Tony Bridwell, Chief People Officer at Brinker International, and Argyle’s Tricia Williams discussed the importance of culture in an organization and how to best develop team leadership.
Tricia Williams: Can you start by giving us a little background on your career before assuming the role of Chief People Officer at Brinker International?
Tony Bridwell: Before coming here, I was a lead consultant and a business unit president for Partners in Leadership, where we primarily focused on culture, accountability and leadership development. Prior to that, my background was in architecture and theology, believe it or not.
On your blog “Connect Serve Give” you talk a lot about developing yourself as a leader. How do you encourage your Brinker employees to grow as leaders? And how has that impacted the culture of your company?
Developing a team is a top focus of ours as well as any organization, and that development I believe begins with me. So if you look at our organization, we have four clearly defined results that we’re focused on. We want to provide a good guest experience. We want to provide a good team member experience. We obviously are a publicly traded company, so we need to drive sales and profits for our shareholders and stakeholders. In those key results is a goal for team members around being engaged and being developed.
So being accountable for personal results and taking accountability to find ways to develop yourself is critical. It begins with me and it permeates through all 55,000 of our team members across the country. Internally, we place a great deal of focus on development conversations, and one of the initiatives I undertook when I started was to do away with all performance reviews. We looked at them and realized that the review process is basically a look backwards at all the things that you did in the last year, while our culture has taken us to the point that we should be having those conversations on a regular basis. We should be having these conversations in a timely manner as we go throughout our day, our week, our month or the quarter. And the amount of time that we were spending once a year to take this look back wasn’t productive, so we replaced them with development conversations that happened real-time in the moment, and they look forward.
So conversations where you are saying, “Hey you’re doing that well, I want to encourage you, here’s where you can do better,” are happening in the moment now, and we have very deliberate development conversations throughout the year. I’ve talked to several of my peers who have said they wished they could do away with performance reviews. Quite frankly, we were able to get there because our culture was so strong it allowed us to make that change. So we’ve been very focused on developing our people, and those development conversations are critical in what we do.
"Being accountable for personal results and taking accountability to find ways to develop yourself is critical. It begins with me and it permeates through all 55,000 of our team members across the country."
You are also the author of the book, “The Difference Maker: A Simple Fable About Making a Difference in the Lives of Others.” How do you strive to make a difference in the lives of your employees, and how important do you think that is as an executive in a large company such as Brinker?
Again, it all starts with me. No matter what level you are in any organization, I believe that you should treat others the way that you want to be treated in return. That’s just a core, fundamental belief that I have. If I was to sum that up in one word it would be “love,” which carries a lot of baggage. In today’s society, it can be taken into several different contexts, but I believe that having this mindset as a leader that each person needs to be treated with dignity and respect – and the fact that I need to be able to care for others as much if not more than I care for myself – is a vital component for any person, and especially for leaders.
The challenge is that as leaders move up the ladder, we often forget that core principle that’s inside each and every one of us. My belief is very simple: being a senior leader carries a great burden to demonstrate to other people that there is a dignity and an honor and a caring for others as humans and as just individuals. We bear that burden as senior executives, so I think it’s incredibly important. The nice thing about Brinker is that idea of caring for others, of treating others as we want to be treated, is in our DNA. Our passion is to make others feel special. We are in the hospitality business, so it’s very easy in this organization to demonstrate that on a daily basis because that’s how we’re wired. If you come into our restaurants and you’re having a bad day, our goal is to have you leave that restaurant in a better spot than when you came in. So caring for others to make them feel special is critical to me personally, but I believe that if a leader carries that forward, they’ll see great returns in the future.
"No matter what level you are in any organization, I believe that you should treat others the way that you want to be treated in return."
You’ve mentioned a lot about your culture at Brinker and how strong it is, while the past five years have seen large growth and change there, specifically around that culture. What are you most proud of regarding these changes and what difference have they made in the overall organization?
There have been some really important changes in the last five years. Casual dining took it on the chin pretty hard when the economy shifted in 2008-2009, so the returns that we have given our shareholders over the last five years are certainly something that we’re very proud of. For instance, when I first walked in the doors here in 2008, our stock was trading in single digits, somewhere around $3 to $4 dollars a share, whereas now, it’s trading at $51. So being able to take the business and literally turn it around into something that is very sustainable is something we are proud of. Meanwhile, we also started on this journey in 2008-2009 to deliberately work on our culture to make it stronger as an organization and give us a competitive advantage in the marketplace today.
But at the end of the day, if you ask me what I am proudest of, I would say it’s the impact that our work on personal and professional accountability has had on our team members. Every week, I get an email or a written card or a voicemail from a team member on how they are so appreciative of the fact that we are giving them tools to improve their lives. That is my favorite achievement both personally and as an organization.
I know that’s made a huge difference in the lives of a lot people that work at Brinker. What about the next five years? Where is Brinker going and what are you most excited about?
I get giddy every day because we’ve been on this tremendous journey working on our culture, and as Brinker approaches its 40-year anniversary, we are keenly aware that we’re really here for a higher purpose. It is bigger than just profits, and while our shareholders love the profits that we generate, our strong culture has really helped us realize that we have a bigger purpose inside this thing that we do. It extends to our families, guests who walk in our doors everyday and, quite frankly, our stakeholders, whether they are supply partners or investors. I’m very excited as to what the next five years look like as far as doing more both inside and outside the organization.
For instance, we’ve been focusing for quite some time on the well being of our team members, so the next five years for us is really about going deeper on what that looks like. Gallup has done some brilliant research on well being, and while we’ve been focusing on our team members’ careers for several years now we understand that it’s bigger than just that. How do we also help our team members increase their well being in their physical life, their financial life, their social life and even in their community? How can we help them become even better than they are today as an organization? And then when we look at our own organization, how can we have a better impact on our community, on our friends that come through our doors and on our 55,000 team members around the country that we consider to be family? So the idea of unpacking what that looks like over the next five years is exciting, and it is a good time to be a BrinkerHead.