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Popeyes CEO’s advice to women? Be your authentic self and produce results

Coming from an extensive career in branding, Cheryl Bachelder climbed the ranks at Procter and Gamble and KFC before joining fried chicken rival Popeyes as CEO in 2007. She is clear about her passions: learning, rich brands, and good leadership.

Cheryl is the author of Dare to Serve, and actively practises what she calls “servant leadership,” with the goal to cultivate high quality leaders. It’s a strategy that works. Since taking over Popeyes, not only have stocks risen from $13 to nearly $60, she has also drastically improved relations with franchise owners, with 2500 Popeyes locations across 26 countries (and growing).

We sat down with Cheryl to learn more about her path to the c-suite, and how her leadership style has led to positive business results.

As told to Meghan Jeffery


When you entered the field of brand management 35 years ago, did you think it would be a lifelong career?  What attracted you to the industry?

My fascination was with the customer and why they do the things they do. I studied sociology and traditional marketing tools to figure out the customer. I was just fascinated by human beings, and I still am. I was very drawn to marketing and innovation. Brand management provided many opportunities to take brands, either established or new, and create an exciting platform for their growth. Once I found brand management, I felt like I found my space. My big career shift was into retail when I joined the restaurant business. That was a real game changer for me; learning how to understand, lead, and motivate franchise owners was the new challenge, but I never looked back.


Did you design your career with the goal of becoming a CEO, or was it an opportunity that arose without specifically planning for it?

I was not a person that had a long-term plan that was incredibly specific. I always thought in 3-5 year time frames and I was usually just looking at the next job; what that looks like and do I think I would enjoy that. What I found myself really attracted to was the opportunity to lead teams. I definitely saw an increase in responsibility first in taking on more tasks with multiple brands at Procter in Gamble, then in general management at Nibisco, and then finally my first big role as president at KFC in 2001. I think I always just looked one job ahead and looked for that next challenge.


Can you pinpoint a time in your life when you realized that you were a leader?

I was the oldest of four children so my siblings started pointing out that I was a leader at a very young age. They were not very happy about my leadership and I probably would have been characterized as the bossy older sister. I was also the oldest of my cousins, so my first leadership memory was when we did a play at a family reunion and I was always the producer. My sister said I made her a tree and she wasn’t very happy about that, but she had no singing voice so she couldn’t be in my musical. I always had the oldest child type leadership behaviours, and I think I learned to use them more wisely with time.

In business, one of the things I liked about brand management is that you were the leader of a brand at a very young age. My first brand leadership role was at Gillette when I was roughly 26 years old. I had profit and loss responsibility for a business, and innovation responsibility for that particular brand. I think I sought out a career field that gave you a lot of leadership opportunity for impact at a young age.


It sounds like your family would have supported your direction, given your leadership skills at a young age.

My family is interesting because my parents raised four business leaders. I attribute it to a few things. They always encouraged us to be well educated. They encouraged us to do things that we loved and were good at. The only discouraging thing my father said to me was “Cheryl, I don’t think you’re going to be a gymnast.” Well, I’m 6’1 so that’s a pretty good guess. They’re very encouraging and they always gave us educational opportunities. My parents had three daughters and one son, and my father encouraged us all the same. I don’t think my sisters and I even thought there was something we couldn’t try. He was our biggest fan.

One thing I notice today is when I talk with senior men who have daughters. They start to think about their daughters entering the workforce, and the opportunities for them. I think that’s caused a tremendous amount of change for senior executive men.


Your book, Dare to Serve, provides a framework for embracing effective leadership. What made you decide to write this guide?

I wanted to document an alternative approach to leadership. It’s traditionally been called “servant leadership”, which is not very well understood. The motive behind it is that I was not all that impressed with the type of leaders that I saw in my career. In the 80s and the 90s we saw a lot of very self-absorbed leaders, very ambitious, but mostly for themselves so that they could have boats and planes and houses and wives. It just wasn’t a stellar bunch of people. I really believed there was a better way to lead. I was very influenced by books like Good to Great by Jim Collins who documented that leaders who were more humble and more focused on others actually created superior performance results. There’s another more recent book called Give and Take by Adam Grant that makes the same thesis again, but there are very few practitioners.

I wanted to help people understand that serving is not soft and weak or about group hugs – it is about creating opportunity for people to grow to their potential, perform their best, and for the organization to perform. Popeyes is a top tier performing company, and I always say you can’t serve people well and be an ill performing company.


Can you explain servant leadership?

Our version of servant leadership includes being very bold and courageous about where you take your business, and your people, but having the humility to serve them well along the way and take them into account. In our case, our franchisees are our number one focus and we hold ourselves accountable to their success. Their success is the measure of our success. We wanted to be a top performer so that people would take this idea seriously. There’s no credibility to talk about your leadership approach if it doesn’t produce results. Today on Wall Street we talk about our leadership approach and get interesting questions, even amongst our competitors. Very few franchisors have healthy relationships with their owners. Our owners rate our leadership 95% satisfaction; it’s the highest in the industry. We receive this because we collaborate with them and we deliver good results. We want to stand apart. We want to be a beacon on the industry about a better way to lead.


