As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Berekk Blackwell.
Berekk Blackwell is the President of Daily Jam. Berekk has an extensive background in the food service and franchising industries, and previously worked with brands like Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Cold Stone Creamery.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in and around the quick service restaurant (QSR) franchising space. My parents were heavily involved in the industry. After college, I joined Kahala Brands (you may recognize Cold Stone Creamery, Blimpie Subs and more) in the Finance Department and eventually made my way to the international side of the business. Once there, I went international and moved to Tokyo, Japan. For two years, I joined the Master Franchisee of Cold Stone Creamery, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels for Japan.
Once I was back stateside, I continued to be involved in the QSR franchising world by consulting for brands like Which Wich, Buffalo Wild Wings and Smashburger for international expansion in Asia. But I wanted to get “hands-on” with an emerging concept. Eventually, I connected with Daily Jam, an emerging franchise concept, and I’ve been the President for the last two years working to build the brand across the country.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
On my first day working for the company in Tokyo, I showed up to the office and it’s tradition to walk around the entire office and meet each person. I had done a little homework on “the bow” in lieu of the handshake but in the heat of the moment, I walked up to the first person with my hand stretched out and they were already halfway into a bow. I had to adjust quickly and did an awkward bow with my arm still stretched out. It was a joke in the office until I left Japan. Lesson: Don’t practice until you get it right; practice until you can’t get it wrong! :)
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My time spent in Japan was such a huge part of my development as a person and a leader. Being dropped in a land of where I didn’t know the language, had to meet all the team members and step into a leadership role, it teaches you to use critical thinking and how to overcome obstacles.
For that, I’m grateful to Tak Sawada — the then CEO of the Master Franchisee in Japan for the brands mentioned. He took a chance on me coming out to Japan as I was the only non-Japanese speaking person in the company. You could say I was a bit of a longshot. But Tak was a great mentor and helped me get my feet under me, as I learned the business and helped it grow.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When Daily Jam started, what was its vision, what was its purpose and how has that changed since you’ve begun leading?
When I started, Daily Jam was an amazing restaurant with a great product. But it didn’t really have a vision, and it lacked alignment and direction. Although the culture was strong, it was clearly unspoken.
The way forward was clear — to take the great unspoken culture and put it into words. In my first couple of months (with the help of the management teams), we created a written set of six core values. These core values would be guidelines to live by, both in the restaurant and at home.
- People First — We take care of our employees and customers, always showing that we care.
- Own It — Whether it was a great job or a mistake, it’s important to own it. At Daily Jam we are equally ready to take accountability when needed and have pride, as well as to support team members when our people succeed.
- Be Remarkable — We aim to be the best and be known as the local brand that is always willing to go above and beyond.
- Community — We are here to serve and contribute to the community.
- Have Fun — Daily Jam is a fun brand with contagious positivity, and we give our team members, customers and our food the freedom to be unique.
- Always be Learning — Focusing on continued growth, good habits and maintaining our curiosity, Daily Jam is poised to keep getting better and better.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In reality, nothing has been more uncertain or difficult than a pandemic. When we first got word that we had to close our dining rooms within less than 24 hours, there was a lot of uncertainty. But our leadership team prioritized three aspects: we were going to be present; we were going to be out in front; and we were going to be innovative.
To stay top of mind and present at the moment, we engaged in constant communication. By providing regular updates on what the government regulations were at that time, we kept our workers, guests and suppliers up to date on when we might reopen, etc. Our leadership team was in the restaurant working shifts every day alongside our team members.
Additionally, we stayed out in front by anticipating the next steps. Our team was and is focused on creating and continuing to provide a safe environment for our staff and guests. Our policies went above and beyond what was required. Specifically, we reduced our capacity and required masks, even before the local government required it.
To better support the business, we also took the time to be innovative. We created two new ghost kitchens (from scratch!) to boost sales and retain jobs. MindfulBowls and CinnaSwirl helped to support our business and give us an extra boost when we needed it most.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The short answer: no. The longer answer: it was never a consideration. I’ve never struggled with self-motivation, but this time, it wasn’t just me on the line. My motivation for the last nine months has been our employees and their families. Not only do we have to keep this business alive, but this business helps support real people with real families. As a business that serves the community, we couldn’t just throw in the towel. The community needs us now more than ever: to provide jobs, to provide food and to keep providing business to our suppliers (all of which come from the surrounding areas of our business).
