In 2007, Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen hired a new CEO, Cheryl Bachelder. While she worked as a senior-level executive at Domino’s Pizza and KFC, this company was in a nearly impossible financial situation. Nevertheless, Bachelder had a secret tool under her belt: servant leadership. It was a learned mindset that would help her turn a failing business into a billion-dollar franchise.
The company was on the brink of another bankruptcy. Just six years before, the business became a publicly-traded company that entered the market for $17 per share. While Popeyes seemed to increase in profitability around the spring of 2002, the franchise began its steady descent that same summer. By the time Bachelder took over, stocks were three dollars under Popeyes’ initial public offering price. Yet, under her leadership, the restaurant chain persevered and steadily rose in profitability within a few short years.
So, what is this “secret tool” that helped Bachelder turn the company into the thriving enterprise it is now? The secret is there is no secret. She openly shares in interviews and her book, Dare to Serve, that shifting one’s leadership behavior and way of thinking can help ailing companies pivot toward success again. The key is practicing servant leadership.
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What is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is a practice where leaders focus on benefitting and providing value to others. For example, servant leaders feel responsible for putting their team members first. In doing this, they set self-serving strategies, objectives, behaviors and actions aside as they guide their organizations. Additionally, business owners and executives practicing this mentality act as a model for team members. In Bachelder’s case, she chose to serve franchise owners. In turn, this builds a sustainable community of people working toward a collective goal that benefits society.
Examples of Servant Leadership
- Reacting to an employee with empathy after noticing they had a tough day.
- Listening to various perspectives from team members during a meeting.
- Engaging with employees to see how they’re doing.
- Helping individuals when they work on their goals.
- Offering mentorship to others.
- Getting involved in the community that’s being served.
Why Servant Leadership
14 years before she became CEO of Popeyes, Cheryl Bachelder met best-selling author, Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great. Collins’ five-year study analyzes 1,435 companies and describes how 11 of these transitioned from “good” to “great.” As a result of this research, Collins determined great businesses have leaders with a servant’s heart.
Bachelder began researching the effect of servant leaders herself. In a blog on her website, she says she came to the “well-founded conclusion that serving the people and the enterprise is by far the best path to superior financial performance.”
Experimenting with Servant Leadership
In 2003, Bachelder was fired after two short years as the president of KFC. Upon reflection, she realized her largest problem was attempting to mimic leadership styles that didn’t focus upon serving others.
When named the CEO of Popeyes, she decided to put what she learned about servant-based leadership to use. It was ultimately an experiment on the effectiveness of the practice. She wanted nothing less than “superior results.” In an article with Business Insider about servant leadership traits, she explains: “Research suggests this certain kind of leader can deliver superior results. I wanted to practice it, and Popeyes is that case study.”
What Servant Leadership Looks Like in Action
As the new CEO, Cheryl Bachelder knew the first step was figuring out who she would be serving. She stepped on board with the belief that repairing the sinking ship required razor-sharp focus. Knowing exactly who she served would help her determine what measures she needed to take as a leader. Ultimately, the leadership team decided to concentrate on franchise owners.
When describing how Popeyes went from a business owner’s worst nightmare to a thriving organization, she says the company developed a process for servant-based decision-making. Objectives and company measures always boiled down to whether or not these strategies benefitted the interests of the entrepreneurs who invested in the franchise.
Additionally, the new CEO focused on relationship-building with the business owners involved in their company. Bachelder also decided she was going to shift the way the organization felt about their franchisees. They were going to love those they served. “If you love the people you lead, you would know them well—their strengths, their values, their life experiences . . . You would celebrate them,” she tells Bizwomen in reference to their servant leadership strategy.
The Effect of Leading from This Angle
After about a year, the chain of restaurants began to see higher performance levels. Their stock value began a slow, but steady ascent in 2008. Before Bachelder left the company in 2017, stock prices had quadrupled in appreciation from the day she took over. In the description preceding Dare to Serve, she describes the results as phenomenal: restaurant sales up 25 percent, profits up 40 percent and market share nearly doubling.
Because Popeyes focused on serving their franchisees, the owners started becoming more excited about their businesses, thus investing more in the company. These were undeniable results that Popeyes’ new CEO’s servant-based leadership experiment was successful. She achieved the superior results she set out to accomplish.
Learn More About Becoming a Servant Leader
In her book, Bachelder says successful servant leaders have two jobs. First, they must courageously be willing to lead their team to a “daring” destination. Secondly, as they guide their team toward this place, they must be humble, supportive and loving. In doing this, they create a landscape where people can perform to their best abilities.
Understanding the premise of servant leadership is easy, but becoming a servant leader isn’t. It requires a person to push their ego to the side and replace it with a servant’s heart and mind. Better yet, it’s a conscious decision that leaders have to wake up and choose to do every moment of every day. For those in leadership roles, this can be a difficult lifestyle decision. It requires people to live lives where others come first, no matter the situation. Regardless, as seen by Bachelder’s example, making this choice will benefit the organization and the lives it reaches exponentially.