It’s good to be king, but sometimes it pays to know what it’s like
behind a retail counter, too.
Just ask Chuck Fallon. Long before
he took on his current role as president, North America, for Burger
King Holdings Inc., he worked at his father’s auto parts retail store.
Working after school and weekends, the hours weren’t all that
great but the lessons were.
Watching his father, he learned about passion and determination.
Working behind the counter, he learned exactly how much a field
employee knows about what’s going on.
Fallon brought those principles to his business career, and it was
only fitting that when the fast-food enterprise famous for its hamburgers started to come out of a slump and needed a new leader
for its 23,000 full- and part-time North American employees, it
turned to Fallon.
Pushing those same principles that he learned long ago, Fallon
turned his focus on the company culture. By turning to employees
to help shape his own education about what was going on in the
field, he has created a culture that brings in passionate employees
and puts the onus on them to help the leadership team come up
with new directions.
“If you are truly inquisitive and passionate enough about the
business, you can cobble together or aggregate those great ideas
and say, ‘Those are the kind of things we should be doing’ and
then put the resources behind those,” Fallon says. “That is an
iterative process, and it’s a very collaborative process. This is not
a business that I knew walking in here, and I respect that there
are a lot of people who do, and the more you genuinely engage
with them on what works and what doesn’t work and what
they’ve seen in the past, the more effective you are.”
By hiring passionate, driven employees, traveling the North
American circuit to put a human context to his leadership and
taking the time to ask the questions that every leader should
know the answer to, Fallon has helped the North American market cook up some nice results: Revenue has grown to $1.45 billion in 2007, up from $1 billion in 2006.
Hire for passion
When he was interviewing for one of his first jobs, Fallon was
asked a tricky question.
“The interviewer asked me, ‘What do you think is more important, intelligence or drive and determination?’” he says.
From what Fallon saw, he was in a no-win situation. If he said
intelligence, that meant he didn’t value drive and determination. If he said drive and determination, did it concede that he didn’t think he was smart? He decided that he’d rather ride out his luck
on his moxy than his brains.
“I didn’t think I was the smartest guy around,” Fallon says. “So I
said drive and determination, and he smiled and said, ‘Ah, you
should have said intelligence.’”
It took him a minute, but he got the joke: The interviewer, looking over Fallon’s impressive resume, knew that the young man was
smart. What he didn’t know was how hard he was willing to work.
Today, Fallon still thinks about that question when he interviews
“Let’s face it, the ante into the game is being intelligent,” he says.
“I’m going to make an assumption, though somewhat tested, that
you are smart enough to be where you are if you’re sitting across the table from me. For me, it is about passion, it’s about desire —
hunger, if you will. If you bring to the table the kind of drive and
determination that I can see, boy, that’s somebody that I can really feel comfortable putting my trust behind to get the job done.”
Fallon uses a basic interviewing technique to find out if employees have the grit to make it: He asks them to spell out how they’ve
“It’s about achievement, if someone can walk in and articulate
those examples,” he says. “Those folks that have that false positive, they couldn’t tell you two instances where they’ve taken a situation and turned it around or been the catalyst for making an initiative. It’s those folks who have actually done it that can articulate
it, that’s the litmus test.
“I’ve had people in front of me with great eye contact, great body
language and great personal experiences, but when you really pin
them down and say, ‘Give me an example of where you’ve applied
yourself,’ they can’t. A truly passionate, energized person, you’ll
have to turn them off. Impassioned individuals you generally
have to rein in a little bit because they’ve lived it and breathed it.”
Put a face on leadership
There’s a new hit at Burger King, and it’s not anything on the
menu: It’s The King. The forever-smiling, bling-covered mascot is
becoming as popular for the restaurant as the famed flame-broiled
And while Fallon doesn’t don the big mask or wear quite as much
jewelry, there is one culture-building lesson he and the other leaders
at Burger King have learned from the mascot: Sometimes you have
to give the company a face. That’s why all 11 members of Burger
King’s global leadership team make it a priority to schedule trips
spanning their respective areas.
