Paving the way for leadership success

Times of transition can be viewed as something to both fear and embrace. For restaurant executives, the changing operational environment can stem from external or internal drivers. For example, rising food costs have operators scrambling to find affordable solutions while a new CEO can herald uncertainty among employees.

The recent recession caused many fast casual leaders to revise their growth and marketing plans in order to get through the economic transition. The brands that came out on top were the ones whose executive teams made clear and concise decisions to change course, adapting to the times rather than trying to push ahead against them.

During times of such intense transformation, fast casual executives have the opportunity to become the ringleader for growth, acting more as a catalyst for change rather than a proponent of the status quo. To make the transition with ease, strong leaders must develop a path for success that their own internal resources can depend on to survive and thrive during times of change.

Here are five key steps for paving the path to leadership success:

Devise a plan: If you know where you want your organization to go – or even your department – you must first devise a plan for getting there. Transitions are difficult for many people to navigate and that becomes even more so when you're trying to push ahead an entire department or brand. By establishing a guiding vision for your brand and team, operators and executives have a tangible set of guidelines to follow that also can be used as a reference point for where you want to go and why. If the operational structure will be changed once the transition is complete, develop a new set of guidelines each department can work within to stay on course. During the recession, Firehouse Subs revised its marketing plan and made the decision to invest in advertising, rather than pull back its efforts. While some in the system may not have agreed with their decision, the company's leadership team developed a plan they could show to the franchisees in the system. This enabled everyone to see what the company's plan was moving forward and how the company intended to get there.

Review it with the team: Once you have devised a plan, review it with your team to ensure buy-in and establish what the responsibilities are of each party. Make sure each member of the organization understands what their goals are and that everyone understands who is accountable for which part of the transition. For any transition to be successful, each party must know their role and how their team fits into the big picture. When Fazoli's hired Carl Howard to step in as CEO, the company was undergoing a period of intense profit loss. Howard devised a plan moving forward and he brought in key executives from within the system who could help push the plan forward. Each department played a role in the brand's turnaround and each was given the opportunity to rise to the occasion.

Act on it daily: We all have daily responsibilities that require our attention. Those responsibilities don't go away because we're in a time of transition. Food must still be delivered to restaurants, customer service must remain a priority and internal communications must be held to the same high standards as before. However, once a plan of transition has been established and communicated to the team, it can be worked daily – in small steps or large ones – to ensure the transition is kept on pace with the deadline target. Both Firehouse Subs and Fazoli's knew where they wanted to be and by when; however, in the midst of their transitions, they never lost sight of the experience they were expected to deliver to their customers. Customer service and food quality remained top priorities despite the other challenges both company's faced.

Review and re-evaluate: During times of transition, executive leaders must continue to pave the way for their executive teams' success. Communication must remain a top priority so everyone remains focused on the same goal. It will be easy for one small distraction to push everyone off the track. Keep the plan in front of key executives so everyone remains on the same page. It is paramount that your executive team remains focused on the goal and how each department is expected to get there. For fast casual leaders such as Chipotle and Panera Bread, their deliverables are to both their customers and shareholders. This means that each brand has a fine line to walk. Every department must work within its realm to ensure their goals are met through the eyes of their customers and investors. If one department goes off track, the entire team could be derailed as a result. Company leaders must continue to communicate with each department within the brand to ensure those goals are being met.

Get out of the way: This is sometimes the hardest step to take. In order for other people to create their own success, we must get out of the way so they can thrive in their individual roles. If you've set up a management plan for the transition, you must then step aside to let the people around you use their skills and strengths to accomplish their goals. Not everyone will approach their goals in the same way, but as long as they know and understand the end result, how they get there is up to their own styles and methods of approach. What makes each executive and organization individualistic is the path they take to achieve their success. Each individual on your team has been hired to serve a specific purpose, so as a leader, operators also must understand when their help is needed to foster success and when their help actually acts as a hindrance.

With a solid plan in place, and a team organized to carry out the organization's role, executive leaders can enable each individual on their team to develop their own leadership skills and rise to the occasion of leadership and organizational success. The result should be the creation of a team that has clear and concise goals to follow so that the brand, and its leaders, can each reach the level of operations bound for maximum growth.

Valerie Killifer is former editor of FastCasual.com

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