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How franchise bosses lead from home, amid a crisis


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Chris Rowland

Chris Rowland, CEO of Pet Supplies Plus, and his constant companions at home.

On the day hair salons and nearly everything else were locked down in her locale, Bette Fetter, founder of Young Rembrandts, immediately pivoted to produce videos starring her teaching drawing lessons so students could learn at home.

But her first thought was primal: “Oh no, my hair!” she said with a laugh. “I had a hair appointment the day we shut down,” and she considered sneaking in for a bootleg color but decided that was silly. “I thought, we’ll just have to be honest about our roots.”

Fetter’s concerns were the most common response, from men and women alike, when The Human Element set out to ask a number of franchise CEOs how they were adapting to leading their teams from home.

From half-joking quips—”I’m glad there’s no video on this call because I look like a hippie”—to profound lessons about the deeper connections that can arise during times of crisis, here’s what leaders say they’ve learned when bad hair days turn into weeks.

Some of the lessons will last much longer than the pandemic.

Daily recaps to adjust

An Umbrella cockatoo is Chris Rowland’s constant companion now that the CEO of Pet Supplies Plus is working from home along with his 140 corporate employees. Same for his two dogs. “I have a Pekinese, she’s 13, and a Tibetan Spaniel, so two little dogs that are verrrrrry needy.”

They require too much attention to take to the office on pet Fridays, so now is the first time his employees have been introduced. “Oh, now I see why you don’t bring them to work,” they’ll say.

Pet Supplies Plus, headquartered in suburban Detroit, was one of the first employers in the city to go fully work-from-home.

Before lockdown orders came, he decided to try a one-week test to see how they’d fare. “We’re going to learn as we go,” he told everyone, and then held an end-of-day recap to make adjustments.

“To an individual, everybody stepped up. In hindsight, I have a saying: A crisis has a way of making decisions a lot easier and cleaner, and clearer,” he said. “Because we felt we had more to lose by not making this work, everybody worked through the kinks very, very quickly.”

A new product line is born

Wayne Teng, co-founder of TheCoderSchool, pivoted to offering computer coding tutorials online rather than in person once schools began shutting down in March. “The transition was very much thrown upon us,” he said, like for many others.

“As it got closer, there was definitely sleepless nights, and trying out almost every single web conferencing platform out there. We were able to do a lot of testing and be prepared for it.”

The next task was getting the info to 50 franchise locations across the country. “We had to get the documentation out and then be able to support people with lots of questions,” he said. They used Facebook Workspace and Zoom meetings, among other tools.

He believes the online code coaching will last beyond the pandemic. “We had to give birth to it, there was no choice. And once it was born, we’re using it and using it well. There will be some type of hybrid going forward,” he said.

‘Just saying, How are you?’

“When we first started to work from home, I thought it would be great. It was much harder than I thought,” said Joe Hart, CEO of Dale Carnegie Training, especially because “I found it almost impossible to stop.”

Two things helped. “I’ve just built in specific times to break in my day,” he said. “I’ve also made sure to maintain connections with people, just reaching out to people, and just saying, how are you? People have done that for me, too.”

He has six kids, four of whom (teenagers) are home. “It’s been nice to be able to spend some time with them,” he said. “Maybe this sounds unusual, we started to have family dinners!”

As for life after the pandemic: “I personally think that some of the things that are changing are going to change for good,” he said, including more flexibility around remote work, and more opened-up thinking.

“How do we continue to adapt to changes and make sure we’re meeting our customers’ needs, whatever those needs are? It’s forced us to be even more agile and innovative.”

Bette Fetter

Bette Fetter, founder of Young Rembrandts, with students in pre-COVID days.

A lifeline for franchisees

Bette Fetter, the founder of Young Rembrandts, is sheltering at home with her husband and adult son; like many baby boomers, she finds it amusing that her son was the person who ordered her to stay in. He also happens to be the company’s videographer, and was able to shoot video for those drawing lessons in the studio in Fetter’s basement.

“The most important thing is communication, with franchisees, with your team, communication with parents,” she said. The brand held local calls per state with business coaches; they also hold a weekly call every Thursday at 11 a.m. “Our business coaches have been very intentional about reaching out and touching every single one of the franchisees.”

Those videotaped drawing lessons have become a lifeline for franchisees, a way to keep some revenue coming in and stay in close contact with customers until schools re-open. As for her hair? Happily, she joked, she was able to tape dozens and dozens of lessons before it really went south.

The Human Element covers HR management, recruitment and training topics in each issue with a focus on solutions. Send story ideas to Laura Michaels, lmichaels@franchisetimes.com


Five ideas for leading from home

1. Add a LOT of regular communication. “One of the great upsides of this horrible, national and international crisis is managers and employees will get a whole lot better at structured communication,” said Bruce Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking. “If you have direct reports, you better have structured one-on-ones, but also with your boss, also with your lateral colleagues.” He recommends written agendas in advance and “accountability check-ins” afterward.

Crafts

2. It’s the tools, stupid. A remote workplace needs to equip everyone with the right tools and make sure they know how to use them, “not just tools for remote communication, but tools for collaboration,” Tulgan said. “How do you work on product together, pass work back and forth? Everyone has to have the setup.”

That means paying for professional versions of conference and collaboration software (try them for free first and then invest in the best). Then pair your most tech-savvy staffers with the most challenged for a few sessions of training. Those gizmos won’t help if some people don’t know how to un-mute their mic.

3. Put some formality in place. A lot of people say, “I’m having a hard time getting into a rhythm working from a spare bedroom. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning and I’m still in my fluffy pajamas,” said D.J. Thatcher, a trainer for Dale Carnegie Training. “Set the alarm, do your morning routine, and get dressed. How we dress affects our frame of mind completely.” He also recommends regular “story-telling” sessions to boost the team’s spirits.

4. Or don’t, and embrace a new sense of humanity. “Our whole team quickly abandoned the pretense of, this has to be formal. We’re sitting there in our pajamas, our sweats,” said School of Rock CEO Rob Price. “We’re a community of musicians, so we improvise.” Some of the most fun moments in the new Zoom world are colleagues’ kids, spouses and pets popping up on screen to say hi. Case in point: Abbi Nawrocki, Franchise Times production manager, put her kids to work making crafty pets (top photo), including “special orders” that were then mailed. Not only did this delight her co-workers and increase their connections with each other, but it also kept her kids occupied during home-schooling.

5. Manage the firehose of information. At Checkers & Rally’s, CEO Frances Allen appointed a “news czar” to collect information each day of the fast-moving crisis, and distill it to report the most relevant items for each audience. At Batteries Plus Bulbs, CEO Scott Williams holds a daily “War Room” briefing at 3 p.m., with an update on state-by-state rules, plus daily sales figures, comps by state, top-moving items and similar stats. The methods vary, but the point is to provide concise information delivered from a key leader on a regular schedule, so franchisees and others don’t have to drink from the firehose.

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