Popeyes CEO Cheryl Bachelder’s recipe for career success: Measure performance, set clear goals and steer clear of office gossip.
Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of AFC Enterprises, parent company of Popeyes Louisiana KitchenHow do executives stay organized? What are their management strategies? And what do they do for fun? Executive Suite seeks answers to the behind-the-scenes questions.
CEO of AFC Enterprises, parent company of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
CEO since October 2007
Bachelder: I laughingly call the first 25 years of my career, ‘Think like a man, act like a lady, work like a dog.’ I was one of the early women to join the workforce, so I had to get my M.B.A., learn how to work in teams of men, figure out how they think and figure out how to contribute in my voice. I always wanted to do it in my own style, as a woman.
But my career strategy was to work like a dog. If there was water-cooler stuff going on, I didn’t participate. When the company [RJR Nabisco] was being acquired, I said, ‘I’ll worry about that when it’s done.’ So I became a VP at 30; while everyone else was wondering what was going to happen next, I actually did work, produced results and developed people.
WSJ: Why steer clear of water-cooler gossip?
Bachelder: You can’t be a ‘Negative Nancy’ and create great things. I’ve watched mergers, acquisitions, breakups, sales, and all the lost productivity that comes with hallway conversation that does absolutely nothing for the company or your career. It’s just pointless.
WSJ: How did you get recognized by the people above you?
Bachelder: Surprise them with your results. We created Life Savers Gummi Savers [now known as Life Savers Gummies] out of nowhere. There was not an American-made gummy product anywhere. We created the best-tasting, best-textured, best-flavored gummy product to this day. How you do work is more important than what you do. If you bring together a creative, smart group of people and tap into all their competencies, you could surprise the organization with the pace at which you get work done, and at the caliber of the work.
WSJ: You’ve called yourself a ‘fact-based leader.’ What is that, exactly?
Bachelder: In franchising, you’re partnering with people who have a lot of emotion invested in the business. So as the franchisor, I better have some facts to lead with, or we’re going to have very noisy, emotional, pointless conversations. At Popeyes, we had no facts when I arrived. We did not know in detail our sales, our traffic numbers by restaurant, profitability by restaurant, whether our guests were happy or sad. We built it so we could have fact-based conversations with business partners and say, ‘that worked’ or ‘that didn’t work.’
WSJ: How does that philosophy translate into managing direct reports?
Bachelder: We set very specific goals and milestones on every project. I learned this from a man I worked for at Nabisco: He said, ‘A mediocre idea executed brilliantly wins every time.’ I really argued with him. I was young, and I was going to do brilliant things, not mediocre things. So I argued and argued. And he said, ‘You wait.’ I didn’t yet understand the power of following through and truly fixing problems and implementing crazy ideas; it’s much harder to do than thinking them up. I now agree with him completely.
WSJ: You started off as a piano major in college. What’s the link between music and business?
Bachelder: I went into music because I wanted to be a high school choir teacher, so I needed to go to music school. I actually think it’s a very strong parallel to what I do today. I’m still a conductor–just of a business enterprise instead of a choir or orchestra.
WSJ: Did you have any mentors?
Bachelder: I wish I’d had more. In the early stages of women coming into the workforce, they didn’t get the same attention and development. I’ve tried to invest a lot of my time in mentoring for that reason. But I will tell you that all my leadership principles come from lessons I’ve learned from other leaders. I’ve learned from each of them, including the ones I try to be different from. I have been publicly flogged for poor performance, and I think that’s a very bad thing to do to human beings. So you learn the good, and you learn what you don’t want to do as a leader.
WSJ: What else would you never do as a leader?
Bachelder: I will always treat franchisees with the utmost respect. These people have put their house up for mortgage to get into this business; I didn’t put mine up. So I always want to give them the respect they deserve and serve them well as a leader.
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