You have been the CEO of Popeye’s for eight years, joining the brand when it was rather stagnant and had strained relations between the company and franchise owners. Under your leadership, franchise numbers have been growing each year, and relations between corporate and franchise owners are improving. What is the key ingredient in this success?

We’ve written down six principals we think are key to building that strong partnership, and the first three are the ones I think are the most important to this conversation. The first is that we respect passion. Franchise owners are passionate and they care immensely. The second is that we’re fact based and planful. Facts and plans are the governors of your emotion, so we make decisions based on strong research and hard facts, not personal opinions. We’ve brought profitability facts, market share facts, speed of service facts, and customer feedback facts. It’s not about the franchise owners opinions or our opinions, it’s about the customer and the results. The third is that we listen carefully and learn continuously. If you look at the thought leader in servant leadership about 40 years ago, his name is Robert Greenleaf. He said that listening and learning were probably the two key characteristics to a servant leader, and I’ve come to believe that is absolutely true. The best leaders are those that truly hear, have the ability to turn off their mouth and take feedback, and have the ability to learn. I’ve become extremely passionate about listening and learning skills. I think that might be the most important trait of a great leader.


What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you began leading the company?

The biggest lesson is one I think we have to learn daily which is the power of humility and influencing others.  Humility is not being a doormat. There’s a definition I like of it by C.S. Lewis: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less often.” I’ll give you a specific example. We all do performance reviews and salary reviews. When it comes time for that, whose am I thinking about? Am I thinking about my performance results and my salary increase? Or am I spending a lot of time carefully planning my performance conversations, and wondering if my staff is paid competitively? Going to bat for your employees is hard to do, and it has implications. It costs money and takes time. I spend a third of my week in coaching which is a lot and not the norm. My greatest learning is the daily challenge of just that. I look in the mirror and think, can I filter my decisions through that lens of others and if so, what would I do different? Would I listen more? Would I be more empathetic? Would I go to bat for these people? Would I say thank you more? It leads to a lot of good questions.


”Of course there’s differences in how we’re wired and how we approach things. Gender and humility are not gender specific.”


Have you ever felt your gender has played a role in your career success, whether positive or negative?

Positive and negative. I’ve been promoted too soon because they needed a woman. You should get promoted when you’re ready. You should make sure yourself that you’re not promoted before you have the full competencies you need for a role. I’ve been the first female general manager, the first female president, the first female CEO, a lot of firsts. It primarily puts you in a spotlight. The positive is you get an opportunity, and if you steward it carefully, you can make the most out of that opportunity. The challenge is you’re under a microscope. You can be quickly criticized or punished for your differences or your approach. Or, you may not be given as much time.


What excites you most about the future of your career? What do you still hope to achieve?

My greatest passion now (and part of this is stage of life) is that I would love to leave a band of great leaders that have an impact on our whole industry. My personal purpose is to inspire purpose driven leaders who inspire character and competence in all aspects of their life. I want to encourage people to live lives that are whole and have integrity, and contribute to their communities as well as their workplaces. My great joy comes from seeing leaders grow and prosper, and that’s what I’ll be doing the rest of my given days.


What is your best advice for young women aspiring to a CEO level position?

Focus on getting a wide range of skills and produce results. I encourage women to be their authentic self, but do produce results so you get there on merit. You want to be a legitimate leader. You don’t want anyone saying, “she got there because she’s a woman.” That’s an insult. Gaining a wide range of skills  means taking the risk to go into areas that are not your core competency. I wish I had been in marketing, finance, purchasing, operations; the best general managers are well rounded in their skills sets. It’s much harder to get to the role and do well if your skills are narrow. I’ve always called myself a marketing girl, but today my job is far more about operations and finance, and there are other talented people doing branding innovation and marketing. To aspire to CEO, you’re getting prepared for a very broad sense of responsibility. For women, the company doesn’t always take risks on you, so you have to volunteer for risk. You have to take the tough assignment and turn it around. You have to take the riskier job, the international assignment, maybe the jobs that nobody is raising their hand for. It’s an opportunity for you to grow your skills and become more valuable.  


If I Google you, what interesting fact would I not find?

As a woman leader you very rarely hear anything about my family. I have three girls and a husband, and we’ll be married 35 years in June. No one asks you about that. I’m also a breast cancer survivor.


What was your first job?

I was 12 years old and I taught knitting lessons on Saturday mornings. I was paid in yarn!


How would you define “having it all”?

I actually don’t want to have it all. The people that chase having it all usually get wrecked; it doesn’t always prove to be a happy place. I’m focused on having a few things straight in my life. For me, frankly,  faith and family are the most important things to me. If I desired a legacy, it would be to leave a string of high quality leaders behind. That’s what I want to be remembered for.

The impact you can have as a leader takes time. I’m like a dinosaur in CEO land. I want to finish strong here.”

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