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The architect of Chipotle’s success on why leading with love is key

Monty Moran, the company’s former co-CEO, shares his leadership philosophy with NRN — and explains why it was critical to Chipotle’s meteoric rise


Culture is a big buzzword in the restaurant industry, and especially so in the midst of a labor crisis where employee retention and recruitment is everything. How can restaurant leaders build a company culture that eases labor pressures and develops the leaders of tomorrow?

Monty Moran has an idea. The former co-CEO of Chipotle helped that company rocket to the restaurant industry’s upper echelons by creating a people-first business model. In his recent book, “Love is Free. Guac is Extra,” Monty shares the secrets to that success — and he’s following that up next month with a keynote address at CREATE: The Future of Foodservice.

In this interview with NRN editor in chief Sam Oches, Moran shared why strong leadership and culture are so critical to restaurants today. (Want more from Monty Moran? Register for CREATE today!)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Check out the full interview on Take-Away with Sam Oches.

The tagline to your book is “How vulnerability, empowerment and curiosity built an unstoppable team.” Why do you think vulnerability is so important to leadership, particularly in the restaurant industry?

The only source of a leader's power is that other people choose to follow. That's one thing I think that's very important just to say at the outset. What I mean by that is, I mean to differentiate leadership and management entirely. Management really is about getting someone to do something you want them to do, and it's coercive and it's manipulative. If we think about management techniques, rewards, punishments, carrots, sticks, metrics, performance reviews, these things are usually designed to poke and prod, pull and push a human being to perform in a way we'd like them to perform, and that is not effective.

Leadership, on the other hand, is about getting someone to do something that they themselves want to do that's in furtherance of your mission. Since the only source of a leader's power is that other people choose to follow, then, you might ask, why on earth would they choose to follow one person over another? Or maybe more personally, why would they choose to follow you? [A person] would never choose to follow someone unless they believe that that person was authentic, was a real person, cared about them, knew them, took the time to see them, value them, understand them and wanted something good for them, wanted to help that person become the best version of themselves.

The only way to care for someone is to know them and value them and come to understand them. And in order to do all that, you've got to access your actual self; you've got to stop, be present and actually allow yourself to understand them. And that means you've got to be authentic. You've got to be vulnerable. You've got to bring yourself to the meeting with them. You can't just be checking a box.

How difficult was this to implement into the culture of a company that was up and running by the time you got there, but then also to scale it as you grew?

The thing that was easiest was convincing entry level employees that this was the right way to build a better culture and a better society and a better world. I think that young people tend to get this really quick; they go, “Wow, yes, of course,” because they haven't been indoctrinated into a system of the coercive and manipulative management styles that a lot of people who are older or more experienced have seen or been taught or been recommended to follow. And so the easiest part was to get new people to the organization to understand it and believe in it and be excited about it.

The hardest part was to convince senior level executives who had been taught a lot about how to manage people, and they said, “Hey, we’ve got these management techniques. We’ve got these employee management systems.” Yeah, but really, none of those employee management systems have any concept of actually caring about a human being, of actually leading with love, about actually wanting what's best for someone else.

It’s important to note, though, when I say leading with love, leading with love doesn't just mean, “Oh it's all beautiful. It's all comfortable.” Leading with love does entail discipline. It doesn't entail being tough. It does entail having high standards, for sure, and this is why I always described the Restaurateur program at Chipotle as being a group of top performers who are empowered to achieve high standards. This wasn't just cute and fuzzy; it was intense. This was hard work. This was delivering a measurable and phenomenal result.

You were co-CEO of Chipotle before the pandemic and you wrote the book before the pandemic. How important do you think this kind of culture is for seasons of crisis like this pandemic has been?

Culture is critical for crisis situations because when you come into a crisis situation, the biggest question as to whether your company will make it or not is how committed each individual person in that company is towards achieving the mission and vision of the company. Are they personally committed? Do they actually believe in it in their own heart and soul? And if they do, they're going to keep working towards it. They'll look at the crisis as simply an obstacle that they will overcome.

If you're just managing people, and they're only doing something because you told them to do it and because you're manipulating them to do it or carrots-and-sticking them to do it, so to speak, then when a crisis comes, they'll jump ship if they can. They'll look for somewhere else to go.

What are some key things that emerging restaurant leaders should be doing right now to make sure that they get their culture and leadership model right?

I would say first and foremost that the culture they create from day one has to be their top priority. When they bring someone into the organization, they have to immediately share with that person a vision that isn't just their vision as the founder, but is a vision that includes, in an inextricable way, that person they're talking to. “I'm hiring you not because I need people. I'm hiring you because I need you, because I need your special skills and experiences. And here's what I want to achieve. Here’s why I believe it will be an incredible experience for you and your personal life to be part of achieving this as well.”

There’s nothing more powerful in someone’s mind than to be needed, and to feel valuable — for me to let you know I need you, that I care about you, that I want to help you become your best, while we both together achieve this vision and mission that I want to achieve.

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