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8 ways to leverage training and minimize turnover

8 ways to leverage training and minimize turnover

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at foodservice leadership conferences worldwide. His newest book Fundamentals is available at Amazon or Check out his leadership video series at This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

Jim Sullivan chief executive Jim Sullivan

In my last three columns, I have focused on the foodservice industry’s turnover crisis: our annual hourly employee churn is about 100 percent. 

This rate is unsustainable for continued growth, untenable for manager tenure and unnecessary for forward-thinking operators. Simply put, if your labor strategy is focused solely on how to get the most out of people while paying them as little as possible, you’re playing a zero-sum game.  

So what are the best companies doing relative to hiring and onboarding to reduce employee turnover? Read my last two columns for 14 different best practices on the topic.

This month, let’s discuss how training relates to turnover and share a few best practices to better engage and retain our new and veteran team members.

Culture first, process second. “The only thing we have is one another. The only competitive advantage we have is the culture and values of the company,” says Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks. “Anyone can open up a coffee store. We have no technology, no patent. All we have is the relationship around the values of the company and what we bring to the customer every day. And we all have to own it.” 

The goal of an effective training program is to instill and align company culture, not simply to infuse a process. Process can be looked up. Identify the five or 10 keystone cultural behaviors that all employees should share (like empathy, teamwork, customer service, communication, etc.) and redesign your training program to reinforce those skills. Determine first what you stand for and then what you should do to stand out.

Questions are the answers. Brand execs could ask themselves a simple question to help solve the turnover crisis: “What kind of company would have employees fighting to get into it, not fighting to stay out of it?” At Facebook, job     candidates are asked the following question: "On your very best day at work — the day you come home and think you have the best job in the world — what did you do that day?” Document the responses and incorporate those behaviors into your supervisor’s and teammates development program. 

Stay interviews. Ten years ago, the concept of “exit interviews” was all the rage, a process designed to assess why employees leave companies. Roy Hinojosa, a division president at Golden Corral, has a different perspective: “I think it’s much more important to know, at regular intervals, why our people are staying with us. The more we understand what’s most valuable to them, the better we can provide more of that, and keep them with us longer. That’s why regular ‘stay’ interviews, to me, are much more valuable than an exit interview.”

Educate, don’t lecture. Take a good, hard look at the tone and timbre of your operations training materials. Is the voice you’re using in your videos, e-learning and position manuals collegial or patriarchal in tone? Is there a subtext of mutual reciprocity and caring or are you talking down to trainees? Uncertain? Read a couple of pages out loud. You’ll know the answer.

Fix the disconnect. Do you sit new hires down with a GM who pumps them up for 45 minutes about how awesome the company is, and then send them off to HR for a few hours of paperwork that commences with a detailed checklist of all the ways they might get fired? 

YThis simple formula means we should first teach team members WHY a topic is important before we teach them “What” to do and “How” to do it. If I want a server to merchandise the menu, for example, I would spend an hour helping them understand the low profit margin in foodservice operations, then a half hour each on how to suggestively sell and what to suggestively sell. Knowing why helps associates leap the learning-to-doing gap. 

Blended learning. “Kids’ brains are being digitally rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal,” says Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo. “That means they’re totally out of sync in traditional classes, which are analog, static, and interactively passive.” Does that sound like your corporate training program? Probably yes. 

The fact that the most popular YouTube videos average 2.5 minutes, and that a top-ranked 30-minute TV show is designed in seven-minute long arcs should tell us all something about attention spans and audience engagement. Re-assess how you train your franchisees, managers, and hourly associates. Shorten your lectures, Power Point decks, and videos. Instruct in chunks, or what I call info-nuggets, and please, skinny the monologue and fatten the dialogue. New employees learn best in teams and by doing things for real, which is often the opposite of what most corporate training does. Take a clear-eyed assessment of your current training program and find ways to blend learning styles into it.
Eliminate bloat. Have you considered the cumulative systemwide labor savings to be had by culling your bloated or redundant training content and courses? Do a thorough audit of your current training curriculum for every position, and honestly assess what’s relevant, irrelevant or outdated. Then identify ways to make it tighter and better. I don’t mean indiscriminate course-cutting, but rather a measured and thoughtful assessment and determination of better ways to communicate. Hire an instructional designer to help you align content to how adults learn.    

One of the more popular presentations I do for foodservice leaders at conferences is called “Foodservice 2021: Five Big Changes & Five Big Obstacles We’ll Face in the Next Five Years.” The topic and content is compelling because it shares cutting-edge and best-demonstrated practices in operations today, while offering a realistic look at how technology will transform service, marketing, management and training tomorrow. I tell audiences that If you really want to understand what our business is going to be like in five years, don’t ask a futurist, or a scientist, or a physicist. Ask a middle school teacher. How we learn shapes every new generation and the better you align with the advances in teaching the better you develop your future leaders. Many foodservice brands have grasped the competitive advantage of transforming training to transform their teams. And they’re seeing lower turnover, higher tenure and happier customers as a result. So in that regard, the future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed.

Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at foodservice leadership conferences worldwide. You can get his training catalog of resources at and follow him on LinkedIn, YouTube or Twitter @Sullivision.

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