Hiring, Training, and Retaining Emerging Leaders

Excerpt from "A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business” by Nick Sarillo (Portfolio/Penguin, 2012).

By Nick Sarillo

At Nick’s Pizza and Pub, our hiring process seeks out a certain kind of leader—individuals who can jump in and collaborate as part of a team, people who enjoy sacrificing for the sake of a communal good, who gain satisfaction from raising up those around them, and who take charge of their own growth. We want people who will become not only great managers, but supportive mentors like Phil Jackson, Howard Schultz, and Jack Welch. When we gaze across the interviewing table, whether it’s at a 16-year-old who wants to be a hostess or at a 37-year-old interested in being a front-line manager, we don’t care about their experience or how much revenue we think they could bring in on their own. We’re trying to determine whether others naturally gravitate toward this person, not because of what he may be shouting in an attempt to garner respect but just because of who he is.

No system is perfect, and employees sometimes make it into one of my restaurants who aren’t intrinsically motivated or who subscribe to the old command-and-control mentality. That’s where our intense orientation process kicks in. New teammates receive their own training folders at the beginning of each shift and are expected to keep track of them. They’re expected to schedule training sessions for themselves and show up at designated times. They’re introduced to our leadership training, which I’ll describe in a minute, as well as to our system of operations cards, which specify tasks to be performed in both their “art” and “science” components without direct managerial supervision. After every training shift, they engage in a Feedback Loop with managers during which they’re asked to define what they did well during the shift and what they need to improve. Recruits who expect others to tell them what to do or who watch the clock quickly realize they’re in way over their heads. They feel like outsiders, and most of the time, they leave within 30 days.

Our system of skills training, to which new hires are exposed from the first day, both instills a sense of responsibility and rewards those who act on their own initiative. All new, entry-level hires learn how to make pizzas in our kitchen no matter what position we hired them for, and they also train for their position. Once they master skills for that position, they control how much they earn and how rapidly they ascend by signing up for and completing training classes in other positions. These “201 classes,” as we call them, allow team members to become “certified” in skill areas such as host, server, bartender, dishwasher, and the like.

Certify in three positions, and we give you a tan hat to wear and call you a “rookie.” Six positions makes you a red hat, or a “pro.” Mastering nine positions makes you an “expert,” and you get to wear a black hat. You earn more as you acquire more skills—not because you’ve worked with us for a given length of time or because a manager thinks you deserve it. Since education is the only path for advancement, team members know they’re in charge of their own training and come to us asking for it. Those who don’t ask find themselves languishing behind their peers and tend to find their way to the door on their own before too long.

The “onboarding” task here isn’t simply to train emerging leaders and weed out those who slip through the cracks; it’s to retain bright, proactive, self-motivated individuals and keep them interested. Many people in the Human Resources field talk about employee “engagement” as a top priority of a company, but I’ve found that the most effective way to keep team members engaged is to aim higher and build a system of employee enrichment. When you have systems in place that allow people to develop and to emerge as leaders, they will naturally feel engaged with their work.

In most companies, participation in a training program hinges on your formal review and requires approval by a higher-up. We require no formal approval for certification in skills. At every stage, we let people know we are grooming them to be leaders in their own lives and also to lead and inspire those around them; that as a company, our goal is not to tell them what to do or how to behave, but simply to help people feel accepted, supported, and successful (in other words, enriched).

One person might complete the host training in a year, another in three months, but in the end, their success depends on their performance during training, which is quantitatively rated. Age doesn’t matter, which is why we have 18-year-olds with many certifications training novice 40-year-olds. Our certification program provides a clear map for anybody who wants to climb the ladder by acquiring more skills. As team members progress in a way that feels natural and authentic to them, they come to feel more and more accountable for their own success, they discover the deep satisfaction that comes from mastering skills, and they feel increasingly empowered to contribute proactively to the Nick’s Experience. They also feel stronger and more substantive as people, more capable of achievement—precisely because they are.

Excerpt from “A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business” by Nick Sarillo (Portfolio/Penguin, Copyright (c) Nick Sarillo, 2012). For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Slice-Pie-Build-Little-Business/dp/1591844584/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340382976&sr=1-1&keywords=a+slice+of+the+pie

As the founder and CEO of the sixth busiest independent pizza company in per-store sales in the United States, Nick Sarillo of Nick’s Pizza & Pub has garnered national media attention for the impetus behind his business’ success—an inventive, purpose-, and values-driven approach to training and leadership. Under Sarillo’s direction, Nick’s Pizza & Pub, located in Crystal Lake and Elgin, IL, boasts an 80 percent employee retention rate in an industry in which the average annual turnover is close to 150 percent. His book, “A Slice of the Pie,” highlights his “on purpose” principles for building an inspiring, high-performance organization from the bottom up.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.