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader should — no must — provide clear and factual information. In many cases leaders feel compelled to “beat around the bush,” and all it does is create confusion. We did our best to make sure that everyone understood exactly what our plan was at each stage in the process. Sure, the plan might change, but as long as there is a logical decision-making procedure in place, everything will work out. We focused on being upfront and honest as that is the best way to keep our team together and motivated.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It might seem obvious, but it’s important to make team members feel valued and recognized. No one wants to do hard work on the front lines of a pandemic by themselves. So, we made sure to be present, talk to people about non-work related topics and get to know them as people better. A simple five-minute conversation with someone about what they did on their days off goes a long way.
Recognizing hard work is also important. Everyone wants to be recognized. We encouraged team members to share ideas about what we should do to recognize and support the community, and we listened to their ideas. At Daily Jam, we felt it was our mission to be there for our guests. So we offered first responders free coffee and 35% off, kids eat free meals and frozen items families could prepare at home. This attention to the bigger picture created great engagement.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It can be difficult to do but being clear and factual is the way to go. As much as it is easy to revert back to fluff, you have to resist the urge. By softening the message, you can confuse or fail to get the right message across. In the middle of a pandemic, misinformation and confusion can become a larger issue than in normal times — not that it is good in either situation.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
No one can predict the future. Plans are important, but even more so is the self-awareness and adaptability to understand when the plan needs to change. Setting clear objective KPI’s that tell you if the plan is working or not. If it is not, don’t be afraid to shake it up and change the plan.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I’ve found that it always pays to be human. In the midst of so much pain and struggle, you can still show empathy toward the team in a workplace setting. Silence is not an option. By being as clear and communicative as possible, you can eliminate some of the fear and uncertainties your team members have about the future.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
It’s tempting to think in difficult times that you have to respond immediately. Unfortunately, by reacting too quickly, you can actually end up in a worse position. While you shouldn’t waffle back and forth on decisions indefinitely, there’s always time to research your options to avoid making any mistakes from jumping too quickly.
Another common mistake is being too rigid and focusing solely on “The Plan” without keeping track of the bigger picture. Yes, it is important to make plans; but it is equally as important to realize that the circumstances may have changed. When it’s time to adopt a new plan or change course, a strong business and leader need to be ready to shift to the new situation.
Also, people often fall back on not communicating well to team members and the public. This greatly hurts your credibility and can lead to misunderstandings (the last thing you need during difficult times). But by providing clear and honest communication both internally and externally, you can avoid these misunderstandings and keep everyone up to date.
Overall, everything comes back to a leader’s ability to focus on the organization’s self-awareness and mindfulness to avoid these mistakes and the compounding issues that result from each. Mindfulness and self-awareness are your best friends during times of trouble.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Once we found out that we had to close our dine-in options, we had to find other revenue streams outside of our typical business model. Normally, we spend a lot of time training our team members to ensure that guests get exceptional customer service alongside providing our delicious food and drinks. But when you lose dine-in options, you lose the ability to provide the same level of customer service.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. As we had jumped on the delivery train early in 2020, we were set up for success on that side of the business. Also, we looked at different ways to innovate and provide better service to our guests. As I mentioned before, we created two new concepts, our ghost kitchens. With these additional streams of revenue, we were able to maintain and continue to have a growth mindset even in a pandemic.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Self-Awareness — Understanding when a company or project needs adjustment, a strong leader will be able to roll with the punches when things are not going according to plan or the circumstances have changed. On the flip side, that self-awareness also creates an understanding of when a project is taking off and is successful.
- Clear Communication — I know that I’ve mentioned this a few times, but just to really hit it home, this needs to be a major consideration. During uncertain and turbulent times, clear communication sets realistic expectations.
- Hyper-Realistic Understanding of the Current Situation — With clear communication comes a hyper-realistic understanding. You can’t sugarcoat the situation. But you also can’t just be pessimistic and shut down every idea either. When dealing with turbulent times, leaders should not shy away from the “squiggly things under the rocks.”
- Learn from Your People — When I say “people” I mean both your customers and your employees. Each can offer great insights, and all you need is the patience to listen and act on their wisdom.
- Have Fun — What are we all doing if we don’t enjoy what we do? Everyone wants to be a part of something exciting. Even when growth isn’t there, it’s up to the leaders to inject fun somehow into everyone’s day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My quote comes from Nelson Mandela. He famously said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.”
I’ve had my fair share of “failures” both professionally and personally, and I’ve done my best to carry this quote with me and share it with team members. If you don’t win, you can always learn why not and make yourself that much better for the next time you come across the same problem. To me, this quote encourages tiny improvements every single day.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best way to follow what I’m up to is to check out my LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/berekk