The straight story Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

As president and CEO of The Johnny Rockets Group Inc.,Lee Sanders doesn’t have to go very far to enjoy a meal in a retro-style diner steeped in an Americana motif.

The restaurant group he oversees houses 1,530 employees in 220 such locations around the globe, including 35 right in his Southern California backyard. Still, when it came time to take his management team out for dinner, he chose to take them to a competitor up the street instead.

“I found out that only one of us has ever really eaten there,” he says of the other chain. “We (went) there for dinner as a group as sort of a field trip.”

Besides giving them an opportunity to scope out the competition, Sanders says the outing gave his team a chance to have fun and build camaraderie that would lead to better communication back in the office.

Smart Business spoke with Sanders about how to cut through the bull to get honest feedback from your employees and how to walk new employees through the decision-making process.

Cut through the bull. As a president and CEO, one of the bigger challenges is determining if you’re getting the data you need or if you’re getting filtered data.


It’s pretty easy to deal with good news. The bad news? I need that really almost more than I need the good news.

[To get candid feedback], admit what you don’t know. In other words, if you don’t understand the functional area very well or if it’s something you’re not familiar with, ask questions. Make sure that you get all your questions answered from whoever is the topic expert. Don’t assume you know what you’re doing if you really don’t.

Make sure that the person who’s giving you the information has done their due diligence: ‘Where did you get this data? What makes you believe this is the case?’ Push back on them a bit.

[If you do that], you’re making the most well-informed decision you can make, and you’ve probably enrolled people to support your program.

Hire candid team members. Use team interviewing. Each person on the management team is going to interview this individual. If you go through that with the senior people, they tend to start identifying if the person is giving the politically correct answer versus the candid answer.


It can slow down the process, but at the senior level, time is not the most important. The quality of the candidate is probably the most important.

Ask, ‘What is your greatest failure in your current position? On the greatest failure, what would you do different?’ It’s an odd question, but it’s hard to make believe that if someone’s in a position for a while they haven’t had a few failures.

If someone says, ‘Well, I’ve never really had a failure. I’ve always succeeded,’ that’s possible, but it’s starting to sound a bit like rose-colored glasses.

Within that context, ‘Identify the greatest underachievement and failure, and why do you think that happened, or what would you do differently?’ If they say, ‘The other department didn’t support me correctly,’ it begins to show if they’re deflecting or they’re accepting the responsibility. Candid people will accept the responsibility.

Walk new hires through the decision-making process. When there’s a decision to be made, I say, ‘You’re going to need to decide the course of action here.’


Clearly let them know the business objective or the results expected: ‘You need to accomplish these things. You need to have an EBITDA of 10 percent on this’ — whatever it is.

‘If I were sitting there making this decision, this is what I would look at, this is who I would talk to, this is how I would structure it, and this is what I would make as my decision to do this. It doesn’t mean you have to, but this is how I would approach it.’

Then I would say, ‘You should go talk to these other constituents who are involved in this project. Maybe it’s your subordinates, maybe it’s your colleagues, maybe it’s a vendor, maybe it’s a guest, maybe it’s a customer. Try to enroll your constituents and get the support and guidance from those folks.’

Then I would say, ‘If you are completely comfortable and you know what to do and it’s going to be no issue, then go do it. If you’re not, come back, and we’ll go back through it to make sure it’s refined to a point where you feel comfortable and you can go away and execute.’

They see the options. They see how to attack the problem. I helped them to understand the implications that are beyond their functional area of control and helped them understand every option has pros and cons.

Protect your brand. First of all, you have to protect it. In other words, once you establish it, you need to make sure that the key elements are followed. You don’t want deviations in the field.


We have field people that are in the restaurants, and they do the typical site visits. When we find that they’re not following culture, we give them information and say, ‘Look, if you do this, this will improve your business.’

We don’t like to invoke the contract or, ‘This is the Rockets way’ as much as, ‘If you do this, your business will be enhanced. You need to do this because the guests really love it, and it will improve your business.’

The benefit ultimately is that their sales will be higher. The indirect benefit is it reinforces the brand and the culture.

HOW TO REACH: The Johnny Rockets Group Inc., (949) 643-6100 or