Fighting a "Me First" Mentality

How is the true power of leadership unleashed?


Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, says that being an engaging leader means we have to "get ourself out of the way" and truly serve those we lead. To be a better leader, we must fight conventional thinking that often celebrates a "me first" mentality.

“We are wired to be selfish. I call it our inner two-year-old,” Cheryl explains. “And I think it takes most of us a lifetime to find out that that's not your best leadership approach.”

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Interviewer: In this framework you have something called Beyond You. It sounds like it's connected to servant leadership. So can you explain what you mean by that and how you unpack that?

Cheryl: Well, every human being has to try to get themselves out of the way, right? We are wired to be selfish. I call it our inner two-year-old. And I think it takes most of us a lifetime to find out that that's not your best leadership approach. I always say the other person knows your motive whether you know it or not, so if you lead out of self, they quickly pick up on, this is all about you. It's all whether you get promotion, you get the raise, you get the recognition, and I'm not all that excited about working about someone that's all about you.

So when you get yourself out of your way, you really become an engaging leader because you're for the person. And I think that's where all the power is in leadership. The power is if I say to you I need to understand you, grow you in capability, and help you reach potential you didn't even know you had that starts to get exciting for you, okay? It might be work for me but it's exciting for you and it says I'm invested in you, behind you, and all of a sudden you want to be here. This is an exciting place to grow and prosper. But it is not conventional thinking.

Interviewer: It's not.

Cheryl: Our culture celebrates the "me-focused" leader. It's who is on magazine covers. It's the Donald Trump model maybe. You know, "you're fired." That's the reputation and so I think we really have to ask leaders to think hard about how they want to lead differently than they've seen modeled in culture.

Here we have people examine their personal purpose, so we have a purpose plaque on the wall, but I say plaques don't talk. The only Popeyes anyone will ever meet is you, so I need to know your purpose for coming to work, your principles, your values, how you will bring yourself to work. And out of that process we found very high engagement because people, once they discover why they're working, work harder, better, faster, create more results, and want to be here forever. It's a great business strategy but it's not compelling until it yours, so personal purpose has actually unlocked our corporate purpose and made it successful.

Interviewer: That's great. Now can you take us back to, I mean you had seven great years, can you take us back to your first few times in front of franchisees and how did you let them know that this was beyond you? This was, that this, you're not here for Cheryl to be the C . . . You're there for the organization and for them. What were some of the things you did?

Cheryl: Well, in franchising there's always some animosity between the franchiser and the franchisee. It's not a naturally happy kumbaya relationship because we both have interests and sometimes we are at odds and there's kind of a long history of that in franchising, so we wanted to be a different kind of leadership team, but we knew trust would only build over time. One of my franchisees on the first week of the job he said, "Look, you may be trustworthy but we're abused children and it's going to be a long time before we trust you."

Interviewer: Wow.

Cheryl: And I said okay. Deep breath. This is going to take a while. And it was a fair statement because there had been seven prior CEOs, so who are you? You're just eight, right? And until I see evidence of your investment in our system and investment in our success and our results and relationship with us, I don't have any basis for trust.

So I will tell you it was year three when trust started to become genuine. In fact, with some of our franchisee leaders we were having a meeting and they had their arms folded like this in the other side of the room and I said "Guys, we've been together three years. Why are your arms still folded?" And the leader of our system said, "Hmm, well you're probably right probably should unfold arms. It's been three years." But it was a real conscious, had to think about it because trust after it's been abused comes really slowly and you're always a little skeptical.

So I teach my leadership that we should never take trust for granted. We should never expect it to be granted to us. We re-earn it every single day in leadership and if there's ever a dysfunction in trust, we have to own it. And we call it "being the adults" frankly. We just say, we have to always be the adults, so if trust goes sideways no matter who did it, it's ours to resurrect and get back on track.

And I think over time that demonstrates your heart to people and you will make mistakes and trust will be broken over those mistakes but the recovery will come faster and more solid if you're consistent in how you respond to those mistakes.

Cheryl Bachelder

Cheryl A. Bachelder is the former CEO Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. and author of Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others. She is known for her crisp strategic thinking, franchisee-focused approach, superior ...

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