Bruno Hilgart began his management career as a 16-year-old hourly team member at a major QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) Brand in 1981. After graduating high school in 1983, he was promoted into his first management position just after his 18th birthday and became the General Manager of his first location as a 20-year-old in January 1986. He spent the next 26 years growing along with the company and in January 1996 was promoted to be the face of the franchise, serving in the role of leading the company as Director of Operations and Marketing until March of 2012.
I recently interviewed him about his recent book, French Fry Leadership: How to Attain Profits Through Serving People.
Hill: Bruno, your new book is a very well-written one that explains, in short chapters, definitive steps to achieve profits by adhering to a leadership philosophy you’ve developed after over 35 years in the restaurant business. But your story is an interesting one. You never went to college, and you were a restaurant manager by the time you were 20. Where did that confidence to be a leader so young in life come from?
Hilgart: My confidence to be a leader at such a young age came from the work ethic I was taught by my parents and knowing at a young age that if I wanted anything in life I was going to have to earn it. My family did not have much money, so I got a paper route at 12 years old. My work ethic was noticed by my customers by the feedback and the tips I received. This built my confidence. As a 14-year-old busboy, my boss and the servers noticed my work by giving me more hours and sharing more tips with me than the other busboys. I also had success playing baseball and basketball and was an overall natural athlete who loved to compete. The environment and culture at the first Burger King restaurant that I began working at while a junior in high school also recognized my work, which led to them trusting me with additional responsibilities at a young age. The owner was a college athlete, so we meshed well there, too.
Hill: You challenge and debunk a lot of popular business myths out there. One is that people do not quit their jobs—rather, they quit their bosses. Is this really the case, even if they have a desire to self-actualize beyond the scope of their current employment?
Hilgart: Of course, there will be times that people decide to leave their current company if they have an opportunity in a field/career that is something that they want to do long-term as a career. However, in most cases, people who leave their place of work because they are not happy has less to do with the actual work that they are performing and more to do with the type of leadership they are receiving. If the leadership is poor, then in essence, they are quitting their “boss” (leadership) and not the actual work that they are performing (the job).
Hill: You write that employees should be the masters of an organization’s culture. Could you tell us briefly what you mean by this?
Hilgart: Employees’ ideas matter. They should be cultivated by leadership. When employees have “skin in the game,” they are going to be more likely to care about how they and the company perform. Even if leadership uses only part of the employee’s idea, the employee should get all the credit. Great leaders know that when things go well, they pass on the credit to their teams. And, when things don’t go well (and this is going to happen at times), great leaders know to step up, take accountability without pointing fingers.
At many companies, there is a huge gap between formal and organic culture. Specifically, formal culture is the mottos, mission statements, and values. It’s the team member handbook stuff that communicates ideas such as “our door is always open for you. If you ever have any ideas, challenges or questions, we want to hear from you. People are our number one resource. We truly care about you.” This is all perfect. However, if leadership is not living this culture, then it leads to the worst thing that any of us can do in any relationship, which is over-promising and under-delivering. And yet leaders are doing this all the time and they don’t even realize it by saying or communicating (through other cues like facial expressions, overall body language, and the way they communicate electronically) “I don’t have time right now,” or “what kind of idea is that? We can’t afford that!” – essentially making the follower feel unimportant or “stupid.” How many more questions, concerns and ideas are the followers going to bring to this leader? Of course…zero.
This then leads to what I have heard from so many leaders: “I don’t know why my team is not coming to me. My door is open, all they need to do is call/email/text me. I’m available.” I then coach them by saying, “Yes, you are available, but you’re not approachable.” There is a big difference. The reason they are not approachable is because at some point, they have made their followers afraid to come to them by the feelings their followers have felt when they tried to do so in the past.
Hill: Who is getting it right out there in the tech and corporate world in terms of leadership and management philosophies? Are there companies or individuals who embody the philosophy you espouse in your book? Or the opposite: companies that are inverting the proper business philosophy?
Hilgart: Sadly, there is a dearth of great leadership out there today and it’s not the leaders’ fault. They just have not been taught. Most leaders attain their positions because they were good at something, but just because an employee is good at something does not mean they will be good at leading and motivating others to be good at that same thing. It’s an entirely separate skill set.
I do reference Disney, Ritz Carlton and Harley Davidson in my book as companies that do invest in their leaders as well as overall elite training programs of their front-line staffs. These are some of the companies that I have been blessed to have learned from that helped shape my leadership skills and philosophies.
Hill: What do you make of the WOKE phenomenon in business; those leaders who wed moral and social justice policies with profit? Here I am thinking of Bud Light’s decision to build a cross-over market by appealing to two distinct groups. There was a huge backlash, of course, involving what some people would describe as their attempt to politicize business by traversing the trans world and its attendant ideology. Do you have any thoughts about how the company comported itself? If Bruno Hilgart took over the operation of Anheuser-Busch Companies tomorrow, how would you remedy the mess they are in?
Hilgart: Companies (as well as professional athletes, actors and actresses) should be sticking to what they do best. They have a larger than normal platform because of the amount of people that use their products or watch their games or movies. But just because they have a large platform does not mean they are any more knowledgeable than the rest of us or should be espousing to the rest of us their personal views to the masses that follow or watch them.
