

One day, the Popeyes leadership team gathered to discuss the company’s future direction and began listing the positive traits of leaders they admired and the negative traits of leaders they didn’t. They also discussed leadership philosophies and concluded that the cure for what was ailing Popeyes was servant leadership, an approach famously espoused by Robert Greenleaf.

“We didn’t want to fall prey to the self-focused leadership style we had observed in others,” Bachelder writes. “Our belief was that serving people well would generate better business results.” “People” didn’t just mean “customers,” but also franchisees and their employees. Dare-to-Serve leadership, as Bachelder explains, “is a mindset for approaching every constituent.” Any company taking this approach values everyone within the organization and everyone the organization connects with.

Providing Meaning and Purpose

As Popeyes began to transform, Bachelder realized there were not enough clear goals for the workforce. “The people were committed and hardworking, but they did not know where they were going. … Popeyes wasn’t winning any games. The team was discouraged, even exasperated. They were struggling with no evidence of a turnaround in sight. They needed to know what tournament they were playing in.”

The solution was providing Popeyes with a “daring destination”: bold goals to mobilize the organization to aspire to and achieve high performance. Bachelder outlines five steps toward this objective:

  1. State the daring destination with a plausible business case.
  2. Focus on the vital few actions—the hard things that must be addressed.
  3. Commit the resources needed to reach the destination as evidence of your conviction.
  4. Create a work environment that brings out the best in people and performance.
  5. Have the courage to measure and report progress.

The sense of purpose from a daring destination gives the organization a clearer roadmap toward success. Bachelder uses the metaphor of a family vacation to elucidate the daring destination: “A friend of mine says that when you lead a team it is like taking your family on vacation. Until the family knows where they are going, they won’t know whether to bring their winter coats or their bathing suits. Define the destination so that the team can pack their suitcase.”

A Culture of Service

Although a strategic roadmap is important to a company’s success, Bachelder notes that it’s not enough. How people work together to execute a plan is as critical as the plan itself. Bachelder writes, “Some call this the culture of the organization—which is a good word for it, because it means the way we think, behave, and work together to accomplish goals. Defining the principles of the culture and holding the team accountable to those principles is fundamentally the work and the responsibility of the leader. … Without principles in action, the leader cannot drive superior results—and may, in fact, risk disaster.”

At Popeyes, Bachelder and her team chose six principles intended to inspire servant leaders and achieve superior results:

  1. We are passionate about what we do.
  2. We listen carefully and learn continuously.
  3. We are fact-based and planful.
  4. We coach and develop our people.
  5. We are personally accountable.
  6. We value humility.

All six principles put people first and focus on the “we” instead of the “I.” By emphasizing the “we,” the culture of the organization moved toward service among everyone, using servant leadership as the model of how to work with respect for each other. Treating others with dignity allowed everyone in the organization, not just the people at the top, to feel a sense of purpose about their work. As a result, restaurant sales went up 45 percent, restaurant profits doubled, and the stock price rose to over $61 (more than tripling in value).

Transforming Leadership

As we’ve mentioned, transforming the company culture has to start with transforming leadership. When leaders embrace servant leadership, the whole organization thrives—but leaders have to be the first to act.

Bachelder believes in five actions leaders can take when they daringly decide to serve. These five are:

  • Choose to serve: Move the spotlight from yourself and your self-leadership style to create an environment in which others can realize superior performance. The path is demanding but, ultimately, your choice.
  • Be bold and brave: Have the courage and vision to dream big for your organization and the people who make it run.
  • Have clarity and purpose: Examine your life, choose your values, and define what you stand for and how that will affect and inspire others.
  • Avoid the spotlight: Embrace dignity, accountability, and humility in everything you do for your employees and your customers.
  • Call to action: Accept the influence and stewardship of being a leader, which in turn drives others to develop into servant leaders.

Bachelder acknowledges that she wasn’t always the Dare-to-Serve leader she writes about in her book. She sought the spotlight, and though she could be classified as successful, she didn’t know if she had true humility. As her career progressed, she concluded that true leadership requires something more. She reveals, “The leader must have … the courage to take the people to a daring destination and the humility to selflessly serve others on the journey. This dynamic tension between daring and serving creates the conditions for superior performance. I wish I’d figured this out sooner.” Any leader who dares to serve may also wish they started sooner, but it’s never too late to transform your organization, your employees, and yourself.

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