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Change is inevitable, so you’d better be ready to adapt and adjust as the calendar flips to ’09

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to Change.”—Charles Darwin

Soon it will be a new year, and when it arrives, many in the foodservice industry will breathe a collective sigh of relief, rooted in the mistaken belief that the challenges we faced in 2008 will instantly recede with the outbound tide of the old year.

This belief is both dumb and dangerous.

The endemic and deep-rooted industry challenges we face are tied to cycles and global economics, not calendar years. So the question is: Do you have a plan—a detailed, concise and comprehensive plan—for 2009 that you’re methodically implementing now, in the waning stage of 2008?

You’d better, or 2009 may find you making a proverbial 10-foot leap over a 12-foot ditch. Here are five smart strategies to consider:

Choose your future; don’t let it “happen.” Industry leaders agree that the final quarter of 2008 is the time to implement tiered strategies and tactics that will allow you to hit the ground running in 2009.

“If you believe that flipping a calendar page on Dec. 31 means you’re safe, sound and free from 2008’s challenges, you’re sadly mistaken,” says Sam Rothschild, vice president of franchise operations for Applebee’s International. “You’d better be absolutely clear right now on what specific changes are necessary, how you’ll implement them, and what difference those changes will measurably have on your people, performance and profits.”

If you’re shell-shocked and battered by the past year’s rise in prices and drop in patronage, you’re not alone. But it’s time to dust ourselves off, study the environment keenly and make the necessary moves and adjustments now that will position us to weather and overcome the challenges of 2009.

Get out in front of change. The first priority of any business is survival. How will continued economic and marketplace pressure affect yours? Most signs indicate that 2009 will likely resemble grim 2008 more than giddy 2005. Strategically, expect and account for continued commodity price jumps, new complexity in the marketplace, and ambiguous behavior both from customers and competitors. Re-examine menu prices and profit margins, look at ways to reduce costs (and communicate cost awareness), identify potential cash bottlenecks, examine how capital is employed in your company, and define “musts” versus “wants.”

Don’t be surprised or unprepared. Do something now. You can’t be like the kid with a plate of Brussels sprouts who knows he has to eat them eventually, but he doesn’t mind waiting.

Ask and answer the following questions: What are the three most important challenges our company will face in 2009? How do we know? Is our knowledge and insight based on fact, “feel” or both? What are the three most important changes we are going to make as a company in 2009? Is our entire team clear on the tactics, goals and reasons why? What are we going to do in October, November and December to be best prepared for Jan. 1?

Develop talent scaffolds across units, crews and managers. Despite what a P&L can indicate (torture numbers and they’ll confess to anything), your company’s continued success in 2009 and beyond is dependent less on cost control than it is on leadership development. Your ability to create and sustain an effective “talent scaffold” across your units is the linchpin to both enrich and enable continued growth. But the hard truth is that this is much easier said than done.

In the rampant pursuit of scalable “systems and efficiencies” over the last decade we’ve also created scalable “management” at the unit level. This is a slippery slope that has sadly transformed many general managers and their assistant managers into technicians overseeing processes rather than leaders developing people.

Our unit managers are drowning in information, but starving for knowledge. They have grueling hours, aggressive budgets, endless LTOs and burgeoning crew turnover rates to “manage” daily. Not surprisingly, they’re exhausted, wired, tired and beat. We wring the energy out of them, leaving those committed GMs to either recharge or burn out, and then we invest precious time seeking replacements, time that would have been better spent helping the managers develop and grow.

This sick cycle is not the way to enter a challenging new year. The talent-driven company works daily at patiently developing its managers and crew, helping them master time and activity management and minimizing the emotional labor they absorb and endure. Remove de-motivators (ask your managers what they are), and try this new rule on for size: Assign no new responsibility to any unit manager unless you simultaneously take an old one away.

Assess linkage and replicate success. Be both interested in and inquisitive about cause-and-effect relationships at every level. Ask and assess: “Why are my strong stores strong? Why are my weak stores weak?” Replicate the strengths and minimize the weaknesses across the system. You should have done this two years ago, but better late than never.

Actions speak louder than words. Here’s some final advice that’s as straightforward as a left jab: If better communication and training is not your top priority in 2009, then all of your other priorities are at risk. Knowing what you need to do is worthless if it isn’t translated into action. Preach what you practice daily and hold people accountable for results, starting now.

Certainly you can’t expect to have all the answers, but don’t let uncertainty be an excuse for inaction. Change becomes a necessity when we try not to do it. Your 2009 “success factor” may well depend on how you answer a simple question: “Which is stronger in our company: the discipline to prepare or our resistance to change?”

When the industry eventually strengthens once again, remember this lesson well: Manage in good times as if they were bad and you will always be ahead of the curve.

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