When it comes to being a part of creating amazing, purposeful businesses, there are many leaders out there we could talk to. Very few of them can live up to the legacy of inspired, purposeful leadership from Tom Walter, CEO and Founder of Tasty Catering (Elk Grove Village, Ill.), serial entrepreneur and co-Author of “It’s My Company Too!”. Small Giants Community Executive Director Raul Candeloro sat down with Tom to learn more about the book, his career and what it takes to create a great workplace culture.
1) Let’s begin by talking about yourself, so our readers can get to know you better. Could you briefly describe your life journey until you wrote “It’s My Company Too?“
My father was a WWII Army Sgt. and an electrical engineer who was VP of Quality Assurance for Zenith Radio during the times when Zenith was the #1 television manufacturer in the US. My mother’s college education focused on science – biology if I remember correctly. They had 11 children, and I am the second oldest. My older sister left for the Dominican convent, achieved a Ph.D. in Theology and became the Mother Superior, so I was left “in charge” of my younger brothers and sisters causing me to learn a “command and control” leadership style at a very early age.
The month before I was to start high school, I was told that I needed an eye operation. While recovering in the hospital, I developed double pneumonia. Because of the illness, I did not start high school until five weeks into the semester. My classes were all at the advanced level. I could not pick up advanced Latin and advanced algebra. The school offered no tutors and told me to do extra studying on my own, at home. It was impossible to catch up. For the rest of my freshman year, my nickname by both teachers and students was “the class idiot”. This had a profound impact on me. This experience taught me psychological resiliency. I have never tolerated bullying since.
My parents believed in quality education, which is why we all attended Catholic schools, leaving little discretionary income for a large home among other things. When I was 19, I left home because a three-bedroom home with 12 people was very crowded. I lived on the street until some friends asked me to move into their apartment. This was during 1967 & 1968. My life was work, part-time college and substance abuse. Thank God that I had met a wonderful young lady who told me that I was a better person than I thought. About the same time, I heard Martin Luther King say “I am somebody.” These two people influenced me to focus on personal growth. I asked the young lady for a loan to start my first business, promising to pay her back with interest and then we could get married. She is still my girlfriend and bride – and I still owe her money.
I opened my first business in 1971. Since then, I have helped start 29 companies and have acquired three. Two were complete disasters. One of those disasters can be attributed to my trust in people based on their skills, not on their culture or core values. It was a restaurant, and the employees were skilled workers and skilled thieves. The second loss was due to a lack of proper advisors. The combined losses were well into seven figures, but we negotiated discounts and paid the debts.
In 1984, I was involved with three nightclubs and two restaurants in Chicago. That is, until my oldest child (my son Tim) asked me why I was never home. My father had told me that my duty as a husband and duty as a father was to get my family to heaven. So that very day I told my partners that I wanted to be bought out of these ventures. At the end of that year my brothers, Larry and Kevin, and I opened up the first of several independent fast food operations. I tried to never miss any activity of my son and daughter Erin. This included flying to college and professional games. Tim is 31 now, and I still watch him play outdoor soccer in the summer and indoor soccer in the winter.
Both my children officially joined our organizations when they were 15, but both were helping out by the age of 5. They each held jobs elsewhere after finishing their Bachelor’s degrees, but they both came back to join our organization after a short time. They are now CEO’s of their own start-ups. Combined, they’ve started six operations. My brothers and I are equity investors in those organizations. The time invested in their lives has rewarded me with spending time with them daily and making critical strategic decisions with those whom I once changed diapers.
One day in the fall of 2005, Tim, our CFO, and Jamie, a young lady whom I had known since her early teens and our Director of Logistics at the time, came to my desk and said “Either you change or we are leaving.” I knew they were the future of the company, even though they were just 24 and 23.
I pondered that statement for a moment before asking, “Change to what?” They said they were done with the “command and control” leadership. When I asked them what they wanted instead, they responded with an employee-generated culture-driven leadership.
