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Ask Jill! Unlocking the culture code for restaurant brands

How leaders can shape the organizational DNA for their companies.

In the bustling world of restaurants and hospitality, company culture is the central keystone for success. The behind-the-scenes force shapes the behaviors, attitudes, and interactions within an organization. While it’s seemingly “behind-the-scenes,” it needs to be front and center and felt clearly by your customers and employees.

As I speak with restaurant owners and industry leaders, I am consistently asked, “How important is it to have your executive team shape your company culture?” And most importantly, “How do we get the current leadership to unite around this ‘people-first’ value so they will lead by example?” Let’s tackle these great questions. 

I agree wholeheartedly with the definition of leadership by McKinsey and Company: “Leadership is a set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization.” So, for the first question of how important it is to have your executive team shape your company culture, the resounding answer is that it is critical. It is a given that there can be no unified, definable company culture without the top leadership and management consistently guiding the way and living those values in their behaviors. Their actions are being observed, noted, and copied by their staff. If they behave contrary to the values and expectations set forth for the employees, there can be no expectation for them to behave and perform any differently. Simply put, there cannot be a double standard of “do as I say, not as I do.”

These expectations are true throughout our lives, whether in the workplace, from our elected officials, in parenting, from leaders and teachers in schools, etc. We have previously established this value in our country’s culture and work environments. It is a goal for which to strive to have absolute buy-in by those looking to leadership for guidance and motivation.

So, yes, your executive team is pivotal in shaping your company culture. They are the ones to establish the organization’s DNA, whether one restaurant or hundreds. If there is any dissension on the alignment of what that culture is and how it is expressed within the business, I suggest getting some outside support from someone who has an objective perspective to help you get clarity and align your executive leadership to avoid the disconnect and chaos that will ensue the farther one goes down the line of operations (not to mention across multiple stores for franchises and multi-concept restaurants under the same management umbrella). This is then felt by your employees, whose disgruntlement will be passed along to your end customers because, how could it not? We’re all human, and our moods and emotions are felt by others. It influences how employees interact with each other, approach their work, and ultimately, how they serve customers. A vibrant culture fosters employee engagement, enhances productivity, and improves customer satisfaction.
Cultivating and maintaining a positive company culture requires more than just setting values and expectations — it demands strong leadership to set the tone. I cannot express enough how pivotal the role of leadership is in shaping and sustaining company culture. Let's now look at how effective leadership can drive a thriving culture within restaurants and beyond across all hospitality areas where restaurants exist.

Understanding the Essence of Company Culture

Company culture encompasses the shared values, beliefs, behaviors, and practices that define an organization's identity. As per the above definition, it must also include strategic plans established by leadership for these characteristics to come to life.

Shaping Culture Through Leadership

  1. Leading by Example: Leadership sets the tone for the entire organization. Leaders must embody the values they espouse and exemplify the desired behaviors. Whether it's demonstrating empathy, promoting transparency, or fostering innovation, leaders serve as role models for employees to emulate. When leaders align their actions with the cultural values, they inspire trust and commitment among their teams. Think back to a time or scenario where you had a teacher, a coach or a boss that not only inspired you (emotionally), but also motivated you (actionably) to replicate their lead and to strive to be better at whatever it was you were learning. Did it make you want to give more to your effort? A successful business has leaders that don’t just create emotional “feel good moments” though important, but they also motivate you to be the best you personally and professionally. They influence you to want to choose to go above and beyond.
  2. Clear Communications: Effective communication lies at the heart of building a strong culture. Leaders must articulate the company's vision, mission, and values consistently, both verbally and in daily consistent activities. Transparent communication fosters employees' sense of belonging and clarity, reinforcing cultural norms. Transparent communication builds trust, which is the solid foundation upon which every strong, healthy relationship is built. Moreover, leaders should encourage open dialogue, actively listen to employee feedback, and address concerns promptly to nurture a culture of trust and collaboration. And conversely, the lack of clear and open communication will lead to disengagement, with everyone only looking out for themselves, and a breakdown in the productive process for successful teamwork.
  3. Empowering Employees: Great leaders empower their teams to contribute meaningfully to the organization's success. The third “E” in my E3 + 1 Recipe, Entrust, for great leadership and teamwork, allows owners and executive management to regain their lives. How? By entrusting and empowering your people! Great leadership emphasizes the importance of autonomy and empowerment in shaping culture. Once you trust your employees, you must fully empower them to make independent decisions in the company's best interests for all involved. Leaders foster a culture of pride in ownership and accountability by delegating authority, encouraging initiative, and recognizing achievements. When employees feel valued and empowered, they are more motivated to uphold the cultural values and deliver exceptional service.

