The Challenge Culture

Nigel Travis

288 pages, PublicAffairs, 2018

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I began my business career in 1972, in the field that was then known in England as “personnel management,” and I devoted the next twenty years of my life to becoming the best HR professional I could be. The formative experience of my HR career came in 1985 when I joined Grand Metropolitan, the British conglomerate, to serve as Group Management Development Director.

The approach at Grand Met was very much driven by the style of the CEO, Allen Sheppard. He believed in “controlled conflict,” by which he meant rigorous, open debate on any topic—always stopping short of outright conversational warfare. Together, the Grand Met management team refined the approach. One of our key management tenets—along with “open communications” and “tolerance of different personalities and styles”—was what we called the “challenge culture.”

In 1989, I was appointed head of human resources to the newly-acquired Burger King, based in Miami. In the United States, I worked with a much wider diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds than I had in the UK. I engaged with Jesse Jackson’s Chicago-based Operation Push, one of whose causes was greater social justice in business organizations. I came to realize that the idea of “tolerance” of differences was hardly enough—to get the range of views we wanted for a challenge culture, we first had to ensure that everybody would be included in the conversation.

In 1991, I made the transition from HR to operations, eventually leaving Burger King. In 2009, I joined Dunkin’ Brands as CEO, and where I still serve as chairman. Here, we further refined the concept of the challenge culture. It is a workplace where challenge is a responsibility, questioning is encouraged, and pushback is expected. The discourse must be civil and always in furtherance of shared purpose, and—very important—inclusive of people, no matter their position, background, or gender. —Nigel Travis

Researchers believe that people in power who have had the experience of being powerless at some time in their lives are less likely to fall into the hubris trap.

Abraham Lincoln offers an example of such a leader. He was raised poor and lived a humble life before his presidency. When facing the incredible challenge of eradicating slavery, he assembled a leadership team of people who not only disagreed with him but had actually opposed him in the presidential election. He created what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin famously termed a “team of rivals.”

Although I had not been aware of this research into the power paradox and the hubris syndrome until recently, I have long watched these behaviors play out and have done my best to avoid them. The very structure at Dunkin’, with independent franchisees who have their own authority, and the emphasis on lots of communication through both regular channels and ad hoc engagements are important factors in keeping us on the straight and narrow. A lean headquarters operation also contributes, as does a management team with members who are expected—even obligated—to ask questions, engage in purposeful dialogue, and pose challenges.

. . .

Another important contributor in avoiding the concentration of power and the creation of cultures of fear and confrontation is inclusion. The inclusion of people of different cultural alignments, thinking styles, and genders and gender identities almost automatically improves the chances that the status quo will come into question.

We live in an era, however, in which the importance of inclusion is being challenged in many arenas. We have a White House that is whiter and more male than any in recent history and where loyalty is often more valued than questioning and where civil dialogue is hardly practiced at all. We see police departments coming in for criticism for their exclusionary promotion practices. Elite colleges and universities are struggling to achieve the kind of inclusion they want. The worlds of technology and finance are largely male dominated.

The challenge culture is always strengthened by the inclusion of diverse voices and multiple viewpoints. While I wrote this, the president was in a public battle with the NFL regarding the players who protest what they see as racial injustice by taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem at the start of the game. The president called for such players to be fired. This provoked a response from many players and owners, including Robert Kraft, who counts himself as a friend to the president. His statement underscores the Patriots’ commitment to the challenge culture. “I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President,” Kraft wrote, appropriately enough, in a tweet. “I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities. Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger.” He went on to say that “political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal” and concluded that he supported the players’ right “to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.” Companies struggle getting inclusion right, just as sports teams, governments, police departments, and universities do.

Sometimes it takes a jolt to provoke questions and spur action for change.

At Dunkin’, we had just such a jolt in March 2016, at the company conference we hold each year for corporate employees and field staff. The conference is designed to provide the Dunkin’ staff of about one thousand people with an overview of the business and plans for the future, as well as a chance to interact with one another and the leadership team.

After the conference, we asked for comments, and the feedback we got was an eye-opener.  Many of the women respondents described their amazement at the sight of the senior management team when they went onstage to make their presentation. No women in the group. All men, most in their forties.

One female vice president for Dunkin’ Donuts US told me later that she saw that moment as a “stark wake-up call for a lot of people” in the company. The audience was far more diverse than the leadership group onstage. Our customers come in every conceivable human variation. But here were five guys, all of whom looked alike. How much of a challenge could they pose to each other?

That had a powerful effect on me, and we began to talk about what we could do. I took another look at an employee resource group called WIN for Women, which was established several years ago and is meant to bring together and provide support for women in the company. This is one of several employee resource groups, but it had lost a little steam over the years, and I wondered if it was really adding value to its members or to the organization. Karen Raskopf, too, had her doubts, and we talked about how WIN could be reinvigorated.

Around that time, Karen was approached by a gay employee, I’ll call him Chris, who wanted to start a new employee resource group, this one for the LGBTQ community. Karen asked Chris why he thought it was necessary, since we’re a relatively small company with a pretty open culture. He explained to Karen the difficulties of being gay that still exist in corporate America. “It’s hard to be fully yourself,” Chris said.

That struck a chord. How can you mount a challenge in an environment where you don’t feel included and supported for who you truly are? How can you engage in civil dialogue if your very identity is in question or you fear your viewpoints could be dismissed based on gender identity or cultural background?

