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what-makes-a-covid-leader.jpg Ezra Bailey / Stone
Former leaders from Popeyes, Miller's Ale House, Dunkin' Brands and more gather to discuss leadership and mentoring the next generation.

What makes a great COVID-19 leader? Restaurant industry titans from Dunkin’ Brands, Popeyes and P.F. Chang's provide tips

Cheryl Bachelder, Rick Federico, Alice Elliot, Phil Hickey and Jon Luther speak about leading in a crisis during Restaurants Rise powered by MUFSO

When it comes to leading in a crisis, the best executives rise to the occasion because they’ve been trained how to face known industry challenges. 

But how do you lead when the enemy is invisible — and something no one has ever faced before?

That was the theme of Thursday’s keynote session at Restaurants Rise powered by MUFSO. A panel of industry titans and past Norman Brinker winners gave their insights during a discussion led by Phil Hickey, chairman of Miller's Ale House Restaurants.

The session, sponsored by Ecolab, featured Cheryl Bachelder, Rick Federico, Alice Elliot and Jon Luther. The veteran leaders provided insights as to what makes a great leader -- characteristics that should come to life in a crisis like this year’s pandemic. 

“Anyone can lead. But there are certain traits of people who are courageous, particularly with COVID, which was unexpected,” said Elliot, founder and CEO of The Elliot Group. “Let's be very clear here. No one has a compass point as to where we're going and how this is going to end. So, it really requires leadership.”

Elliot, whose firm identifies and develops restaurant industry leaders, said great leaders are selfless.

“I think of someone who is courageous who not only makes the right and tough decisions, but the decisions they make really emulate more for the global enterprise then for themself,” she said. 

That person not only has to be courageous but must also have “tremendous communication skills” because transparency is crucial in a crisis. 

alice-elliot-1.jpg“They [leaders] let people understand what's happening, but they do it in a fashion that gives people confidence, because again, with COVID, in particular, it's something that we can’t see,” she said. “So unlike other challenges, where you can point to something, this is something that I think it's been very hard for a lot of people as they've led their great organizations.”

Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, agreed.

She said now is the time for caring and calm leaders.

Calm is contagious, but chaos can be too. So, choose the former, she said.

“As leaders, I think what our teams need from us during this time is clarity and constant communication,” she said.

Bachelder, who serves on the board of Chick-fil-A, said caring is also vital. It gives employees confidence when they need it the most. She gave an example of what Chick-fil-A did during the pandemic.

“They decided midway to send every employee a care package,” she said. “And it was full of fun little toys. It was full of cow masks, hand sanitizer and encouraging words. And that's what a company does that cares about their people.”

cheryl-bachelder.jpgBeing in the moment is good, but great executives must also look to the future during challenging times, the panelists said.

“They look ahead and recognize the decisions they make today will have a far-reaching impact for tomorrow,” Elliot said.

Federico, former chief executive of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, said COVID has underscored one of his guiding principles when it comes to leading in a crisis. 

He said great leaders must take a step back and look at opportunities to improve the business. 

Spend time, he said, “with your team and sort of visualize what we can become.”

“There's going to be a lot of speed bumps along the way but the ability to actually look and start to get creative around what new opportunities might be out there for ourselves, for our leaders in our businesses, I think is really important,” said Federico, who serves on the boards of Domino’s Pizza and True Food Kitchen.

Bachelder said “every crisis is an opportunity to reinvent yourself and your company.” 

jon-luther.jpgLuther, former CEO of Dunkin' Brands, said resiliency is another key trait of a great leader. 

“They see the issue. They see the problem. They assess,” he said.

That resiliency allows them to make decisions that keep the trains on the right track. 

“And resiliency gives them the courage to stand up in front of all the people they are responsible for because leadership is a noble endeavor,” Luther said. “It means that you have the responsibility to each and every person that touches your business or your brand, not just the shareholder.”

Watch the session here.

Title sponsors for MUFSO include the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo Foodservice and Johnsonville Foodservice.

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @fastfoodmaven

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