The Insights Blog

Servant Leadership for CEOs and CMOs, With Cheryl Bachelder

Servant Leadership for CEOs and CMOs, With Cheryl Bachelder

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Written by Stephen Boehler with special guest Cheryl Bachelder

Over the years we’ve been lucky to have worked with a handful of fine servant leaders. Some companies – and their workforces – are blessed to have leaders focused on helping their teams succeed; most are not. Howard Behar’s It’s Not About The Coffee philosophies helped drive a generation of servant leaders at Starbucks. Most companies, unfortunately, do not have a Howard Behar and the norm continues to be a command-and-control model that is mostly top-down.

WE’s Kass Sells recently told us “There’s now an expectation for leaders to engage their teams and inspire hope, not just increase productivity, and no longer lead from the top down.” Kass was capturing much of the essence of servant leadership! Today’s executives want to lead from whatever role they may have and are looking for their organization’s senior executives to support them. How can an executive do that? We caught up with Cheryl Bachelder, author of Dare to Serve, and asked her what advice she would give to CEOs and CMOs about servant leadership. Cheryl developed her servant leadership philosophies over a distinguished career in leadership positions at Procter & Gamble, Nabisco, Domino’s, KFC, Popeyes, and others. Cheryl graciously agreed to share some advice for any executive that was interested in being a servant leader.

Cheryl, you’re a compelling proponent of servant leadership. For folks new to the concept, what key points would you share that would help them start on such a journey?

A simple way to explain servant leadership is simply to “think of others as more significant than yourself.” That is a difficult mindset to maintain — as our nature is to primarily think of ourselves. 

To start on this journey, look at your leadership role with the lens of “who are the people who I must serve well for the enterprise to thrive?”  And then ask yourself these questions:

Have I listened carefully to understand their needs — and are my priorities organized around things that will solve their problems and make them more effective/successful?

Have I asked them to collaborate on the solutions — or do I usually bring them my finished plan?

Do I transparently share all the information and facts with the people I serve — or do I prefer to keep them “in the dark?”  

Do I have concrete measures in place that track progress against the things that matter most to the people I serve?  Are we improving these measures?

When I’m pushing for my own plan and it doesn’t work, do I take accountability and apologize for acting out of self-interest?

Do I lead as if the only thing that matters to me — is making others wildly successful?

The notion of servant leadership has certainly been around for a while, yet very few CEOs or CMOs seem to be servant leaders. Why do you believe so many senior leaders have not adopted these philosophies?

When I speak at events about this idea of servant leadership — the most common response is “that sounds really good — where do we find leaders like this?”  Unfortunately, the primary leadership model in our culture is about individualism — me, me me.  Our leaders worry primarily about their resumes, their promotions, their bank accounts, their image — and think little about the actual stewardship role of leadership.  Leaders are supposed to set up for thriving and success the people who have been entrusted to their care.  Most do not even take the time to know and hear from the people entrusted to their care.

So if you choose to pursue servant leadership — you will be thinking and acting on a different set of beliefs and principles than many of those around you.  You will be viewed as “different” from the others.  Bow when your leadership leads to outstanding results — others will become curious about your approach — and you will have the opportunity to share what you know. Our culture values results and effectiveness — so we have to show them the superior performance that can occur when you create a workplace where people thrive and perform their best.

New CEOs and CMOs are named every day. What advice would you give them regarding servant leadership?

The world desperately needs you to lead in a way that supports human flourishing.  Few do.  I encourage you to create a compelling personal purpose statement and a set of beliefs/values that will guide your decision-making.  A process for doing this is outlined in my book Dare to Serve. You will need this roadmap to keep your leadership on track.

Then find a quote or story that inherently motivates you to serve.  For example, I have two quotes embedded in my mind as I begin each day:

“Count others as more significant than yourself.” Philippians 2:3

“Increasingly, business leaders will be the stewards of civilization.”  Max Stackhouse, On Moral Business

These phrases are mantras for my work in training up servant leaders for our society and our world.

CMOs have one of the shortest tenures in the C Suite. How can servant leadership help them both contribute even more to their organizations and last longer?

The CMO job is essential to driving top-line revenue. And there are no other actions more essential to bottom-line profit.  So the CMO has the challenging role of identifying what is compelling to the customer — and delivering on that in a meaningful way.  For example, in the restaurant business, new product news is essential to staying in the customer’s choice set.  At Popeyes, we made sure we had a sound process for finding the most compelling new product news for the customer — and the only metric that mattered was — did they come to the restaurant when we advertised the new product.  A good process and firm measures of success were essential to our CMO’s nine-year track record of top-line sales growth.  That’s a pretty long run for a CMO:-)

Cheryl, you and I both started our careers in brand management at Procter & Gamble, where all of the rungs on the entire leadership ladder were filled by individuals that started their careers at P&G. P&G did not import leaders from other organizations; they grew their own from entry-level to the C Suite. What advice would you give to a CEO or CMO in an organization that often imported leaders from the outside into senior roles?