It took another moment of reflection, but I soon admitted that I did not know how to change, but if they helped, I would. That conversation began a significant organizational change. And it changed my approach to leadership which led to the research that resulted in “It’s My Company Too!”
- Oppressive teachers who abused the privileges of their position ( how not to lead & the value of psychological resiliency)
- Being responsible for my younger siblings (responsibility for followers)
- Being hopeless and full of despair, then finding a person who believed in me (realizing that everyone is “someone” and “someone” can unlock their capabilities)
- Being told by younger people what was needed for organizational survival (Generation integration is a key for sustainability of business through employee engagement)
- Investing in human capital pays dividends (children and employees)
2) Now about the book. What new information does “It’s My Company Too“ offer and why is it relevant to Small Giants?
- The book is based on evidence-based research coupled with empirical data derived from company visits, in-depth interviews, archival research and award application research. We compared the organizational research to academic research and theorems and shared the findings in the book. The combination of academic based business writing is unusual.
- We considered about 100 companies, all of which are national award-winning companies. The book focuses on eight companies from different business disciplines.
- The book identifies employee engagement as a critical factor for successful, sustainable high-performance companies.
- The book dedicates a chapter to each of the eight companies with a resulting case study of one of the eight critical elements needed for employee engagement.
- All companies operate as Small Giants. The largest has 4,500 employees: a Malcolm Baldrige Award-winning hospital in Downers Grove, IL. The smallest is a 15-person non-profit organization that focuses on changing ex-offenders approach to life, allowing them to become productive members of society.
- Each chapter contains anecdotal stories from each company to improve the reading experience for readers to understand how the academic and practical theory can be implemented in their organization.
3) Could you give us an example out of your book that reflects your main idea?
The average employee engagement percentage for a successful American company is 33 percent. A high-performance company has an average of 67 percent engagement. All of the companies we studied exceed 90 percent employee engagement, and so we’ve called this level of excellence employee entanglement.
The human mind processes 60,000 thoughts a day. The average employee gives 4,800 thoughts a day at work, or 8 percent. These are required thoughts. Our focus group of companies demonstrated their employees using discretionary thinking, or non-required thoughts and thoughts generated while away from the organization, to better the organization, and the frequency of those thoughts were far higher than the norm. This use of discretionary thinking, and discretionary actions, are key components in achieving high performance.
An example: Hugo Rios is a culinarian who started with Tasty Catering in his late teens. He was with us when we implemented our employee-generated culture. He understood the value of our culture and core values. Tasty Catering produces over 350 outdoor events a year. One hot August day, a crew was loading trucks for outdoor events. One truck was going to Wisconsin and one was going to Indiana. The crew leader was a senior-to-be in college. He had worked a long, hot summer and was looking forward to returning to school and the resulting pleasures. His crew consisted mainly of high school-age workers. They were not used to hard manual labor in grueling weather conditions. Naturally, their minds wandered.
Suddenly, the senior crew leader noticed the crews had confused the two trucks: they were loading the WI event food into the IN event truck. He exploded in rage and yelled at them for their error. I happened to be in the back of the warehouse at the time, and secretly witnessed the whole interaction. Ahead of me was Hugo. Hugo knew that raising voices in anger was not permitted in our culture. He arrived at the scene and asked the crew leader about the problem. The crew leader explained (they were about the same age). Hugo quietly pointed to the sign above their heads that contained the culture statement. He pointed to it and said, “Number 2.” Number 2 in our core values is “Treat all with respect.” Immediately, like he had been taught in crew leader training, the crew leader apologized to his staff and said that he should have marked the trucks more clearly. The tension lifted, jokes were made and the crew returned to work quickly correcting their error.
I caught up with Hugo as he turned the corner to leave the warehouse. With a folded up twenty dollar bill in my hand, I reached out to shake his and saying, “Thank you, Hugo.” He said “You are welcome.” He then looked at the twenty in his hand, giving it back to me, and said “Thomas, it’s my company, too.” At that moment I knew that we had reached a high level of employee engagement.
