Keeping yourself accountable Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

You’d think John Sullivan’s reputation would be the only thing he’d need to build trust. After all, the former CEO of Gold Star Chili does have 40 years of experience in the hospitality industry.

But Sullivan, who retired in May 2008 after 18 years at the restaurant chain, doesn’t rely solely on his track record. Instead, he takes the initiative to prove himself to employees.

“I think the first thing is always developing trust with the individuals that you’re trying to lead,” Sullivan says. “Trust is made up of two elements: competence … and the other is confidence. Another element would be your value system.”

Although confidence and competence come with time, Sullivan sets them off by exposing his value system to employees and asking to be held accountable. In turn, he requested the same of his associates at Gold Star, which reached 2007 revenue of about $71 million.

Smart Business spoke with Sullivan about how to build trust by getting your values out in the open.

Post your personal values. Years ago, I participated in a workshop where you put together your mission [and] core values. The guy that was directing the seminar said, ‘You also need to sit down and write out your personal values.’ I did that. I then published those to all of my staff and associates and said, ‘Here are the things that I believe in and you can count on.’

There were five things. One of my values is, always tell the truth. It’s extremely important that I always tell the truth, and it’s extremely important if I deal with somebody, they always tell me the truth.

I said, ‘If I tell you something, I will always tell you the truth. You can always take that to the bank. I don’t know, you can maybe catch me in a little white lie, and if you do, bring it to my attention.’

I think once the people that you work with understand where you are, then it just makes it a lot easier for them to follow you.

Just look within yourself to what you strongly believe in. When you post your values and explain them to people, you more or less say, ‘You can count on me for this.’

You just look at yourself, and it’s really a personal thing; it’s not a business thing. How [do] you conduct yourself? It’s not only how you conduct yourself within your business but also within your family.

When I posted my values, I not only posted them within the company but I also even posted them on my refrigerator at home to show my family. [Saying,] ‘If I don’t honor these, then you let me know.’ It helps you make sure that you honor those.

Use your values to make decisions. You have to walk the talk. In other words, if you do communicate what your value system is, then you need to absolutely follow it. I’ve been in those situations where a decision [is] a little bit questionable. You just have to go back to your value systems and say, ‘If I don’t follow these, then I’m giving up the ship.’

Ask employees to share their values. It built trust between myself and the associates within the company. And I encouraged each one of them to share their value systems, as well. It gives them a better understanding of what makes you tick.

Years ago, we did an exercise like Myers-Briggs [personality test]. It’s called brain dominance. You really find out as a team what all your strengths and your weaknesses are.

That type of thing, if you do it as a group or a team, you can really understand each other and understand where everybody’s coming from. For example, it will identify who’s more of a creative type, and usually if you’re creative, you’re not structured. And then you’ll find individuals within your team that are very structured but not very creative.

What happens, a structured person looks at a creative person and says, ‘Jeesh, you’re just ineffective,’ because they don’t follow the same brain situations that you do.

But once you understand where the other one’s coming from, then you can deal with it.

It’s on the table, ‘I understand that you’re not going to dot every I and cross every T, and therefore, I can deal with that.’ And then on the other hand, when the creative person just wants to fly and not put together a plan and is not very structured, then that person can also understand [that] these other individuals, they’ve got to have a plan or they just are not comfortable moving forward. It’s really just understanding each other.

Keep each other accountable. I’ve seen it added into performance discussions to where you actually can have that as one of the elements of the performance review or performance evaluation.

[But if someone violates their values,] you need to address it right away. I’d say, ‘Honor my commitments,’ and let’s say somebody comes up and says, ‘You said you were going to do that, and you didn’t,’ you have to apologize and tell them you’ll work your hardest not to make that happen again.

You have to deal with it on the spot. Everybody has a hiccup every now and then, and that’s understandable. You deal with them as they come up, but then over a period of time when you sit down on the performance review, you say, ‘Well, jeez. This has happened too many times.’

How to reach: Gold Star Chili, (800) 643-0465 or