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How 1 app transformed a culture and built tremendous leadership skills through the worst business crisis of our lifetime

Rachael Kelly, Chief Human Resources Officer, Smokey Bones

Rachael Kelly, Chief Human Resources Officer, Smokey Bones

We were in free fall. It felt like a dystopian universe where there was pain, suffering, and disaster all around us. One of the worst parts of which was that we didn’t know how bad it would get, or when it would end. How do you lead leaders when you don’t have any answers, the world is collapsing all around you, and everything is on the line? This is precisely the situation we found ourselves in during the beginning of the pandemic. The one thing we did know, was that the only way we would get through it was together. How do you do that when you have 3000 employees in 16 states, in an industry with high turnover, rotating schedules, and rapid developments? It was this problem we were working to solve when we made a decision. A decision that significantly elevated our culture and leadership capability across our organization.

It was a simple communication app, that all our managers and employee representatives (now we call them brand ambassadors), executive and office team members could communicate on in real time. We were mostly concerned with getting information across accurately and timely. It was unexpected how a communication tool, where managers and leaders from all parts of the organization could communicate, problem solve, support, recognize and coach each other in real time could impact us. It taught leaders the skill of resiliency, problem solving, team leadership, business acumen, strategy. It enabled people to see the bigger picture and feel not only connected to it, but an integral part of it. And that spirit, combined with the peer-to-peer coaching that followed on a daily and real-time basis, not only carried us through, but also ensured we emerged as strong industry leaders.

“We harnessed peer-to-peer influence which remains the strongest way to drive change and behavior in an organization”

The other unexpected area of leadership development was to office team members and executives. Learning how to get real time feedback on tools, promotions, product supply issues, IT issues, and to partner and collaborate with field leaders, taught office team members the power of feedback and collaboration like no other time in our company history. Typically, this sort of feedback would take weeks and would come through more archaic channels, usually watered down, and with personal twists and the emphasis of those carrying the message. Strip all of that away and now initiative and process leaders get the raw feedback in immediate real time from end users. Not only did leaders have to learn how to respond, troubleshoot, and crisis manage, they learned to better project plan, ensure field readiness of initiatives, and enable better escalation methods for case resolution. And even more powerfully, they learned how to engage field leaders proactively during the creation of those initiatives in a way that dramatically increased engagement, adoption, and success rate of the initiative overall. The leadership lessons that taught office leaders were invaluable, and would not have come without this platform.

Often times people think of leadership development as a class to take, book to read, webinar to participate in. And those things do have value. But I ascribe to the model where 70% of development comes from on-the-job experiences, and another 20% comes from coaching and feedback. This platform enabled exponential increases in both those experiences of all the leaders in our organization. We harnessed peer[1]to-peer influence which remains the strongest way to drive change and behavior in an organization. Over a year into the platform, at any point in the day you’ll see leaders coaching, supporting, recognizing, and celebrating each other across our organization. Our teams point to this platform as a key differentiator in our culture, and a crucial tool for us not only surving the pandemic, but emerging as a strong, industry leader.

Executive Bio

Rachael Kelly is the Chief Human Resources Officer for Smokey Bones responsible for end-to-end human capital management, facilitating an employee-engaged culture, and serving as a trusted member of the executive team who guides the organization to achieve its strategic goals. Rachael has extensive experience in the operational and human resources fields, having worked executive roles in global public corporate and franchised organizations, award winning start-up concepts, and now in the private equity space. Beginning her career as an hourly employee, Rachael brings a unique vision, pragmatic approach, and bias for execution. This unique vision and approach has served her well in the first year at Smokey Bones where during the pandemic, with the team experiencing extreme compensation and environmental pressures, while launching multiple virtual brands, overnight transformation of the operating model, and executing bootstrap recovery of the business, Rachael led Smokey Bones to certification as a Great Place To Work, expanded benefits, and dramatically reduced turnover exceeding industry benchmark levels.

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