Burgerpreneur Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

Lee Sanders walks into a Johnny Rockets, past the neon signs and stainless steel fixtures, and slides into a red vinyl chair. He orders his typical tuna salad, half orders of onion rings and french fries, and a vanilla malt.

The CEO of The Johnny Rockets Group Inc. eats at his restaurant about twice a week. But this time, he’s in Istanbul. And next week, he could visit Taiwan, Kuwait or Germany, or even the flagship ’50s-style diner in Hollywood.

Sanders’ challenge is making sure the experience is consistent regardless of which of his 250-plus locations he visits. Since its inception in 1986, the chain has sprawled across 11 countries and picked up 3,000 employees.

The first step to a consistent experience is securing energetic employees that sync with the Rockets philosophy. Sanders reins in their passion with cultural guidelines to maintain consistency. He makes those expectations and policies clear and holds employees to them, only opening the avenue to fun if they’re getting their jobs done.

“As the boss, it’s your job to make sure you have the right people, that they understand what their assignments are, and that you pave the way or empower them to do their jobs correctly,” he says.

Sanders keeps employees on track by looking beyond the big-picture metrics and talking to individuals. And when they need correction, he customizes his management style for his managers.

“My job is to get work done, make it as enjoyable for them as is possible and get the shareholders return,” Sanders says. “And assuming all those things can come into juxtaposition, we can have a happy shareholder, happy workers and happy guests in the stores.”

Find the fit

At Johnny Rockets, servers put ‘service with a smile’ into action by squirting ketchup into smiley face shapes on guests’ plates and dancing to songs on the jukebox. So naturally, passion and energy are musts.

The keys to finding employees with those traits are conducting multiple interviews and clearly communicating your expectations.

Sanders uses team interviews to vet candidates, involving the manager and several colleagues. To uncover passion, Sanders asks questions like “What do you get excited about?” and “What makes you jump out of bed every morning?” Then the interviewers compare notes to see if passion is a consistent trait.

He uses the same approach to find franchisees in other countries. He starts by assessing their experience and then, more importantly, whether they share his philosophy.

“You start with basic things, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ and then, ‘If you were in this situation, what would you do?’” he says. “So it goes from the concrete to the abstract. ‘Is the guest always right? OK, why do you believe that? How do you implement that?’”

But besides discovering what the candidate can offer, the interview should also explain what you expect from them. So it’s important to lay out the rules upfront.

“My job is to let them know that the passion for the business is expected,” Sanders says. “You know, ‘Look, this is the way we like to run our business. We would like to have some fun, we’d like for you to be passionate about our business, we’d like for you to work hard for our shareholder. Be sure this is what you want, because we’re not going to lower our standards to meet your expectations.’”

Then rely on your managers to help make the call. The “multitude of assessment experience” from the group interviews will judge candidates’ willingness to uphold those expectations better than you alone could.

Communicate your expectations

Your task of articulating expectations will continue after the hire. Before you get into job specifics, you need to establish the framework employees will be working within.

Employee orientation should drill into company history and culture. Explain why you do things the way you do to ground your policies deeper than a job description.

“We don’t start saying, ‘OK, here’s a hamburger. We’re going to show you how to cook that,’” he says. “No, we start at the beginning: ‘Johnny Rockets works well because we have the experience; we have the culture. We have the song, the dance, the whole ketchup-with-a-smile.’ You begin to indoctrinate them, then you get into the mechanics.

“You start at the beginning and talk about why your brand has done well. So it’s not a, ‘Here it is; do it.’ We try to tell the story so they’ll understand the background.”

Also, by holding all employees to the same basic cultural guidelines, you’ll ensure a more consistent operation because everyone will be under the same umbrella.

Then with the skeleton of the culture established, you can start fleshing out specific goals to personalize each employee’s role — at least for your direct reports. While fun and freedom may be the means for reaching those goals, you have to be frank about the end destination.

Sanders tells employees, “Look, No. 1 is we’re going to have to make plan. Plan is X dollars. We’d like to do that in an environment that’s fun; we’d like to do it where individuals can have some freedom to do their job the way they see fit as long as they’re productive. But let’s not lose sight of the fact this is a for-profit deal here.”

The next step — trusting employees to follow those guidelines — is a pretty simple one because in Sanders’ mind, it’s already completed.

“You’ve already voted, and you’ve given the person a vote of confidence,” he says. “She doesn’t have to earn it; she earned it when she got the job. So it’s not an audition anymore.”

But you can take empowerment to the next level by literally writing yourself out of the employees’ way when you explain their duties. In other words, they shouldn’t have to rely on you in order to do their job.

For example, the communications director has to get Sanders’ approval on news releases before they go out. But to avoid being a barrier, Sanders put a 48-hour timeline on himself. So if he doesn’t review the material by then, she can bypass him and go on with her job.