“We’d be foolish if we didn’t ensure that we were out there in the
field seeing how it works,” he says. “So we ride markets, and we
engage employees all the way down to the restaurant level.”
When you’re trying to build a company culture for 23,000
employees, putting that face to the message is key. Fallon knows
that it’s easy for a corporate vision to get lost if it isn’t given the
proper context and human touch, so he tries to make the personal connection, even if he can’t sit down with every employee.
“The advantages to traveling are that you are a real person, you’re
not somebody from headquarters who thinks up crazy things in an
ivory tower to burden people in the field,” he says. “The other thing
is, we all have a very healthy respect for where the tip of the spear
is, and the tip of the spear is right there in the field, and those folks
have to filter through all the messages that are coming to them, and
they have to influence the business. Respecting that from their perspective and being truly inquisitive about how things are going, asking them, ‘If you were king for a day, what would you change?’ And
consistently being there furthers that cultural message and gets
them to open up and give honest feedback. People will tell you what
they think you want to hear but not always. They’ll tell you what’s
really on their mind if you’re out there enough to build up a relationship.”
Similarly, Fallon keeps lines of communication open much further down the chain than his direct reports. While he respects the
hierarchical system at Burger King, he’s not afraid to go directly to
the source for an answer.
“I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call a field leader at the
local level in New Orleans or Denver,” he says. “I always circle
back with their boss and their boss’s boss, but I think that’s part of
being close to the action and making sure that you’re getting a
good feel for what’s going on.”
Listen for the answers
In his career before Burger King, Fallon took enough Myers-Briggs tests to know that it’s not his natural tendency to bring people in when he makes a decision. To keep his team involved, he’s
learned one trick that he’s pushing to the core of Burger King’s culture: Ask questions — and then listen to the answer.
When he’s out traveling his area, Fallon encourages feedback
because it helps build relationships with the field employees, but it
also helps him understand what’s going on in the company.
“One of the first orders of business is to understand the business,”
he says. “If you don’t have the right kind of understanding of their
hot buttons around being successful, then there’s no way you’re
going to direct change or help create a vision.
“If we would just listen to what our people were saying, then the
minute that you hear something that you don’t understand, what
does it cause you to do? You ask a question, so it causes you to listen more. If a leader is doing all of the talking, they’re not gaining
any credibility or insight and they’re not gaining any ability to collaborate. If you’re doing the talking, you’re not getting the facts. If
you’re doing the talking, you’re already making judgments based
on what may be a subset of the facts.”
Asking a lot of questions also helps Fallon know that messages
from the top are being successfully pushed down. It’s easy for people to just nod their head at corporate initiatives, but he wants to be
sure they really understand what’s going on. By inquiring about the
way they understand their jobs, he does an evaluation of how well
the communication is coming through.
“There are so many people that nod their heads, and say, ‘Yeah, I
get it,’ but they don’t really, or they have questions and they don’t
raise them,” he says. “Part of being a good leader is not letting people off the hook and ensuring that you are really putting yourself
in their shoes and analyzing how you’re communicating to the
organization. We have a very dispersed field team, and the minute
you start communicating a point, by the time it filters to the West
Coast, it could be interpreted very, very differently. It’s important
for us to have that self-evaluation and really assess how our message is getting interpreted.”
To Fallon, the most important thing is to hold his emotions in
check while he continually gives others a chance to speak. It takes
practice, but he has learned to let people finish what they’re saying
and hold his judgments until he has all the facts. In turn, he’s built
a culture where people are willing to explain what’s going on.
“Don’t be less than curious when you are in a situation or presented with a problem,” he says. “If I’m below curious, that means
I’m already being judgmental. I walked into this company with a
desperate desire to listen and to learn, and I bite my tongue a lot
by listening and asking probing questions. When you do that, emotions can’t creep in because you’re driving and probing to the facts.
I need to know enough of the details to help us as a team come up
with the right decision. You can’t be successful in any organization
trying to come in and think you know it all. You have to realize that
vision and change don’t happen by one person. By being inquisitive
and really gaining that credibility, you’re able to help direct people
and aggregate ideas.”
HOW TO REACH: Burger King Holdings Inc., (305) 378-3000 or www.bk.com