WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT LEADERSHIP AT APPLEBEES

by Trevor Lee

One of my first jobs was as a waiter at Applebees. In the small town where I grew up, Applebees was the height of fine dining–so being a waiter there was the big show. I didn’t know it at the time, but that Applebees had one of the strongest workplace cultures I’ve experienced in over 20 years (okay, 25, but who’s counting?). People showed up to work with a good attitude. We helped each other out and didn’t just focus on our own tables. We worked really hard and had consistently good feedback from customers. We were open about issues and got them resolved.

As with any workplace, there were a variety of factors that came together to produce a healthy and strong culture, but there’s one that stands out in my mind to this day. Encouragement.

It started with our manager and flowed down to everyone else. People who weren’t team players or were constantly negative didn’t make it long because they didn’t fit the culture. Looking back, there are a few reasons I think his encouragement was strong enough to shape the culture.

He never encouraged you just because.

He wasn’t the emotive type–he was all business. I say this because I don’t think encouragement came naturally to him. He was never shy about confronting a problem or even firing someone when it needed to happen. He could be intimidating. I think that was part of the magic that made his encouragement stick. You knew he wasn’t blowing smoke. As a leader, you can fall off on either side here. You can be so tough and productivity focused that you never take the time to encourage anyone or you can throw out excessive encouragement all the time–making it mean next to nothing.

His encouragement was specific.

I suppose it’s nice to have someone tell you “good job,” but what does that really mean? My manager always encouraged us in specific ways. He noticed things we did well and pointed them out to us. He saw the specific ways we were struggling and reminded us we could push through and get better. Have you taken the time to notice what people in your business are doing so you could offer them specific, meaningful encouragement?

His critique was direct.

Critique and encouragement might seem like opposites, and in a sense they are, but his method of critique was essential to his encouragement. He never talked about people behind their backs. He didn’t make off-handed or passive-aggressive comments. I’ll never forget the first time he asked me to stay after work to talk in his office. I was so nervous. And he did have to confront me about something, but he did it directly, without any malice. This built my trust in him. Everyone there trusted him. They knew he’d come to them directly if he had an issue with them and this had a powerful effect on the encouragement he offered.

What kind of encourager are you? Take a few minutes to consider it. It matters more than you realize.