Skip navigation

The 7 stages of high-performing multi-unit leaders

Perhaps because they toil so far from the limelight, or because of their relatively small numbers, or because they are dismissively labeled as “middle management” by unenlightened investors, foodservice multi-unit managers have routinely and unfairly been under-served, over-told and under-taught.

They’re expected to grow their people, performance and profits through pluck, luck, guile and nerve, but often without enough resources, training and clear direction from the owners or executive team. And if they are given succinct plans, Headquarters will frequently rollout untested systems or change directions. It’s time to re-think the developmental road map for multi-unit foodservice leadership.

The multi-unit manager (MUM) position is challenging to say the least. MUMs build brands, fuel growth, raise families, work crazy hours, juggle insane schedules, rack up more miles than a traveling circus, nurture talent and have fun, all while supervising a multi-million dollar business from a combination automobile dashboard, corner booth and home office. They are fast-thinking, numbers-crunching, paper-pushing, service-driven mobile leaders with a brain and a Blackberry as weapons of choice. Most importantly, they are effectively “regional/area CEOs” overseeing six to eight to ten units each that can collectively generate as much as $50 million in their territory alone.

MUMs influence and shape the experience and success of thousands of managers, hundreds of thousands of hourly crew members and millions of customers. And they do it by indirect influence, not hands-on control, a fantastical skill oft-admired but rarely mastered. They embrace technology, pool talent, generate revenue, keep operations safe, deal with acts of God, fit 30 hours in a 24 hour day, and mentor both the delight and demands of Generation Next. And that’s just on Tuesdays.

Most MUMs learn their job the hard way—trial by fire—because their companies lack the resources, patience, or awareness necessary to develop them slowly, prudently, and with guided practice. As a result, most MUMs are promoted on the battlefield, left to the Darwinian development process of “sink-or-swim.” But experience teaches only the teachable. Most survive, many don’t, and it’s a quick learn-by-doing process when your company leaves you to pretty much figure it out on your own. In fact, our research confirms that most foodservice companies invest more time and money training their hourly associates and unit managers than they do their multi-unit managers.

It’s ironic that so little time and effort has gone into the care and nurturing of multi-unit managers when they are in fact the stewards of the Brand in the most important marketplace: the restaurant, where the company meets the customer. So we decided to investigate the best practices of multi-unit leaders. We began our industry-wide research nearly two years ago and we recently completed it by interviewing over 480 high-performing MUMs. They worked for over 35 different and distinct foodservice chains, but they shared seven common growth stages on the learning curve from general manager to multi-unit leader. Let’s look a little deeper at each growth stage this month, and see how your MUMs, (Area Directors, Regional Managers, Franchise Business Consultants) stack up to the industry’s Dream Teams.

Stage 1: Brand Ambassador. This competency is the foundation of successful multi init leadership. A Brand Ambassador both models the way and preaches what they practice. They know that the “Shadow of the Leader” determines the behavior of the team. The best multi-unit managers are standard bearers and culture-keepers who know the way, show the way, and go the way. They excel at both financial data analysis and team performance.

Stage 2: Talent Scout. Building bench strength, and constantly seeking a balance of outside-in and inside–out expertise is a key characteristic of high-performing MUMs. They know they’re hired by the people they report to but fired by the people who report to them.

Stage 3: Servant Leader. A MUM’s achievements are measured by how much or how little the team accomplishes. Servant Leadership is a shared responsibility and framed around a simple notion: “my customer is anyone is who isn’t me.”

Stage 4: Head Coach. The multi-unit manager role is a thinking, not a “doing” job. One of the first things a new MUM realizes is that he or she has just transitioned from hands-on leadership as a general manger to a role which now requires the finesse and discipline of indirect influence. This new role is both challenging and frustrating, because you can not be a successful MUM by doing the same things that made you successful as a general manager. “Super GMs” make poor multi unit leaders. A Head Coach stresses the fundamentals daily, gives managers s-t-r-e-t-c-h goals (not too hard, not too easy), and is “thoughtfully unreasonable” from time to time. They resist the urge to do it themselves, opting instead for the more time-intensive--but greater payback--approach of guidance, thoughtful inquiry, and personalized development of both GMs and junior managers.

Stage 5: Marketing Guru. The best MUMs are always marketing for a simple reason: they know that all restaurants are sales-controlled, but unfortunately, not all restaurants are sales-driven. They understand the difference between--and the importance of--preventive, external and internal marketing (which we discussed in this column two months ago.) Connecting each restaurant to their community is a core element of any successful MUM’s DNA. It’s what keeps you in business and the competition out of it.

Stage 6: Synergist. Here’s what high-performing MUMs should be synergizing: 1) The Company to the Customer, 2) Employees to training, 3)Training to performance, 4) Specialized knowledge to shared integration, 5) Goals to strategy, and 6) Talent, tools and resources to execution. The Synergist knows that the nature of all meaningful restaurant visits is developmental, not “inspection,” and that they are visiting people, not “stores.”

Stage 7: Goal Getter. The world does not pay for what a person knows, but it pays for what a person does with what they know. Execution is everything. In the real world, results, not “effort” calls for rewards. Only in Little League do they reward effort for its own sake. So the Goal Getter stage focuses on bridging the knowing-to-doing gap by getting incrementally better every day at being a role-model, brand-builder, talent-scout, coach, self-starter and achiever.

Being a multi unit manager is like wearing a Speedo at the beach. Anyone can, but not everyone should. It takes a special mindset, skill set and determination. MUMs are true brand architects, today’s change agents and tomorrow’s CEOs. It’s time to invest in both the nature and nurture of our multi-unit managers, area directors, and franchise business consultants. Who on your team—if not MUMs--are more deserving of leadership skill enhancement? What better level of supervision to invest in, get better at, and build strong bunkers of leadership in? Which level of leadership delivers the greatest return-on-investment?

MUM’s the word.

Jim Sullivan is CEO of, and is a popular speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. Learn more tips on managing employees by visiting Sullivision on NRN.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.