Human connections don’t happen digitally

Company culture isn’t created by PowerPoint presentations, texts, social media posts or wall hangings. It’s created when your people feel a sense of belonging, of care, of purpose. And there’s only one way to accomplish that — actual human interaction. A gesture. A visit. A question. A helping hand.

Six years ago, Donatos had the opportunity to be on the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” in an episode featuring my wife, Jane Grote Abell. She visited our restaurants not as the chairwoman of the board but disguised as a potential associate. She interacted with our associates in a way that provided a valuable behind-the-scenes look at our business and our people. It resulted in helping change lives and improve the company.

Obviously, not everyone has the opportunity to be on a reality show, but there are many ways to connect with your people.

Listen without an agenda

We do something called “King For A Day,” where I visit with groups of associates and ask them if they could do anything to improve Donatos, what would they do? None of their bosses are in the room, just me and them. These agenda-less roundtable discussions have provided great feedback with changes that have already been implemented.

It also shows how much we appreciate what people do daily. The key is to really listen and be open-minded. Otherwise, don’t do it.

Show up when needed

Another way to strengthen the connection of all levels of your organization is to work together when a big need arises.

A recent example for Donatos happened in March, when the Arnold Classic was in town and our original store on Thurman Avenue was getting overwhelmed with demand. I don’t know if people were carbo-loading or what, but we were clearly not staffed to handle the business.

So, we asked our office staff if anyone would be interested in volunteering at the restaurant. Well, they responded — our director of IT manned the cut table, two members of our catering team made pizzas, our manager of PR and social media delivered pizzas, and several general managers and supervisors of other restaurants stopped by to lend a hand.

The sense of teamwork and accomplishment was felt by all as they handled the busy night shift.

Small touches

Jane and I personally sign and send birthday cards and anniversary cards to thousands of associates every year. Every day when I’m in the office, I wander through the building to say hello and see if anyone needs anything. (I also do this because I can’t sit still). We do many impromptu meetings with the entire home office staff in our main lobby stairway, called stairway gatherings. And on and on.

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, strive to find ways to connect the associates at every level of your business. Building these relationships based on collaboration, communication and mutual respect will help your business reach its fullest potential.

Meet people where they are. Look them in the eye. Turn email into “eye-mail”.


Tom Krouse is the president and CEO of Donatos Pizza. Tom has over three decades of restaurant industry experience, countless civic contributions and an award-winning career in marketing and management.