Sharing the wealth Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Robert Ott wasn’t always sold on the idea of collaborative management. But once he tried it, he was hooked.

When Ott, the president and CEO of Claim Jumper Restaurants LLC, got his start in restaurant management 22 years ago, he certainly wouldn’t have described his management style as collaborative.

“When you’re younger, you tend to think your thought process is the right one,” he says.

But after years of doing it his way, he realized that some of the poor decisions he made in the past could easily have been averted if he listened to some alternative viewpoints. He began to rely more on the other members of his staff and was amazed by how their different perspectives improved the overall decision-making process.

“The single thread of an idea starts to blossom because people start adding to it and that thread becomes a rope because there are all these different intertwining thoughts that make that idea stronger than the original idea,” he says.

The synergy created by the group dynamic completely energized him. Ott never looked back, and his collaborative management style has helped spur Claim Jumper Restaurants to sales of almost $300 million in 2007, up from $270 million in 2006.

Here’s how Ott harnesses the power of collaborative leadership to drive Claim Jumper Restaurants to new levels of success.

Stop, collaborate and listen

The first step in establishing a collaborative management style is to find out what everyone is doing. The most effective way to do that is to simply set up some informal meetings. In fact, many of Ott’s meetings are two-minute conversations with employees in the dining room during a slow period of their shift. The key is to meet with every level of employee, from managers down to the hourly workers.

“You have to understand what’s going on in everybody’s world,” he says.

During these meetings, Ott tries to determine the challenges that face each section of the staff.

“You have to ask probing questions,” he says. “Little things like, ‘How’s your equipment working? What do you see that’s not liked by the guests? What would you like to change in the restaurant?’”

Once he has their answers, the second phase of collaborative management begins. He takes the information he’s collected to his management team to be discussed.

Ott is constantly amazed at how often his initial ideas to improve Claim Jumper will be modified and enhanced by his team.

It’s at this point that many CEOs stumble in their adoption of the collaborative style by resisting changes to the original idea.

“It doesn’t change direction and blossom or grow, and they end up with an idea that ends up breaking because it hasn’t been built strong enough yet,” Ott says.

Massive egos can be massive roadblocks when you’re trying to establish a collaborative management style because it’s not really collaborative if no one can challenge the boss’s idea. Ott escaped the ego trap by focusing on the bigger picture.

“Over time, you may achieve a certain amount of success, and then you realize what really matters isn’t your success — it’s the success of your staff and the success and longevity of the business,” he says. “To me, that far outweighs any individual concerns.”

As an idea grows from a single thread to a thick rope, the management team strengthening that idea undergoes a transformation, as well.

The people involved in the decision-making process develop a synergy between them as each decision they make alters the course of the company. With each successful move, the team becomes more confident.

“Collaboration works on success,” Ott says. “It feeds itself.” However, he says assembling a great management team becomes more difficult as the company grows larger. Getting the right people on that team is very important to the company’s success.

“At this level, you can’t make every decision correctly,” he says. “You have to rely on those around you to make those decisions at times — to make the right decision based on better input, based on being in the trenches more than you are or a better understanding of the decision being made.”

That is why Ott says a collaborative management team must have representatives from each area of the company to be successful.

“If we make a decision regarding an item we’re going to put on our menu and I don’t have buy-in from our service operation team, our kitchen operation team and our regional management team, it’s not going to work right,” Ott says.

No matter how great the idea is, it has a good chance to fail because the key people affected by the decision weren’t asked for their input. If they don’t buy in to the new idea, then the employees they manage won’t buy in to the idea.

If representatives from each affected party support the decision, their support will flow down through the layers of the company, and the idea will have a better chance of being successful.

Of course, sometimes the members of the team disagree about whether an idea is right for the company.

“If someone feels very passionately and strongly about something and they’re convincing, usually the one or two people who have a dissenting viewpoint will acquiesce,” he says. “If it’s wrong, then we talk about why the decision was wrong, and we make sure that, as a group, we don’t get swayed by someone who maybe is preaching the gospel about something that’s passionate to them more than looking at the facts and making sure it’s the right thing to do for the business.”