Sustaining Culture Through Leadership

  1. Continuous Consistent Reinforcement: Sustaining a positive culture requires ongoing reinforcement from leadership. Leaders must embed cultural values into every aspect of the organization, from hiring and onboarding to performance evaluations and recognition programs. By consistently emphasizing the importance of culture, and by applying culture curriculum through daily behaviors, leaders reinforce its significance and ensure its integration into daily operations. It is up to the leadership to continually renew the organization, to keep the energy high and fresh by reinforcing the benefits of a positive company culture.
  2. Adaptability and Resilience: Adaptability is essential for cultural sustainability in today's dynamic and ever-changing business landscape. Leaders must be agile and responsive to change, guiding their teams through challenges while preserving the culture's core values. Whether facing industry shifts, economic downturns, or unforeseen crises, resilient leadership fosters a sense of stability and confidence, enabling the culture to endure. This confidence exhibited by leadership when they zig and zag as needed with small shifts to remain current and relevant will increase the retention of already vetted quality talent that is right for your culture.
  3. Investing in the Development of Your People: Developing future leaders is integral to sustaining culture over the long term. To build a strong team, leaders must see someone else’s strength as a complement to their weakness, not a threat to their position or authority. I strongly advocate investing in leadership development programs that nurture talent and cultivate a pipeline of capable leaders throughout your business architecture's hierarchy. If you follow my work, you’ll often hear me say, “Develop leaders at every level” (of your business). This means from the dishwasher up, look for the aptitude and attitude of your people. Find their strengths. By providing opportunities for growth, mentorship, and skill enhancement, organizations ensure continuity in leadership and their people assets, while preserving the cultural legacy for generations to come.

In the realm of restaurant and hospitality, leadership serves as the linchpin in shaping and maintaining a vibrant company culture. Effective leadership will not rest on their laurels. They will always continue to learn and grow themselves. Leaders can steer their organizations toward a culture of excellence and resilience by leading by example, fostering clear communication, empowering employees, and embracing adaptability. As the heartbeat of the organization, leadership plays a pivotal role in nurturing a culture that thrives amidst challenges through flexibility with a positive, optimistic outlook, which will endure through time.

To build a strong team, you must see someone else’s strength as a complement to your weakness, not a threat to your position or authority. Good teamwork is crucial to business success, and great leadership for those teams and team leads is non-negotiable. To create a team environment where everyone understands the ubiquitous “No I in Team” concept, be sure to offer the right inspiration and motivation because to achieve anything great in business; it must be done by a team of people, that is led by an amazing ego-free leader who invests all of their knowledge and experience into the greater team.

To sum it up, my favorite quote by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro is, “Individually, we are one drop. But, together, we are an ocean.” And as JFK said, “All ships rise with the tide.” Those ships must be captained by strong, selfless leaders with high emotional intelligence who inspire and motivate their people by living out the company's values, vision, and mission for all to see and hear consistently.

What questions do you have about developing your restaurant’s company culture? What challenges are you facing? Get your ‘culture questions’ answered! Be the next one to have your culture concerns highlighted in the next Ask Jill! Develop Your Company Culture Article. 

Email me your question or just connect directly at [email protected]  


Jill Raff is the globally recognized EX2CX Advisor, working with executive leaders who recognize the paradigm shift: the non-negotiable creation of a more humanized culture prioritizing their people. She helps organizations that recognize their people are their greatest asset but need help creating new systems and procedures to develop the culture resulting in higher retention and greater productivity. Companies experience employee and customer lifetime value using her methodology connecting the employee experience (EX) to the customer experience (CX) — EX2CX. 

Jill grew up working with her parents, owner/operators of McDonald's franchises, starting with store No. 150. Her customer service philosophy of Transforming Transactions Into Interactions starting with the employee originated from observing her parent's work and their interactions with legendary founder Ray Kroc. EX and CX is in Jill’s DNA. Based on her diverse background working in multiple industries — and living in 7 countries — Jill developed her Inside-Out Framework based on her “3+1 Recipe” to build a culture creating attraction and retention, often described as “where McDonald’s & Michelin meet.” Contact her at [email protected].

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