If he’s not happy with her work, he can point out what he would change next time. But he refuses to reprimand her if he hasn’t played his part.

“I empower them to do their jobs, and if I’m a barrier, they have all the authority in the world to go around me, within some rules,” Sanders says. “I don’t think the person running the company should be a funnel or a barrier. If everything has to go through you or your CFO, then it’s a company of a couple of geniuses with hundreds of assistants, which is pretty worthless.”

Check employees’ progress

Once your employees understand the goals and how to meet them, let them go. But make sure they stay within those guidelines you gave upfront.

“As the person running the company, you’ve got to be aware of what your senior people are doing or not doing,” Sanders says.

He doesn’t just keep tabs on his employees by watching the big picture, like whether they’re meeting quarterly goals or departmental objectives. He looks for little cues like attendance because “people that aren’t happy at work tend to be sick,” he says.

He also walks around the support center as well as various restaurant locations to simply ask employees how it’s going. Start with, “How long have you worked here? Do you like it?”

“If you will honestly listen to people and you will honestly ask them what you want to know, I’d say 80 percent of the people will tell you what’s on their mind,” Sanders says. “If they think you’re actually going to listen to them, you’re actually going to hear their comments, they’ll tell you.”

So in addition to the black-and-white metric of whether or not employees are meeting goals, Sanders also observes nuances that don’t surface on a monthly report.

“I’ve got the formal thing of [whether] your department is meeting goals or not,” Sanders says. “And I’ve got the informal thing of, ‘Gee, everyone that works for you seems to feel like you don’t communicate. Tell me why they feel that way.’”

He pays close attention to his direct reports, as well. In addition to their four-hour executive team meeting every two weeks, he meets with each one individually for an hour every month. The one-on-one is their chance to tell Sanders how they’re tracking against their goals, so they set the agenda and run the meeting.

The key is to never skip those appointments. That shows employees you carve out time because you’re interested in their progress.

Even when Sanders isn’t specifically gathering feedback, he watches for discrepancies during his everyday duties.

“When I see something I don’t think is right, my point is to rapidly make the time to take the person aside and say, ‘You know, in that meeting, I don’t think you handled that the way I want it handled.’ I don’t wait to give corrective direction. The sooner you get feedback the better, and the more direct the better. Don’t ignore the obvious. If there’s a problem, jump on it.”

What matters is not just when you attack issues but where you attack them.

“You don’t talk about it in front of other people. You say, ‘Look, I need to talk to you as soon as you get a chance down in my office.’ So it’s got to be private,” says Sanders, who even takes employees to lunch if they prefer correction outside of the office.

Beyond the time and place elements, you should tailor your approach with whatever type of management style your reports prefer. Some employees respond better to no-frills reprimands — like, “Look, you screwed this up. Do it this way next time and we’ll all be happy,” he says. And others need to be eased into criticism with encouragement first by saying, “You’re doing a great job on these 10 things, but thing No. 11 here, we need to work on.”

You need to know what employees respond to. And it’s as easy as asking, “Look, how do you like to be managed?” says Sanders, who doesn’t believe in the one-style-fits-all approach. “Do you want me to be in your face, or do you want me to take you to lunch and tell you the Pollyanna side of the story?”

“Everybody knows how they like to be managed, and most of them will tell you if you ask them.”

Take the heat

You may have to answer for employees’ shortcomings while you work to correct them. Yes, you have to explain to shareholders why the company didn’t meet its goals.

“When things don’t go well and you miss plan, it’s your job to stand up and take the bullet,” Sanders says. “Don’t blame your employees. … I see senior executives all the time blaming everybody but themselves. Maybe it’s not really their fault, but their job is to accept responsibility. Don’t deflect it to the employees or the guests or the government. Accept the responsibility and try to correct it.”

Without passing blame, you can establish that you are aware of the problem and that you are working to make the necessary changes.

“If the board of directors says, ‘Hey, we don’t think that so-and-so’s going right in marketing,’ say, ‘I’ve not been diligent in getting that change made, and I’ll work harder on it.’ Don’t throw anybody in the marketing department under the bus,” Sanders says.

Then, of course, you need to follow through and work with the marketing department to implement the change. Tell them you’re getting questions about their lack of progress and it’s time to step up the effort.

“There are days that you have to pull rank and say, ‘Look, we don’t have the luxury of time here. Let’s just do what we’ve got to do the way I say to do it. And we’ll continue to work on collegiality, but right now, we don’t have the luxury,’” says Sanders, who reserves this approach as a last resort when he’s up against a deadline or budget and employees are dragging.

But if you choose the right employees, communicate your expectations and keep an eye on their progress, those speeches should be rare. And instead, you’ll enjoy the fruits — or burgers and malts — of a consistent culture.

How to reach: The Johnny Rockets Group Inc., (888) 856-4669 or www.johnnyrockets.com