A pinch of coaching, a dash of training

Joey Restaurants’ recipe for success tackles 200-per-cent turnover rate, lands it on top employers list
By Dave Busse and Judy Hemmingsen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/14/2010

What takes a company from a crippling turnover rate of more than 200 per cent to being named one of Canada’s top places to work? The answer to this question lies with the philosophy and focus of Joey’s president and CEO, Jeff Fuller.

Thanks in part to Fuller’s investment in a coaching culture, the Joey Restaurant Group ranks number 16 in the category of companies with more than 1,000 employees on the list published by the Great Place to Work Institute, alongside organizations such as Microsoft, TD Canada Trust and Four Seasons Hotels.

It wasn’t always this way. Fuller launched the first Joey Restaurant in 1992 and, by the early 2000s, was forced to deal with critical recruitment issues that included lost talent, the sourcing of new candidates and managing rising replacement costs. Now, with 23 locations in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Washington, the picture is quite different. So what was Fuller’s secret?

In 2004, Fuller hired executive chef Chris Mills as vice-president of culinary development and appointed Al Jessa as head of operations. Both Mills and Jessa believed in the value of high-performance teams and began to shift the company’s focus toward developing a “leader as coach” model.

This new approach initiated a change in the way the organization viewed the role of a Joey leader. Not coincidently, other changes followed, leading to significant growth of the company’s revenues, profits and market penetration.

Adding to Fuller’s recipe for success, Andrew Martin joined the company’s leadership team as vice-president of HR in 2008. Martin immediately took on the challenge of further embedding the “leader as coach” model into the Joey culture. To accelerate this change, Martin partnered with Essential Impact, a coaching company specializing in systems for coaching cultures. Their mission was to transform the Joey culture from an expertise-based restaurant business into a company focused on leadership excellence.

A team of 12 successful senior leaders was selected, representing both the back of the house (chefs) and front of the house (service). Each senior leader participated in a process that would transform him into an internal trainer skilled in developing leaders’ coaching skills.

This rigorous “train the trainer” program was a three-week commitment that included 100 hours of coaching and 10 hours of mentor coaching with certified coaches.

Not many companies are prepared to commit 25 per cent of their top operational leadership group to a three-week process, spread out over a 12-month period. So what was the driving force behind the company’s commitment of resources and time? For Jessa and Martin, the answer was simple: The CEO’s philosophy of “It is your business.” Or, put another way, allowing staff to make decisions as if they owned the company. Anything that supports the Joey staff to make good decisions would be mission critical.

So, faced with the next challenge of taking this process into their operations, and gaining the commitment of their management and staff, a “solution-focused” coaching model already fit nicely with Joey’s culture. The Joey experience includes the mantra “real thin rule book, thick culture.” Rules don’t guide their decisions, culture does.

Jason Gulliford, regional chef for Alberta and one of the original 12 senior leaders, had faced the task of implementing coaching in a culture that normally values expert knowledge with a “get it done” attitude. When asked to describe his first experience with this new approach, his immediate response was that it was hard.

“I have spent my entire life being rewarded for knowing the answer and for personally solving problems, but switching to coaching as a leader is so worth it,” he said. “To be a leader as a coach, you really have to have the best interests of your people at heart. It is incredibly rewarding in a whole different way than I have experienced before. It is amazing to be working with a 19- or 20-year-old kid and see what happens when they deal with a major project issue or event and, at the end, they can completely and authentically say, ‘I did this.’

“For many of our staff, it is the first time in their lives that they have really experienced that. The best part is that now I don’t get in the way of them experiencing that incredible feeling by having told them part of what they should do. The beauty of this kind of coaching is the solution they come up with is completely and totally theirs. In some ways, it is really a conversation with themselves.”

So with the training done and 12 internal coaches starting to build their coaching hours, what has been the impact so far?

For Jessa and Martin, the first impact was directly on the leaders themselves. Jessa had been frustrated with one of his regional managers for several years.

But the training helped him realize this manager’s motivation and way of thinking was quite different from his, yet still valuable.

Before, his negative reaction toward this manager’s behaviours often strained their work relationship. Today, the “leader as coach” approach has taken their relationship to a new and mutually beneficial level.

Over the past two years, the results have been remarkable. Turnover is virtually zero at senior levels and significantly lower at staff levels. And their leaders personally demonstrate this coaching model in their daily operations. Jessa personally commits to a 30-minute coaching conversation every week with each of his direct reports.

For Martin, evidence of this change surfaces most obviously through a 360-degree feedback process and with focus groups from restaurants that have experienced the training.

Effective coaching is demonstrated in the way people are talking and how they now approach their day-to-day operational issues. The level of engagement is up and the willingness to table issues in an open environment of trust is now evident.

Dave Busse is managing partner at Essential Impact in Vancouver. He can be reached at (604) 930-1233 or dave.busse@essentialimpact.com. Judy Hemmingsen is managing partner at Personal Strengths Canada in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 915-4268 or jhemmingsen@personalstrengths.ca. For more information, visit www.essentialimpact.com or www.personalstrengths.ca.

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