And so Chris and some colleagues put together a plan for an LGBTQ employee resource group and kicked it off soon thereafter. The impact was amazing. People throughout the company felt proud that such an employee resource group could be formed. People in the group were empowered because they suddenly had a voice they had never had before. And, for management, the groups proved to be an invaluable resource because we could go to them to discuss specific issues and test ideas that might affect people—employees and customers—who identify as they do. Their contributions fortified the challenge culture at Dunkin’ by building another mechanism for dialogue—and horizontal challenge—into the organization.

The WIN for Women group, too, took on new energy. More women attended, and to our surprise and delight, many men turned out as well. We brought in provocative, even controversial, speakers. At one session, the guest was Nicole Lapin, the broadcaster, businessperson, and author of the book Boss Bitch. She was challenging in every way, in her thinking and in the way she expressed her ideas. The major benefit of these sessions was that they sharpened the focus on the challenges women face, not just for those who attended but also for the whole company—word spread quickly.

In addition to encouraging the employee resource groups, I started holding women-only Coffee Chats. The goal was to identify issues that women were dealing with and, in particular, the barriers—real or perceived—that women in our organization felt were preventing them from progressing. These sessions gave me a much better understanding of the range and quality of talent in our organization. They also made me aware that policy changes were needed to help make women more successful. It was the Coffee Chat discussion that I discussed earlier, for example, that led to improvements in the family leave policy.

One of the most important issues for women in corporate America is their presence in the leadership ranks. It’s hugely important for women throughout an organization, especially younger women and those just joining, to see women occupying positions at the highest levels in the company. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” as Sherrill Kaplan has said to me many times. You need to relate to people in leadership, and if you don’t see anyone who looks like you or acts like you in leadership, then you say to yourself, “Maybe this isn’t the place for me, long term.”

The issue of the balance of women leaders is chronic in American business. Harvard Business Review reported the dramatic findings of a study that looked at female leadership around the world and in a range of industries. “In 2017 women make up 25 percent of senior executives in the thousands of companies covered by the survey. That hasn’t changed much in the past 13 years.” That’s a global average; the US came in at 23 percent in 2017. In 31 percent of US companies, there are no women senior leaders at all. Financial services rate at the bottom of the list of industries, with women comprising just 16 percent of executives. Travel, tourism, and leisure rates far higher than any other sector, at 37 percent female leadership.

Over the last several years, we at Dunkin’ Brands have worked hard to improve our performance at bringing women into leadership positions. In our succession planning and management development meetings, we have constantly looked to identify women who are already in the organization who could be candidates for senior management positions.

For us, the effort has been made more difficult than perhaps it should be because of our position in the great corporate food chain. Many companies are looking to bring more women into leadership roles and are happy to poach great candidates when they find them. We had two very strong women candidates for senior leadership roles, both of whom were hired away to take bigger roles in larger companies. They were outstanding performers, but given the relatively small size of our company, they decided they could not pass up these significant opportunities.

One’s stated commitment to supporting women in leadership roles can at times be put to a very real and highly visible test. That happened in 2017, when our chief financial officer, Paul Carbone, left Dunkin’ to take a much-wanted general management position as chief operating officer with another company in an industry he knew well from previo

We had already identified Paul’s likely replacement, Kate Jaspon, but assumed that Paul would not be leaving his position for several years and Kate would have sufficient time to be groomed and to ready herself for the job. As it happened, we had little notice of Paul’s departure. The board unanimously agreed to move Kate into the position of acting CFO.

There was risk involved, as there would be with any successor of a successful and long-serving senior executive, especially one in need of a bit more seasoning. The central challenge was not a matter of Kate’s competence or expertise but her own capacity to see herself in such an important leadership role, especially in a challenge culture where she would be expected to question and be questioned, engage in dialogue, and offer challenge when she felt it was required.

This is a well-documented issue for women who take on leadership roles. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, talks about how women think about the risks involved in taking on new and unexpected assignments and how they may weigh the benefits and difficulties differently than men do. This was a major topic of discussion at the Women’s Foodservice Forum that I mentioned earlier and an issue that Ellen Brennan, the wingsuiter, and I talked about at length onstage.

As a group of researchers put it, for many women, coming to “see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader” is a “fragile process.” The threats do not come from the mere act of promotion, the acquisition of new skills, or adapting your behaviors to the new role. “It involves a fundamental identity shift,” they wrote. The problem then is that companies “inadvertently undermine this process when they advise women to proactively seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders.”

We knew that we could not simply thrust Kate into such a key position without a good deal of support. Two board members with relevant experience stepped up to act as her mentor and we secured a third mentor from outside the company. I also worked with some of Kate’s colleagues to identify ways they could work with her as she moved into the role, by helping her think through tough decisions, as needed, and providing encouragement and support.

It would have been easy to avoid taking a risk on Kate. We could have made it clear she would be taking the position on an interim basis and conducted a search for candidates outside the company. But I truly believe that the stability of the management team, the sense of commitment to people within the company, and the unity of purpose in helping a new person succeed contribute to the challenge culture. A global company, operating in a complex, fast-changing world, requires diversity of viewpoints and thinking.

It worked with Kate, and within two months, we removed the word acting from her title. Eight months in I am so pleased we made the move, and the board members are delighted with what she is doing. Kate joined Karen Raskopf on our senior leadership team. We have plenty of work to do when it comes to inclusion. But at least now, when our management team goes onstage to make a presentation, women in the audience can see what they could become as a senior leader.