Most of these decisions by businesses are driven by leaders in their advertising and marketing departments who think that they can drive sales by being politically correct. They are letting the minority of people who get the majority of coverage in mainstream media news and social media (because it is always about the ratings and clicks) drive their decisions on how to market their company’s brand or their personal brands. What they are failing to realize is that just because this wokeness drives up ratings and clicks does not mean that all of those ratings and clicks are by people who support these views.
I would remedy the opportunities (we don’t ever have problems, we have opportunities; as an effective leader, it’s not so much what we say, it is how we say it) that Anheuser-Busch Companies have created by doing the simple thing first: offer a national apology while letting the country know that we will be working together internally to brainstorm the best ways we can earn their trust and ultimately their business back in the coming months. This will stop the bleeding and allow me time to go back to our teams to collaborate on how/what we will be doing moving forward to build back our business and reputation. Then, I would meet with all marketing and advertising department heads to thank them for trying to drive positive business results through their efforts, while coaching them by asking them all to present to me their top three ideas to turn things around while developing internal protocols to ensure this would never happen again. It can never be a “top down” solution. As a great leader, we will always want to involve our teams as much as possible in designing proactive plans, programs and KPI’s so we reduce the need to be reactive in our actions.
Hill: Your book should be required reading for every aspiring young entrepreneur. Do you think such individuals really need to head to college to make it either in business or, more particularly, in the restaurant business?
Hilgart: College is not for everyone. And that is okay! With the prohibitive costs of college, it is a decision that needs to be looked at closely as to whether a person truly needs to go. What will be the return on this investment? To help save costs, and since such a large percentage of college students change either schools or majors (or both) in the first two years of college, we would save significant dollars by going to a local community college to get many of the required classes completed and/or until a young adult figures out where their passion truly lies. With this said, education needs to be a part of a person’s plan to be successful in business, even the restaurant business. Hopefully, the company that we are working with is investing properly in training for all of their people, especially leadership training for their leaders. This should be internal as well as external investments.
Hill: Why did you decide to write this book now?
Hilgart: I actually had been writing this off and on for almost 10 years. My co-author, who I met while providing him a ride-share, provided the motivation to finish the book. He is the one who came up with the title. The original title was “Profit through People.” As I stated before, there is such a dearth of good leadership out there today and it’s not the leaders’ fault. They just haven’t been taught how to do it. I have strong views that there should never be any reason to strike and the reason it happens is poor leadership (from the union and the company the union works with/represents). If the union and company leaders were being honest, trustworthy and transparent, why would their teams ever feel the need to strike? And when they do strike, it is usually for more money/benefits which will never solve the underlying opportunity which is a lack of good, solid leadership. So, in essence, these companies and unions are “bribing” these front line teams to keep putting up with the poor leadership by paying them more. When leadership fails, who comes in to save the day for those poor front-line employees who are being mismanaged? Of course…the government. They create more rules, regulations and laws which have HR departments scrambling, playing C.Y.A. Employees can easily take time off with no notice for almost any reason today and in many states, still get paid! How can companies stay open and productive in these types of environments?
Hill: What is the single biggest mistake managers make in performing as leaders?
Hilgart: It’s hard to come up with a single biggest mistake. There are many to choose from. Here are a few:
- They think they are not working unless they are using their two hands like they were when they were not in management.
- They don’t catch their teams doing things right.
- They focus too much on their own individual tasks and/or reporting to their bosses and not on their team’s progress, performance or results (unless they are bad).
Hill: Let’s compare when you first started out as a young man. Has the culture of the United States made it more difficult or easier for small businesses to get off the ground today?
Hilgart: For sure, more difficult. It is mind boggling what companies have to do to “comply” which sadly, many times forces the company to struggle with attaining the results that their clients/customers expect from them. If leadership was better, there would be less turnover, longer average tenure and smoother overall operations with more team members who are dedicated to the cause and less need to “start over” with new team members as often.
Hill: One thing I love about your book is that it is truly a quintessential American book: it is problem solving, optimistic, and again, in an American way—a benevolent work. You can tell you are a great patriot who loves his country. It’s filled with passion. And you say in your book that people can transfer their passion to others who will then follow their lead. What’s the source of your passion? And, in closing, what would you say to those who are struggling to find theirs?
Hilgart: The source of my passion is helping people be more successful. I love knowing I am making a positive impact on someone’s career and life. And through the process, I am always learning from them as well. Passionate leaders create committed followers.
It is important to love what we are doing, or learn to love what we are doing, otherwise we are just going through the motions. A leader that is just going through the motions will for sure struggle. Their teams will see it and feel it. Their results will be below average at best. It is incumbent for companies to invest in their leaders as they would invest in new technology and equipment. My view is that too many companies today are run by big data and CFOs. Of course, I have nothing against CFOs as they perform a critical aspect in watching the numbers/books for a company. It is easy though for them to show the ROI in investing in say, a new company car or a new HVAC unit for the roof of their building. We will get the benefits of happier people because after all, who wouldn’t want a new company car, or be working in an environment that is better heated and air-conditioned? Plus, the company gets the benefits of more and new efficiency along with cost certainty because there will be warranties and no longer the need for having to pay for expensive upkeep or repairs. On top of all of that, there are tax breaks as the new equipment can be amortized and capitalized on the Profit and Loss statement.
However, when a company invests in its people, it is not as quantifiable on the Profit and Loss. And yet the companies that do it the most and best are the companies that typically lead in their respective business models.
Hill: Thanks, Bruno. It’s been a pleasure communicating with you. I enjoyed your book, and I’m sure readers, whether in business or not, will be left wiser as human beings after having read it.