4) What other authors or consultants have influenced you the most in this area? Any books you would recommend?
- Bo Burlingham – Small Giants
- Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham – The Great Game of Business and A Stake in the Outcome
- Jim Collins – Good to Great
- Paul Spiegelman – Why is Everyone Smiling
- Doug Tatum – No Man’s Land: Too Small to Be Big and Too Big to be Small
- Chip Conley – Peak
- Ari Weinzweig – Zingerman’s Guide to Good Learning, Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader
- Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham – Street Smarts
- Patrick Lencioni – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
- Rene Descartes – Dualism
- Lillian Gillbreth – The Psychology of Management
- Paul Herr – Primal Management
- Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince
- Peter Drucker, Edwards Demming
5) In a short sentence, what kind of small business owner should read your book? What kind of advice should they be looking for? Or what kind of problem should they be looking to solve?
Business owners that would like to create an organization of high performance would benefit the most from this book.
6) On the other hand, who shouldn’t? What will small business owners NOT find in your book?
Business leaders who are driven by privileges instead of responsibility should not read this book. They will not understand. They will not find out how to be better managers, better autocrats or better dictators.
7) What’s the first thing you would like a small business owner to do after reading your book?
Discover the employee engagement percentage within their organization. And the testing should be done by department or team so the owner will understand which leaders need help in engaging their people.
8) What is the biggest mistake you see small business owners making regarding their company cultures?
Two things – one is that the owners dictate the culture (which is good for a start up, but not for an existing/operating organization). The second is that they fail to realize they already have a culture, but do not understand if it is a good one or a toxic one.
9) What suggestions would you give them to improve? Where should they start?
Understand what Peter Drucker said about culture. Every organization has one that is perfectly suited to the outcome. It is like the basis of Organizational Behavior, that is, Antecedents + Behaviors = Consequences. The owners should study the culture—and ask outsiders to study it—then ask key staff members from across the company to help create a winning culture. This will allow the employees to own the culture.
10) What about managers? In general, what do you think they should STOP doing if they wanted to improve their team’s morale/results?
- Stop seeking privileges instead of responsibilities
- Stop managing by giving orders; instead lead by encouraging subordinates to think and act on their own
- Stop limiting life-long learning
- Stop keeping the financials private – every employee thinks the owners make far more than they actually do. Share the risk and share the reward. To quote Jack Stack “Share the wealth with those that create it” and wealth will rise
- Stop repetitive communicating from the top down – it doesn’t work
11) Anything they should start doing more?
- Create a platform with a great culture that allows and encourages everyone to maximize the use of their brains, as well as their hands, to create a better organization
- Be transparent
- Communicate horizontally – have a staff communication tool that allows communication from peer to peer and team to team
- Create clearly-defined systems and processes to remove order-giving managers and allow staff to think and enact their thoughts to improve those systems and processes
- Enhance and promote life-long learning
- Have meaningful recognition and reward tools
- Realize that everyone is somebody – they have the same thoughts, fears and desires of the leader
- Clearly understand leadership
12) Based on all your experience in this area, what kind advice you see out there that you disagree with – think is wrong and makes you mad when you hear someone giving it?
- The idea that organizations are built on MVV – that is, Mission, Vision and Values. For an organization to be sustainably successful, it has to be built as a human relationship – Values first then Vision, then Mission.
- The promotion of the importance of Management. Leadership is far more important.
13) Any additional comments or thoughts for our Small Giant Community members?
The Small Giant Community has members who are incredible leaders. They are moral and ethical and are financially successful. We are blessed to be with people that have been where we are going. And those people never refuse to help. I read five books by authors that are in the Small Giants Community before I even knew of the SGC. I am reading two more right now. As entrepreneurs, all we have is each other. Let’s spend more time learning from winners – from each other.