As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Rea Dickey.
Laura Rea Dickey currently serves as Chief Executive Officer of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. where she has taken the family-owned brand to new heights by overseeing the development of its first international locations with restaurants in the UAE, specifically Abu Dabi and Dubai. Dickey also helped pioneer the third-party delivery program for the brand, contributing to positive same stores sales in all digital channels for the past three years. Dickey has been with the brand since 2009 and most recently served as Chief Information Officer before transitioning to CEO in 2017. marketing, IT and training teams at Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. during her time there.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I did not see myself making a career in smoked meats, that’s for sure. I’m from Wyoming, grew up in Oklahoma and migrated to Texas for school. I’m a terrible cook, so running the world’s largest barbecue company wasn’t a goal. I started my career in marketing and technology. I worked for several years helping brands develop their identities and utilize data to drive sales. My husband grew up in the restaurant business. After working successfully for a different restaurant company outside Dickey’s, he took over leading the family’s barbecue franchise and then the 2008 recession hit. Like many others, we were faced with tough choices. Instead of selling Dickey’s or slowing down growth, he asked me to join in a consulting capacity to help ensure the Dickey’s brand endured and expansion continued. I had worked with other national brands such as Chick-Fil-A, Blue Mesa, W Hotels and la Madeleine. While hesitant about working for the family business, I joined the team. We all assumed it was a temporary choice and I would go back to my own agency work after the economic crisis passed. I set up a community marketing program, upgraded the digital brand assets and reworked the media buying. I dove into developing upgraded training, communications and then focused on the lack of data and technology. As the recession waned, Dickey’s was taking advantage of doubling down during hard times and driving past competitors. The big recession lesson was — we need more data-driven decisions and to lessen the silos of information in the company to maximize profits. I ended up accepting the Chief Information Officer role and developed a ten-year technology infrastructure plan for the company.
In my time as CIO, I worked across practically every department in the company to implement technologies into our business model, from marketing to operations, finance, and training. We pride ourselves as being an early adopter of technology and e-commerce; investing early in barbecue and big data, has paid off for us. The restaurant industry at large was slower to adopt technologies, digital platforms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. This gave Dickey’s another advantage. Rather than wait for somebody else to develop the technology, we took matters into our own hands and developed a proprietary system that synthesizes data from our point-of-sale systems, marketing promotions, loyalty programs, customer surveys and inventory systems, we fondly named Smokestack. Through the system we were able to get real-time feedback on sales and other key performance indicators, and “Smoke Stack” ended up getting profiled by Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. From there, we continued developing our own proprietary technologies- a point-of-sales system, online ordering platform, guest APP, delivery system and upgraded e-commerce platforms.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I travel a lot to visit our franchise partners and often work remotely, dialing into meetings and calls. As such, I don’t need a traditional office space; I would consider that a waste. So, I opted to share a space with our CIO Carissa DeSantis. We leave part of our office set up and open for meetings with a coffee table and eight club chairs, that anyone can use anytime. I happened to be in our co-office, sitting in a club chair on my tablet, when the front desk sent an interview to wait in the meeting area.
The young man sits down waiting for his interview rounds to start and assumes I’m also a waiting interview. He strikes up a conversation, and tells me what he’s heard about the company, what he’s nervous about, and a lot of other interesting insights. I chat with him, but he never asks who I am directly or makes the connection. When the receptionist comes to escort him to his interviews, I wave her off.
This very personable guy, who didn’t know who I was, that loved David Sedaris books and was nervous about his girlfriend being vegetarian and someone might find out, ended up being a great hire.
Since then, all first round interviews wait in our office lounge before or during interview rotations. Interestingly, 80% don’t realize who they are sitting with when either of us are in the office. Most will strike up a conversation. Those casual conversations and interactions end up being a better indicator of a successful hire than almost anything else.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was working on a brand launch for a portfolio of national student housing projects — big project, big budget, big deal. I was onsite for the first of twelve big student apartment property openings happening over the next few weeks near college campuses. The beautiful, expensive brochures and collateral arrived. It was the morning of opening day for tours and pre-leasing, and it was the final hours of staging everything. My boss and I were the on-site team and opened the first of a 100 brochure boxes and poured through the pages.
An 18-year-old leasing agent starts laughing and says “well, this will be the only apartment that comes with wire panty shelves.”
Huge typo, big text call-out over a photo of the closed bathroom linen closet — panty, not pantry was in 18-point font. Exactly what you want your college kid to have in their first apartment — panty shelves.
First, I learned the value of triple checking press proofs and requiring a proofreading sign off. Second, I learned what a panic attack looks like, as I watched my boss Rebecca have one. Third, I learned the value of radical candor, creativity and Kinkos. You just must find a way to make it work sometimes.
We settled on a ‘best and brightest’ leasing special as a solution amongst the eight of us. If a guest found the typos in the brochure on his or her first tour and signed a lease that day, they could choose one of three closing gifts (a DVD player, a hair flat iron or $150 off your first month’s rent). I raced to Kinkos, used their computer to set-up the promotion and had them print counter cards, etc. We beat our leasing goals by 220% the first week. We sent the promotion to the other properties, with a one-sheeter explaining how to handle it with parents and students. Parents, if they were initially offended, appreciated that we just owned having a typo and turning it into their benefit. I also learned that kids do not care about saving their parents $150 but will fight over flat irons. Find a way to make it work.
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 about that?
