Jeff Warden uses clear communication to create a motivated work force at The Rose Group Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2010

For Jeff Warden, change has been a constant.

In his 25 years at The Rose Group, he’s held a number of titles, starting as a director of operations before rising through the vice presidential ranks to become president and chief operating officer in 2003 and president and CEO in 2010.

Over that time, The Rose Group has undergone a great deal of change. In the 1990s, the Newtown-based restaurant franchisee and operator was heavily involved with Boston Market and Roy Rogers, owning 12 locations of the former and managing 84 of the latter. In 1997, the company developed and sold 23 Einstein Bros. Bagels restaurants.

By the opening years of the 21st century, that had all changed.

The Rose Group began accumulating Applebee’s locations in the late ’90s, and within 10 years, Applebee’s had become the core of The Rose Group’s business. In 2007, the company added Corner Bakery Café to its portfolio. Together, those two restaurant brands now sustain Warden’s business.

Through all of the change, Warden and his leadership team have had to maintain a strong company culture and keep employees motivated in a fluid, changeable environment.

“That is one of the biggest challenges we have, to maintain our culture through multiple changing concepts,” Warden says. “Going through all of that, since we franchise, the importance of people becomes paramount to what we do, being able to recruit and retain top talent.”

With 5,000 employees at dozens of locations in four states, Warden’s challenge is one of scale and distance as much as it is the ability to identify and cultivate promising players. Centralized standards and practices need to be rolled out to a highly decentralized work force.

It is a task that requires a keen eye for new talent and the ability to communicate with employees over horizontal geographical distance and the vertical distance of management layers.

Identify talent

To Warden, the gatekeeper function is one of the most important roles of management in the hiring process. It is up to you, your management team and your human resources staff to ask the right questions and get the right information so that you can make the kind of hires that can help sustain your culture and grow your business.

“You want to make sure there is a fit, so we send candidates for job openings through testing and also a rigorous interview process,” Warden says. “That is how we try to ensure that we’re bringing the right folks into our organization.”

In the interview process, you need to ask the right questions in order to find the candidates who match your organization’s needs. Warden asks many open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” in response. To drill down and find out what a potential employee brings to the table, particularly where personal values are concerned, you need to get him or her to think and then convey those thoughts.

“Everyone will come to you and tell you they have people skills,” Warden says. “They’ll tell you that they know how to run whatever it is you need them to run. But they have to understand the importance of how we go about it. In our case, they need to understand that we’re a sales-driven company. We have to look at how we drive sales, not just the bottom line. We have the systems to ensure that if we have X amount of sales, we’ll get the requisite amount of profit. The challenge is to get sales, and we look for people who can get sales.”

In later rounds of interviews, once the field has been pared down, Warden and his team will ask candidates situational questions, particularly for management positions. They’re looking for responses that will determine how the prospective employee would handle customers and subordinates in a particular situation.

But even if a candidate gives all the right answers, sometimes you still don’t know if you have the right person until you hire him or her and see the person in action. That is why a thorough interview process needs to be followed with a thorough training process.

“Again, people will know what answers to give when you ask them questions,” Warden says. “That is why we look to evaluate the person over the course of training, to see if they really walk the walk, not just give you the answers you’re looking for.

“Sometimes, there are people who are technically proficient but just don’t have the skills we’re looking for. It’s OK for them to not have the knowledge. We can teach them the processes we need them to know. But it is harder to train people on skills like dealing with people. It’s harder to teach on the importance of coaching and motivating, of not just criticizing but rewarding, about making a celebration over successes. It’s not a perfect system. It’s up to you to evaluate during the training process whether you have a fit or not.”

Promote your vision

Once you have made your hires and put them through their training paces, the job of engaging them is only beginning.

Employees need consistent communication from the levels above them in the organization. Middle managers need to interact with upper management, employees on the lower rungs need to be kept in the loop by their supervisors. Without that level of engagement, your culture will suffer, the trust factor between the management tiers of your company will begin to erode, and it could all end with your top performers seeking employment elsewhere.

For Warden, the concept of engagement boils down to one defining word: participation.

“Really, to make any kind of vision and leadership work, you have to allow participation in the process. If you don’t allow participation in the process, it’s hard for your people to get engaged,” he says.

Participation starts with giving employees a clear understanding of their role in the organization and how the jobs they perform on a daily basis help the organization realize its overall mission.

“They need to understand that their role in the process leads to the success of the organization,” Warden says. “If they’re not, you can talk all you want, but they won’t see a lot of the bigger picture. They’ll believe that they’re only the dishwasher or only in charge of the facility.”

If you give your employees and managers a concrete idea of how their piece fits the organizational puzzle, you can set the stage for meaningful dialogue throughout all levels of the organization. Employees will feel empowered to give feedback to management because they will, on some level, understand how management operates the business.

At The Rose Group, Warden and his team have taken the employee dialogue a step further, formalizing it by creating councils on which employees and managers from throughout the organization serve.

“We have a president’s council that is made up of people throughout the organization,” he says. “We discuss some very integral things that we do as a company, and the people who serve on the council bring some suggestions and ideas.

“As an example, we constructed a council that deals specifically with what goes on in the kitchens of our restaurants. They meet regularly and discuss better ways to do things. They came up with the idea of a kitchen certification program, which is a very rigorous evaluation program. We have a technology council, as well. And it’s all different levels of people, from hourly associates up to general managers.”

The people who serve on Warden’s councils become a sounding board for management, providing a ground-level perspective on new ideas and relaying input gleaned from interactions with customers.

“When your employees have input into that process, they feel engaged in the process and they become your advocates out in the field. Other people start passing their ideas along to them.”

Recognize employees

Recognition is another important pillar in the concepts of achieving buy-in and motivating employees. Warden places a strong emphasis on rewarding employees for input. Even if the idea isn’t something that can be implemented right away, Warden still wants to relay his appreciation for the input.

All ideas get a prompt response from management. If an idea can be implemented, Warden makes a big deal of it in order to motivate both the employee who submitted the idea and the employee’s co-workers.

“We give them a $100 gift card and a peer recognition pin,” Warden says. “We make a celebration of awarding them, and we review the suggestion every two weeks. Through that process, we’ve found so many great ideas, because they’re coming right from the people who are in the restaurants interacting with our guests. Why not ask a bartender about drinks, about how to best meet a guest’s needs?”

If an idea from the lower rungs of the company can’t be used or can’t be used at the present time, you still owe the employee some feedback on it. Don’t let the inedible fruit fall to the ground and rot, because it still contains seeds. And you have to plant those seeds somehow.

“You have to acknowledge the feedback you get, in all forms,” Warden says. “Simply put, you’re acknowledging that your employees have taken the time to care about your business. Constructive or otherwise, that feedback is important, and you have to celebrate it. If you don’t, you’ll shut it down. The minute you don’t recognize it, the minute you become dismissive, you’re sending a message. And you can’t send that message because you’ll no longer get that information from the people closest to the action.”

Ultimately, you need to take employee engagement and motivation and break it down to a granular level. You have to make the company’s mission for every person under your organizational umbrella.

“If you and your managers can keep reinforcing the message, keep rewarding the success when you see that behavior, keep doing it at all levels of the organization, then the concept is communicated on a granular level, and it’s fully communicated,” Warden says. “That has to be your commitment as an organization, for both you and everyone in a management position, to keep all levels of the organization engaged in what you’re trying to accomplish.”

How to reach: The Rose Group, (215) 579-9220 or www.therosegroup.com