Chris Laping

Title: Senior vice-president for business transformation
Company: Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
Size: $1.04bn market capitalisation, 24,340 employees

COMMUN(ICATE): Giving employees a sense of purpose and ownership

When Chris Laping wants to talk about something important with his 17-year-old son, he has learned that the best place to do so is in the music studio in their Denver-area home. “We jam in there when I play guitar—and we talk about careers,” he says.

Throughout his own career, Mr Laping, a 42-year-old father of three, has focused on fostering good communication. As senior vice-president for business transformation at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, a US restaurant chain, he analyses how his teams think and what will engage them in their work—and then uses cross-workforce communication to initiate change.

When Mr Laping, who was previously the chain’s chief information officer, took on his current position in 2010, Red Robin’s new chief executive, Steve Carley, was determined to revitalise the company. “Our group was already organising change,” he says. “We were really trying to instill a culture of innovation and transformation.”

Mr Laping has streamlined operational processes, improved staff training and development, found cost savings, introduced new products and enhanced the customer experience. “The restaurant industry is a hypercompetitive marketplace,” Mr Laping says. “You have to change at the drop of a hat.”

To drive change, he focused on increasing communication, collaboration and, perhaps most important, engagement. This is especially key for a company that hires some 20,000 people a year, 87% of whom are “millennials”, men and women in their 20s and 30s.

“This is a very purpose-driven, not profit-driven generation,” says Mr Laping. “They want to work at a place where they feel good.”

To expand communication, collect feedback and accelerate change, Red Robin created two networks: “Yummer” for restaurant managers, regional managers and corporate staff to share information and respond to questions from the field staff; and “Yummversity” to train employees and enable them to communicate with peers throughout the company.

In 2012, Red Robin began replacing old-fashioned paper wait lists with iPads, the first national chain to do so. This enabled staff to send text messages to customers that their table was ready and also improved the seating process. Mr Laping started with a pilot at 50 restaurants. “Instead of taking it to the labs and figuring it out for six or 12 months, we were trying to accelerate the testing by crowd-sourcing a solution in the marketplace,” he says. “I can tell you that in two to three hours, I had 110 restaurants that wanted to use it.”

Within several months, 700 iPads had been deployed in Red Robin restaurants and, a few months later, another 1,000. That scale made it possible to replace Red Robin’s paper employee manual with Yummversity and its interactive games and simulations, which gave employees practice in making food and drinks and interacting with guests. Yummversity also let new hires get questions answered as well as provide feedback.

“With mobile and social, this reaches [millenials] where they are at,” he says. “This drives engagement to reduce turnover.”

While the approach may be new for Red Robin, it is consistent with Mr Laping’s long-lived commitment to open leadership to enable and drive change. “I believe your best ideas come from people who are closest to the problems,” Mr Laping says. “I believe it’s all about how people work together.”





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