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How This One Manager’s Performance Went from Dead Last to #1 Almost Overnight

Surprising Leadership Lessons from Chili’s “Leader of the Year”

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BY Soren Kaplan - 02 Feb 2018

How This One Manager's Performance Went from Dead Last to #1 Almost Overnight

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Six years ago, Dale Bullotta was the lowest performer across all of Chili's 120 Area Directors. Three years later, he jumped to #1 and received one of Chili's "Above Restaurant Leader of the Year" awards.

Most of us know Chili's as one of America's most popular casual dining chains. The company's stats are impressive - with over 1600 locations in 31 countries, about 100,000 Chili's employees serve a million people per day.

I caught up with Dale recently to delve deeper into what specifically led to his remarkable transformation. What I learned surprised me, since the success factors responsible for propelling him to #1 aren't usually on the conventional list of leadership behaviors.

Here's what I learned from speaking with Dale that can provide valuable lessons for anyone who wants to elevate their personal performance, for themselves and for their organization:

Get Vulnerable and Solicit Direct Feedback

After 25 years at the company, Dale Bullotta had moved up the management ranks and went from managing a single restaurant to overseeing dozens of locations. Having "made it" to the managerial ranks, it would have been easy to coast and take things for granted. That's exactly what Dale did - He slid all the way to the bottom. He rode on his laurels and really didn't see the need to change. But numbers don't lie, and he knew he was at the bottom of his leadership cohort. Instead of dodging tough professional feedback, he implemented one of Chili's key values: get vulnerable. How did he do it? Dale sought it out from everyone he could find - his boss, colleagues, employees, and even his wife. He opened up about his own fears and concerns about his lagging performance. He asked for blunt feedback about his blind spots. He solicited advice about what he should start doing, stop doing, and continuing doing. What he learned was that he was stuck in the old way of doing things and that he needed to re-assess everything he did. Dialing up the vulnerability resulted in a personal call to action.

Let Purpose Drive Perspective

Around the time that Dale's performance hit his all-time low, his youngest son, Hudson, was diagnosed with a myriad of intense and lifelong learning disorders. With this jarring news, suddenly Dale became incredibly clear that his personal purpose in life was less about getting the next promotion or raise, but instead about supporting his son and family. The effect of reframing his personal purpose had a surprising impact on his leadership at Chili's. Letting go of the ego-centric stuff to focus on the big picture elevated his daily work from tactical to strategic - like how to give Chili's guests the best possible overall dining experience and how to coach his employees to see the big picture themselves while performing their individual jobs. Dale shared his personal insights about life's priorities with his team which helped everyone gain perspective on how and when to forge ahead full bore at work, and of course when to head home and take care of themselves and their families in order to keep on keeping on.

Use Wellbeing to Do Well

Working in food service requires long-hours on your feet. The last thing Dale wanted - for himself or his team - was to be physically wiped out at the end of the day and unable to fully enjoy family or personal time, the exact opposite of the "balance" encouraged by Chili's' corporate office. Dale decided to enhance his team's wellbeing. Instead of hosting corporate offsites in hotels, he rented houses and encouraged his team to cook meals together. He hired chefs to come into his home to cook and teach about clean eating. He held meetings over hikes in the California hills, and used Yoga and CrossFit classes to support team-building. Not only did his team's physical stamina increase, people became more resilient overall, allowing the team to persevere together through whatever challenges arose.

Grow People to Grow the Business

When Dale received his award for becoming the top performing Area Director, Chili's CEO Wyman Roberts, highlighted the fact that great leadership isn't just about individual results. Sure, Dale delivered for the bottom line. But more importantly, his accolades included the fact that numerous other Chili's DO's (Directors of Operations), managers and leaders had once worked under Bullotta himself. Wyman talked about 'the shadow of a leader' and what that meant to him and the company - Rather than feel threatened by the career success of his team, Dale had helped many others advance up the ranks. Recognizing this publicly truly elevated the importance of "leaders growing leaders," a value that Chili's views as a key to its future success.

Create a Challenge to Create Focus

As a company, Chili's has already been recognized as one of the "100 Best Workplaces for Women" and "50 Best Workplaces for Camaraderie." Today as Vice President of Operations, Bullotta focuses most of his time on what the company internally calls "The Challenge." The Challenge states that all employees should embrace the concept that "we better be better," each and every day. To support this, Bullotta and his colleagues simplified Chili's menu from 124 items down to 75 of its top sellers, improved the quality its ingredients, and are currently working to enhance the guest experience through even better service.

Given the disruptive trends facing the restaurant market - like competition from fast-casual chains and changing consumer preferences toward healthier choices - Chili's recognizes it must reinvent itself to both survive and thrive.

Dale Bullotta's story highlights the fact that a company's culture is simply made up of a collection of people's norms, values and behaviors. Take proactive steps to shift mindsets and behavior, and culture and performance follows.