Know your business

Ott’s main keys to collaborative leadership are communication and understanding. He says communication is important because as a leader, you’re just not able to know everything and understand every aspect of your organization. So, you have to rely on those around you who have the same passion and the same vision and insight that you do.

Constant communication helps make sure the vision isn’t being diluted, and it also allows Ott’s employees to pitch ideas to him — or give advance warning of any upcoming problems.

So, communication and understanding go hand in hand. However, listening to your direct reports talk about your business isn’t the same as understanding your business. As far as Ott is concerned, there is no substitute for actually being there.

When Claim Jumper opens a new store, Ott will be there. But he won’t just be there to cut the ribbon and smile for the camera. He may be busing tables, or you may find him on the cook’s line. He delves deep into the operations of each new Claim Jumper because it provides a great opportunity to communicate with his employees and helps him maintain a solid grasp on the challenges facing his team.

“You can’t run your business from behind a desk,” he says. “If someone brings an idea to me, and they say, ‘Hey, this is something the guests are asking for,’ if you’re sitting behind a desk, you may not understand the reason why. But if you’re working with the managers and talking with the guests, they bring up examples of things that need to be changed. Then you have a deeper understanding of why this needs to happen and why the change needs to be made.”

All that face time with employees can cut into the other responsibilities of a CEO, but Ott says the benefits outweigh the extended hours. He visits stores several times each week, and his discussions with employees — from management all the way down to the hourly workers — have a direct influence on the direction of the company.

By making himself so accessible, Ott often finds himself stopped in a hallway by an employee with something on his or her mind, but he says the quality ideas you end up gathering are worth lengthening your day.

“It can be a little bit disruptive, but it’s a good kind of disruptive,” Ott says. “You may see a problem or hear about a problem that might come to bite you much harder six weeks or six months from now. You solved it ahead of time because that door was open and someone saw something that needed to be addressed, and you addressed it before it became a bigger issue.”

Sort the good from the bad

Of course, not every idea is a home run. A side effect of Ott’s emphasis on communication is the sheer volume of ideas he has to sort through. Deciding which ideas are worth pursuing is a formidable task, and this is another instance where Ott can take advantage of his management team.

He says to ensure your team is able to see the problem from all sides, you have to surround yourself with people from different areas of the company who understand the big picture as well as you do. If you are uncertain about an idea, you have to get input from the people that the decision would affect.

“If it’s a suggestion that is going to change the way you do business, you don’t just make that call by yourself,” he says.

The members of your management team may be reluctant to give input at first, but Ott says they can be a valuable resource if you show them their contributions matter.

Whether he is hearing an idea for the first time or re-evaluating it with his management team, Ott’s three-pronged strategy is always the same.

“You have to let them speak,” he says. “You have to listen undistracted. In this day and age with BlackBerrys and so much input, when someone is trying to give an opinion or tell you something, it can be very distracting or disjointed in their communication of their thought process for you to do three things at once.”

Also, he always — always — gets back to his employees about their ideas. Whether you think the idea is good or bad, you have to get back to them. If you don’t, your employees will believe their opinion doesn’t matter, and you can forget about getting anymore useful input from them.

Ott doesn’t make decisions based on his gut. That’s why he never shoots down a new idea right away. He takes a day or two to think it through and get the right input to make an informed decision. It also shows the employee that you are carefully considering their idea and not just dismissing it outright.

Once the decision is made, Ott says you have to give the credit to the person or group that brought the idea to you. If you’ve decided the idea isn’t going to work, make sure you explain why it’s not going to work to the employee who brought it to you.

So if you listen attentively, respond promptly and give credit where it’s due when an employee-created idea brings the company success, your employees will appreciate it.

An added benefit is the self-esteem boost an employee receives when his or her idea is implemented throughout the company.

“It makes a huge impact on how they view the importance of their thoughts,” Ott says. “You get more collaboration; you get better communication because they know if an idea is coming from the store level, that it makes a big difference. It’s more valid than someone in a corporate office someplace making decisions and handing ideas out.”

HOW TO REACH: Claim Jumper Restaurants LLC, (949) 756-9001 or www.claimjumper.com