How Chuck Fallon cooks up employee feedback to keep Burger King Holdings on the fast-food throne Featured

8:00pm EDT October 25, 2007

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

people.

“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

been successful.

“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

Whopper.

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