Lynne Zappone was overwhelmed. Her master’s degree in organizational management wasn’t doing her an ounce of good as she operated a cash register at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. She asked each customer if they’d be dining in the restaurant, though the question was delivered with the expression of a performer who’s forgotten her lines. When she fumbled for two fountain cups, she dropped a stack of 10, rendering them unusable. Even at rest, she was helpless, dirtying her hands by placing them on her hips. Ultimately, with suds up to her elbows and a few wisps of auburn hair sticking out of her orange-billed visor, Zappone completed the picture of a woman out of her element.
Despite the slow start, Zappone is actually an employee of the quick-service restaurant, but her real job title has little to do with chicken. Almost immediately following her arrival as chief talent officer in 2011, she was put in the hot seat, taking her CEO’s place on CBS’s Undercover Boss. And thus the seasoned HR executive was put on the ground, with her response to it broadcast for all of America.
Zappone had never worked in a quick-service restaurant, but what she learned while undercover was less about frying chicken and making biscuits and more about the family dynamic fostered within Popeyes stores, and how this in turn functioned as the foundation of the restaurant. As talent officer, Zappone is tasked with developing a Popeyes family of leaders—from managers who recognize a job well done to cashiers and cooks who recognize the value of customers and strive to serve them well. At every level, Zappone relies on an engaged workforce to make every restaurant a pleasant environment for guests and employees alike.
In her time behind the counter, Zappone found that, in some cases, half her job was already done. Within the Popeyes family, there was already a dedicated workforce of engaged employees who found not just employment, but community, in the restaurant where they worked. This appreciation was reflected in the pride they took in their work. Zappone watched as employees tackled the toughest jobs—degreasing garbage cans and sanitizing restrooms, for instance—with a level of ownership that indicated they treated the restaurant like their own home.
“I’ve always believed that when you enter a business, you can tell the quality of the leader the moment you walk through the door,” Zappone says. “Leaders who care for their teams and create an environment of appreciation and respect earn trust and commitment.” To get any return you must first make an investment, and Zappone knew the same is true for people. “In a restaurant environment, the team is looking to the leader to set the standard and hold people accountable,” she says. “We need to invest in our leaders and provide them with tools to manage the business, coach, and develop future talent.”
Popeyes believes the first step in developing leaders is to help them understand how they lead and why they come to work. To help leaders answer these questions, Zappone and her team created a program that brings each leader on a journey to discover their personal purpose. They reflect on life events and experiences that have influenced their values, using these to determine a leadership style and purpose. Zappone’s personal purpose is community building. She came from a big Italian family in North Providence, Rhode Island, that didn’t have much, but what they lacked in wealth, she says, they made up for in love and support. Though her purpose may be different from other leaders, Zappone’ s goal of supporting the business is the same as every Popeyes employee, and the way she contributes is by recreating among her employees the familial dynamic she grew up with.
The true test of the program’s success, Zappone says, will be how leaders transform the culture throughout both the company’s restaurants and across its franchise system. “Most of the people who work for the brand don’t actually work for us,” Zappone says of the predominately franchised organization. “Replicating the company culture among our franchise restaurants is a challenge that will require ongoing communication, collaboration, and training.”
Since she joined the company, Zappone has been listening to Popeyes employees share their personal purposes and is inspired by what she has heard. As the Popeyes family grows and more members find their leadership niche, Zappone says the restaurant chain is getting closer to achieving what few before it have. “We want to leave behind a legacy of leaders who continue to deliver superior results,” she says. “The strongest brands have inspiring leaders who don’t get derailed by bumps in the road or challenges. They engage their teams and keep moving the business forward.”