Chili’s Secret [IT] ingredient? Teamwork | Straight Talk


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Whether it’s supporting an international chain of 1,600 restaurants or solving a particular marketing challenge, communication, collaboration, and shared accountability are crucial to success.

I'm a big soccer fan. My favorite team is Barcelona because the players come together as a team. Instead of playing as individuals who happen to be on the same playing field as each other, each person comes together to play as one. And their dedication to teamwork is what makes the team unusual, powerful and successful. 

I have also experienced the power of teamwork in my own career, which I believe has led to many successes.

Perhaps the first time that I really understood the true power of teamwork was during my first interaction working with Chili’s Grill & Bar, the flagship brand of Dallas-based Brinker International, a recognized leader in casual dining. At the time, I was working as a manager of an offshore development team for an Indian IT services provider and was assigned to manage part of our Chili’s account.

From the beginning, I could tell Chili’s was unlike any of the companies I had worked with in India. Based on previous experiences, I expected there to be a lot of red tape I would have to cut through and that I would need to respect the hierarchy. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was no red tape. And there was no hierarchy. I could talk about anything with anyone at any time. From the challenges I was facing to explaining why some projects might take a long time to complete, I was comfortable addressing any and all concerns with the team at Chili’s with no hesitation.

This firsthand experience showed me the value of teamwork.

Communicating Across Borders

Ten years later, I’m now the vice president of information technology at Chili’s and since being here, I have tried to create a similar culture and encourage open conversations with our offshore vendors as Chili’s team members did with me when I worked offshore.

It’s crucial that our external partners have a direct line of communication with me and my team because it leads to better results. One way we encourage this is through video conferencing, which provides an opportunity for the teams to address questions about the rationale behind a project, reasons for a particular project’s time frame and more. When our IT partners can understand, for instance, that we need gift cards rolled out before the holiday season because that’s when Chili’s receives a high volume of traffic, we see better results. 

Chili’s also encourages what we call “Above the Line” behavior. This provides a way for us to keep our teams motivated. When team members go above and beyond their day job, we recognize them by handing out an Above the Line recognition card and provide a tangible example on how a specific team member or team positively impacted the business. This is a smaller gesture, but it goes a long way in keeping our team’s morale up.

In addition, we often mail team members working offshore small tokens of appreciation, such as a Chili’s t-shirt or plaque. These small gifts allow them to show their colleagues and say, “Hey, this is what came from the customer!” Travel is also helpful. We often fly offshore team members to Chili’s office in Dallas or we fly our team members to the offshore site. These in-person visits make communication across teams a lot easier and help make our offshore team feel that they are part of a bigger team. We never want our offshore team to feel isolated or alone because it takes us all communicating with each other and working as one to achieve our goals.

We apply a similar philosophy to our international restaurants. Chili’s operates in 31 countries now. Most of these international operations are either managed by franchisees or as joint ventures with local partners. We need to clearly communicate to them exactly what we are doing and how they can add capabilities we are implementing in the U.S. And I’m talking about capabilities, not technology. We often have to tailor the process to fit the resources and requirements of another country. You can’t just cut and paste a technology solution that works for the U.S. – you have to find out what each locale needs.

Keeping the Goal Top of Mind

Communicating across teams internally is equally as important as communicating across borders with our offshore team members. I report to our chief digital officer, Wade Allen, who manages all digital business for Chili’s, which includes digital marketing and technology. Wade and I work closely on all our initiatives – but we don’t meet just to debate the marketing case versus the technology case. We always look at the business goal first. From there, we consider what kind of technology we need to use to support and enhance that business goal. At the end of the day, we keep both our goals and the business goal top of mind and stay focused on achieving those goals.

That led us, for instance, to go with an open source e-commerce platform. It made sense for the business and for IT. Before we adopted the platform, we had to take our site down for four hours when maintenance was needed, which translates to loss of revenue, unpleasant guest experience and operation frustration. Now we don’t have to do that. We can scale up our website without taking it down and it is set to auto-scale. We have been able to support almost 5,500 concurrent users, something we couldn’t have done before. And it gives us a foundation to innovate on digital initiatives.

Another business goal was to increase team member engagement. In order to achieve this, we implemented a new system so that when our team receives a positive comment from a guest about a particular restaurant and team member, my team sends it directly to that team member. Technology also allows us to measure how many guests each team member can handle per hour. And we’re also able to provide team members with practical information, such as shifts that are available for them to work. By increasing our team member engagement, we are all able to positively impact our guests, which is the ultimate end goal. I strongly believe that if you want happy guests, you need happy team members.

Culture is Key

The foundation of effective teamwork is accountability. Great things happen when everybody comes together and our culture is built around that.

We have a saying at Chili’s called “See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It.” This is a behavior that encourages us all to act if we see something isn’t right. We don’t passively assume it’s somebody else’s problem any more than a player would leave an unattended ball on the soccer field. Instead, we identify the problem, take charge of it, come up with a solution and then fix that problem. After practicing “See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It” for a while, it starts to become second nature.

Another principle we have is “Feedback is Priceless.” All team members are encouraged to provide both appreciated and constructive feedback in a respectful manner and with the right intention to anyone on any team across the Chili’s organization. No matter what position I’m playing or one of my team members is playing, we’re playing, and we’re playing on the same team. Therefore, feedback should be given without hesitation to any team player.

At the end of the day, business is a lot like sports: success is often determined by the quality of teamwork. As I like to say, there are no individuals on a team. You either win as a team or you fail as a team.   

The Takeaways 

Your success depends on the strength of your teamwork, and the strength of your teamwork depends on your culture.

The ability to give respectful feedback to anyone in your organization can be a source of real competitive advantage.

Make sure your external team feels that they are on the team. Direct communication and recognition are both extremely important.