Bert Thornton played football at Georgia Tech, choosing Tech because it was a place where he could “learn how to build things” while studying industrial design. In his four decades at Waffle House he used all he learned to embody the company’s ethos of leadership development from the ground up.
To this day, if you join the Waffle House team as a manager trainee, your first job is learning the “ins and outs” of every job, which includes washing dishes, bussing tables, emptying the trash in the parking lot and, yes, cleaning the bathrooms. Thornton says the practice teaches two essential leadership skills. “One, you have to know it if you want to lead it,” he averred. “But second, you have to have ‘street cred’ with the people you’re working with.”
But there’s a third reason that is also a core value at Waffle House: the essence of leadership is doing so with humility and “from the front.” Of the former, says Thornton, “it’s difficult to have an inflated opinion of yourself when you spend your day washing dishes, bussing tables, and cleaning restrooms.” As for leading from the front, Thornton, who has an aphorism for nearly every topic known to mankind, said, “I always tell people, ‘Busy hands talk best!’” Translation: If you want to be a leader at Waffle House, don’t expect to sit behind your desk with your clipboard in hand and tell people what’s going well and what isn’t. Instead, expect to go out onto the floor and talk with them while you help set up the commissary or take care of people at the counter.
In today’s gig economy, Thornton’s longevity at the Waffle House, where he started out “flipping eggs and hamburgers” and bussing dishes in 1971 following a post-college tour of duty in Vietnam, may seem like a long stretch in one place. But Thornton knew a good team when he saw one and believed he could develop strategic leadership skills to complement his already ample tactical, operational ones. Through the years, Thornton has helped steer the company from a handful of “markets” to more than 2,000 locations. And while most of his impact has occurred behind the scenes, Thornton is credited with bringing to market one of Waffle House’s signature items: Bert’s Chili.
Challenged in 1983 to create a dish that would have strong appeal to the Southwestern region, Thornton put his chefs to work concocting homemade chili. The result: every year, some 11 million people enjoy a bowl of Bert’s Chili at Waffle House.
Thornton rose through the ranks, running larger and larger chunks of the business, and developed a leadership style based on building strong, accountable teams packed with employees who learn to think and act like owners. He also devotes considerable energy to mentoring rising talent, a commitment he continued in his latest book on the topic, High Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives.
Here are some of the tips Thornton offered for inculcating a “busy hands” leadership approach in your organization.
- Give everybody your cell number: “Not a chance,” you say? Consider what happened when Thornton did it. When Waffle House was in a particularly fast-growing period, Thornton used to travel around the country holding “town hall meetings” at new locations to explain the company’s history and core values. While he wanted to inspire new members of the team, he had another goal as well. “At the end of each presentation, I would open it up to questions and invite anybody who wanted to follow up with other questions to call me on my cell phone,” said Thornton. “What happened was that knowing everybody had a line open to me actually improved communication among team members. It made our big company feel very small very quickly.”
- Play the two napkin game: When Thornton pays a professional visit to a Waffle House market to discuss progress with its leadership, his go-to strategy was something called the “napkin game.” “The market manager and I would get two napkins and write down everything we saw in that store at that moment, what was going well and what needed correcting,” recalled Thornton. “Then we’d sit down and go through our lists. My lists were usually fuller than theirs. But the point of this exercise was rather than me telling him what was wrong, I wanted him or her to look through their own eyes to see. If they knew I was looking, so they would imagine what I was thinking.” The result was a conversation, not a critique.
- Turn staff into stockholders: Most people don’t know that Waffle House is employee owned, notes Thornton. During town hall meetings, Thornton always exhorted Waffle House grill operators, chefs, wait staff, and dishwashers, alike, to “buy the stock!” Waffle House employees have options to buy the company’s stock at discounted prices and sell them at higher rates down the road. This benefit helps with retirement planning and literally “invests” employees more deeply in the company.
At Waffle House, all employee stockholders have the word “stockholder” on their name tag. “We come in each day and the first thing we do, whether we’re a unit manager or the president of the company, is to check out the counters and dining room and restrooms to be sure everything looks good,” Thornton said. “We’re a one-class organization.” And a first-class one as well.