Over my career, I came to see the benefits of both internal promotes and external hires.  I see them as complementary.  I think internal promotion is the healthiest way to build a deep pipeline of capable leaders who know the business and the culture of the organization.  But selectively, it is healthy to put external hires in the mix with new skill sets and experiences that challenge the status quo.  Without this injection of fresh thinking and experiences, a pure internal promotion strategy can lead to insular thinking and stagnation.  I don’t think there is an ideal ratio — but when you need a step-change in capability or innovation — it might be the right time for an outside hire, who also shares your values/culture.

You’ve had leadership roles in a variety of very different companies like P&G, Nabisco, Domino’s, KFC, Popeyes, and others. What did you learn about servant leadership from having served in companies with such different cultures?

I learned that servant leadership didn’t exist in most large corporations.  Most of them had some nice words on a plaque about purpose and principles — but very few leaders lived them in daily actions.  So my primary learning was — what not to do if you want people to thrive and perform.  I kept detailed journals so that I would not forget these important lessons.

For example, many corporations have two values that are anti-servant leadership:

1) “every man for himself” competition

2) public flogging when results don’t occur

The first is diametrically opposed to a culture that is united in common purpose over self-interest. The second trashes the importance of human dignity.  Avoid them both at all costs if you want to lead a thriving, high-performance organization.

What are the key differences between bringing a servant-leadership philosophy to life if you were a Brand Manager or a CMO?

Servant leadership can occur at any level in an organization.  Many people ask me — does the CEO have to believe in servant leadership for you to be a servant leader.  Absolutely not.  Don’t wait for that to happen.  You can create a servant leadership environment for your small team — and lead them to thriving and high performance.  Be the role model your CEO needs to see.

Many of the most well-known leaders (Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Elon Musk, etc.) have historically not behaved in ways that seem servant-leader-like. Given that these leaders have become brands themselves, how can we convince up-and-coming leaders that there may be a better way?

Culturally we are enamored with celebrity leaders — big personality, charismatic, high ego people.  Then we act shocked when self-interest drives them to decisions that are not good for the people or the customers.  Read the book From Good to Great by Jim Collins.  The leaders that produce the best results over the longest period of time are people whose names you have never heard of. Instead, these leaders are a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.” (Quote from Jim Collins)

What can go wrong when a leader begins on their servant leadership journey?

Humility in leadership is not valued.  In fact, it is put forth as a weakness.  It is often described as a lack of confidence or “being a doormat.”  Nothing is further from the truth.  A humble leader has the courage to surrender self-interest daily — in favor of the people they serve.  That is hard — it is a very high standard. It requires sacrifice.  Few will do it.  C.S. Lewis says it so brilliantly “Pride….the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.  The virtue opposite to pride is called humility.”

What servant leadership advice would you give to a 30-year-old executive?

Make this the leadership approach of your generation — and change the world. I am so encouraged by those of you who are in your 30’s. I love that you want to change the world. I love that you want to be intentional and purposeful in your work. It gives me great confidence that you will be one of the greatest leadership generations of all time. So, I encourage you to learn everything you can about being a servant leader. Read my book – read every book that’s been written on it and study the actions that will make you the most effective you can be. If you do these things, the people who work for you will be blessed and you will likely change the world.

Cheryl Bachelder is a passionate, purpose-led business leader — the former CEO of Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. Cheryl is known for her crisp strategic thinking, a franchisee-focused approach, and superior financial performance.  Guided by the servant leadership thinking of Robert Greenleaf, she believes highly caring, collaborative leaders with big ambitions for the enterprise, not themselves, generate the conditions for people to perform their best work.

Cheryl served as CEO of Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen, Inc., from 2007 to 2017. The story of Popeyes’s success is chronicled in her book, Dare to Serve: How to drive superior results by serving others. During her tenure, Popeyes’ stock price grew from $11 to $61, at which time the board sold the company to Restaurant Brands International Inc. for $1.8 billion dollars or $79 per share in March 2017. Cheryl’s earlier career included brand leadership roles at Yum Brands, Domino’s Pizza, RJR Nabisco, The Gillette Company, and Procter & Gamble. 

Cheryl serves as a director on the boards of US Foods Holding Corp. (USFD), and Chick-Fil-A, Inc. She sits on the advisory board of Procter & Gamble’s franchising venture, Tide Dry Cleaners. She is a board member of WorkMatters, a faith-based leadership development initiative, and the Metro Atlanta Advisory board to the Salvation Army. She can be found at

Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Zillow Group, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Ulta Beauty, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.