Breaking the culture of silence

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on January 30, 2019 Published on January 30, 2019

In his book, Dunkin’ Brands executive chairman Nigel Travis argues that all employees should be encouraged to question and debate decisions

When organisations broke down hierarchies and began to get flatter, the idea was to encourage communication and stop being so top-down. However, the reality is that questioning and dialogue on decisions is not encouraged.

In his book, Nigel Travis, the executive chairman of Dunkin’ Brands, points out how in times of change especially, a culture of questioning, pushback, challenge, and debate is so necessary in order to stay relevant. Through the story of his innings at Dunkin’, from where he retired as CEO last year, and where he says huge positive results were achieved thanks to the challenge culture, he paints a picture of how this can be introduced, and how it can be put to practice effectively.

Actually the story begins much earlier than Dunkin’ — during his stint at Papa John’s, in fact, where Travis took on the might of reigning pizza brand Domino’s through some clever ambush marketing. Domino’s was sponsoring an episode of the TV show The Apprentice, which starred Donald Trump and which involved contestants performing some business task. The show’s signature moment is when Trump identifies the weakest performer and yells ‘You’re fired’. The episode sponsored by Domino’s involved contestants creating a new flavour of pizza. Seeing the promos, Travis got his ad agency to quickly create a commercial in which the Papa John’s founder sits in a leather chair exactly like Trump does and shouts out his judgement. “Why get a pizza made by apprentices when you can order a pizza made by pros at Papa John’s? And looking at the camera, says, “To our competition I say, You are fired.”

Incidentally, before running this highly assertive ad, Travis had run it past all the franchisee owners of Papa John’s and obtained their buy-in. As Travis describes, the ad was a statement to Papa John’s people that the company would not accept the status quo but challenge it — in a humorous way.

At Dunkin’ Brands, Travis followed up on his ‘make employees and partners challenge-the-status-quo’ approach. Early in his innings at the company he encountered the problem of silence, when he found a franchisee preparing to leave Dunkin without telling the problem he was facing. Upon probing, Travis discovers that the franchisee did not really agree with the company’s growth strategy or with the menu. Many also were worried about the company’s PE ownership structure since they assumed private equity firms had a model of making too many changes.

Clearly, these questions needed to be asked in public to the management and not just bottled up. As Travis writes, “You need positive questioning and persuasive pushback to develop new ideas and to gain buy-in for them.”

Travis’ arguments are really persuasive. After all, he spent 19 years in the HR role (one of those rare CEOs who rise up from a people function). And, as he points out, his thinking about corporate culture stems from his university days studying personnel management and industrial relations, where he learnt about unitary and pluralistic organisations. Unitary view holds that employers and employees share common interests. But pluralistic view holds that the interests are different and there must be constant negotiations.

There are lots and lots of takeaways from the book — both for leaders as well as employees. On how to question without antagonism, negativity. As Travis cautions, communication in a challenge culture can be messy as there can be disagreements. The way to get past this is to overcommunicate.

Travis also points out how there are many people who have a predilection for numbers and data and won’t accept new ideas unless backed up by quantitative approach.

The solution, says Travis, is to deal with it with a sense of humour and a bit of strategy. The book ends with a useful checklist for creating a challenge culture.

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Published on January 30, 2019
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