Jerry Murray. He took a chance on me as a paid summer intern at his creative group, MBCG, even though I was an undergraduate philosophy major at TCU. I worked for him for two years while I was in school, and he never once treated me like an intern. I was included, challenged, and did real work. I was exposed to real budgets, real clients, real projects, and real problems. He put my work in front of clients if that’s what he thought worked best. He was flexible with my schedule and let me make the most out of my 20 hours per week. He challenged my work, my writing, and my designs. He had me re-do things if he thought they missed the mark. He also made me understand the connection between creative, communication and business. He taught me that effort counts, but only results matter when it comes to clients, brands, and business. Almost twenty years later, I am CEO of Dickey’s and we needed a CMO, so I reached out to Jerry. I asked him to head our CMO search and start consulting for the brand. He graciously agreed. While he runs his own successful marketing firm, Jerry has consulted as Dickey’s outside brand advocate since 2016.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Deep Breaths, a good book and a preparation routine. These three things help me stay centered and focused. I am a voracious reader and love all kinds of books. I also take 15 to 20 minutes before anything big and go through the same preparation steps. It’s a great way to clear my mind- remembering to breath and focus on your breath is a great habit to form. Then I push everything else aside and prepare. I check the news headlines, check our data dashboard, and check the agenda or topic that I’m walking into. I consult my notes and research. Finally, I make sure I focus on answering the question, what do I need to achieve? I work backwards in my mind to a see a path for that and then head into the interview, the board meeting or whatever situation with optimal calm.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
An echo chamber is a dangerous place to try and build a stable business foundation or set up long-term profitability. You need a plethora of perspectives. You need a variety of experiences and a solid team that respects and respectfully challenges each other. You need radical candor. If you don’t have a diverse leadership team, you’ll end up in an echo chamber and not realize it. That isn’t sustainable and it doesn’t maximize business returns.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society?
First, we must all challenge ourselves to do our best. We must each contribute to work and community and intentionally seek out opposing ideas and commit to a curious mind. We must be an example, by putting in the hours early in your career to accomplish our goals later in life. Go in early, stay late, and do it because you are passionate about your job and want to elevate yourself and others. Work smart. Be kind. Fake it until you make it — every expert did the thing they’ve mastered for the first time, once. Don’t let fear of failure hold you back from pursuing a new or challenging opportunity, believe in yourself and your ability. Then as you achieve success, give back. Give dollars, give your direct efforts. Lift as you climb.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As the CEO, I’m responsible for the brand, the barbecue experience we provide guests, and the continued profitability and expansion of the company. What I didn’t realize is that would include is being engaged in every single aspect of the business, while also trusting someone else to own each piece. You do everything and nothing. You drive, you do and then you let go. You must build the team that takes it to completion. It’s like being a hall monitor, you ensure everyone is in the right place at the right time, doing the right things and guard the door.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You work as much at the top as you do the bottom of an org chart, the work just changes. As the leader, you worry about everything, instead of one thing. You must be ok carrying the burden of others because you are responsible to and for everyone. You must challenge yourself and be relentless because there isn’t anyone else around to do that for you. Success must be constantly fed and tended to stick around and that doesn’t change because of your title.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Self-doubt. I found woman question their own ability and themselves as executives, much more than men do. Try first, worry second. Another issue is work-life balance. Balance isn’t something you achieve, it’s something you constantly do. I see women worrying about achieving a grand work-life balance constantly. Men tend to see each instance of work-life balance as a situational choice; they make the choice and move on. Women carry doubt about that.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I spend as much time working on the business as I do in the business. I do a lot of the things I have always done but now I just play a different part in the process.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
No, not everyone is not cut out to be an executive. Everyone is different with different talents, priorities and commitment thresholds. An executive is a role like any other. Seek it if you want. Accept it if you commit to owning the role. Find a better fit, if the demands and skills required don’t match for you and your life priorities. To be a successful executive, you must have a curious mind, relentless pursuit endurance and extreme flexibility.
I have some advice to offer:
- Take calculated risks
- Read daily
- Know your numbers
- Fake it until you make
- Work with facts and people equally well. Have a sense of humor about both.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Read, proofread, listen to podcasts, and don’t email what should be a phone call. Tone and context are so easy to misread in an email, and they can lead to reactive responses rather than progress and action to move forward. This isn’t to say that I think email is all around evil — it’s an incredibly helpful tool that should be used. Just don’t let people avoid conversations. Have and require radical candor. Have patience. Don’t allow people to pass the buck, instead make them own things.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Our mantra is do both well and good. That is one of three core beliefs for our company and our foundation, The Dickey Foundation. We give back to the communities in which we do business. The Foundation has given first responders over 150k in grants this year so far for equipment and safety gear. I constantly find ways to support and grow symbiotically the business and the foundation.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. No one drinks the plain office coffee; they all go to the building lounge for gourmet coffee. I suffered this for years.
2. Go to lunch with different people once a month. It was years before I figured out how important this is.
3. Read news and industry headlines every day, so you are aware and connected and don’t get tunnel vision.
4. Know your numbers. You must have a metric for everything important. You have to know where everything stands at all times and have your team know and the push to improve daily.
5. Own your schedule and ensure you have blocked think time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Everyone Reads. I believe the path for anyone to better themselves or the world, starts with reading, literacy, and critical thinking. I would challenge everyone to teach one person to read or read more confidentially.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Evolve or fail.” You will either embrace needed change and drive it or it will drive right over you. I remind myself each day that if the business isn’t growing it’s receding, and encouraging a culture of growth as the company’s strategy requires being comfortable with change. Seek good change. Complacency, circumstance, and competition lurk just behind success. You have to stay ahead of all three by constantly moving forward and evolving. If we hadn’t been committed to evolving and working on ‘next’ so many times at Dickey’s, as a third generation privately owned company, we would be a nostalgic brand people fondly remember instead of the world’s largest barbecue company.