The Power of a New Mantra


Brinker PicResults: Over 15x increase in price per share, return of almost 20% profit to shareholders, double of same-store sales, industry-leading Guest GEM score and employee engagement score, and low employee turnover rate.

Story: In early 2009 Brinker International, one of the world’s leading casual dining restaurant companies with over 100,000 team members, faced massive business challenges: the economy had collapsed and the company’s business sector was experiencing one of the sharpest downturns of any other business sector in the U.S. Its 35-year-old organizational culture had slipped into a blame game culture where no one would take responsibility for anything that was going wrong. Finger-pointing, cover-your-tail, and other denial behaviors abounded. Throughout the organization the mantra was “It’s not my job.”

This was undeniably a bad time for Brinker. Profits were down and shareholders were concerned about company stock dipping to an all-time low of $3.88 per share. Consequently, employee engagement dropped through the floor at below 50% and turnover rates rose as a result to 110% annually. Without a doubt, company leaders knew the economy wasn’t coming back the way they had known it–”Brinker as usual” could not continue. Something had to be done and an initiative wasn’t going to do it, so Brinker’s senior leadership team turned to Partners In Leadership to help them shift their corporate culture to embrace their new business reality.

In their meeting with the company leaders, Partners In Leadership realized that these leaders and managers were not accustomed to discussing the organization’s Key Results, which consisted of 40 performance indicators from across the organization, and that there was a high degree of confusion throughout the organization about what to measure and what people were accountable to produce. It was also evident that these leaders and managers wanted to end this confusion and that they had a genuine hunger for more conversation about how their jobs, responsibilities, teams, projects, and priorities could be better aligned with the Key Results.

In response to this, Partners In Leadership advocated that Brinker shift its culture to a Culture of Accountability, ” one where everyone at Brinker would take accountability to think and act in a manner necessary to achieve the Key Results. This meant that the Brinker leadership team would need to create new Cultural Beliefs;” define a few simple, measureable Key Results; create alignment around these Key Results so that everyone personally owned the results; learn how to manage the culture by managing the beliefs and experiences of their people; and equip the organization with the tools that would embed the new way of thinking and acting into their daily operations.

The challenge was that Brinker’s current culture was well-developed, heavy, and not easy to move. It was like a boulder that everyone was trying to push in different directions at the same time. The boulder wasn’t moving, and everyone was obviously confused about which direction to push in order to get it to move. In terms then of shifting their “cultural boulder,” team members would need to be trained and aligned around the new Cultural Beliefs and Key Results so that they would all “push” in the same direction. To do this, one of the first things that Partners In Leadership did was to help the organization reduce their Key Results from 40 to 4, focusing these four on profit, sales, the Guest GEM score, and the employee engagement score and turnover rate. Once they had these four Key Results, Partners In Leadership introduced a new definition of accountability–one where everyone is responsible for the Key Results–and then helped the team members align around and own these results. This meant switching out the old mantra for a new one. Gone was “It’s not my job” and in was “What else can I do to achieve the Key Results?”

The impact of this culture shift for Brinker has been tremendous. Tony Bridwell, Senior Vice President, says that because of the shift in culture Brinker now has a “marketing-leading culture.” This is evident by what Brinker has accomplished since beginning the shift to a Culture of Accountability: a 15x increase in price per share, a return of almost 20% profit to shareholders, a double of same-store sales, an industry-leading Guest GEM score and employee engagement score, and a low employee turnover rate. But most importantly, Brinker has created market-leading customer experiences, such as the one team members created for Arianna, a seven-year-old guest who had autism.

Arianna had been looking forward to her cheeseburger at Chili’s (one of Brinker’s restaurant brands). However, when it arrived, she was disappointed and wouldn’t eat it because her cheeseburger was “broken” (it had been inadvertently cut in half). Her older sister explained to the food server that because Arianna had autism, she saw the cut cheeseburger as damaged since it wasn’t like the other ones she’d eaten there before. All the team members, from the food server to the cooks to the manager, made sure Arianna had a great experience. They cooked her a new cheeseburger, made sure she knew this was happening, brought her fries to eat while she waited, and let her and her family know that she mattered. Once she got her new burger, she said, “Oh, I missed you!” and started kissing her cheeseburger over and over again.

Results like Brinker is seeing, coupled with consistently creating guest experiences like the one Arianna had, reflect what happens when a culture shifts to a Culture of Accountability and everyone aligns around achieving the desired results–all in all, it reflects the power of a new mantra, one that asks “What else can I do to achieve the Key Results?