· 3 min read · Features

TGI Friday's MD: my people management secrets

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When Karen Forrester joined TGI Friday’s, it was a brand in decline. So how did the winner of the Most People-Focused CEO in this year’s HR Excellence Awards turn it around?

 

Casual dining has a new hero. TGI Friday’s UK managing director Karen Forrester is fast becoming one of the most talked about people in the sector, after engineering a people-led recovery at the once-struggling chain. And after being named Most People-Focused CEO in the private sector at last month’s HR Excellence Awards, it’s not just those in the restaurant sector who are aware of her. 

Forrester has led the UK arm of the American diner chain through tough times and put it back on track to expansion. When she joined in 2007, she says Friday’s was seen as “tired, dated and on our way out. The love was gone and the people had lost pride.” 

But what a difference six years makes. The chain has reported 14 consecutive quarters of growth in the UK and there are plans to open 20 new restaurants over the next three years. Forrester has joined the global executive team at Friday’s parent company Carlson Restaurants, and the chain came third in this year’s Best Companies to Work For listing. So what are the secrets to Forrester’s success? Here’s what you can learn from this top CEO.

 

Recognition is key to success

In the US, recognition is a vital component of Friday’s success, and Forrester has replicated this in the traditionally more reticent UK. She recognises that recognition is very much part of Friday’s DNA and has taken the lead in revamping staff ‘achievement’ badges, which had lost their meaning when she arrived. “We have our stripes back,” she says. 

The company also runs a Disney-like Gold Mark card scheme, which provides on-the-spot recognition and reward, and Friday’s Legends, where nominated colleagues are treated to a day out. And in January, the UK business flew 400 of its people over to Florida for a party. “We can’t afford not to do it,” Forrester says, describing such activity as a “huge deposit in the emotional bank account”. There are financial rewards too, with 98% of managers receiving bonuses last year. 

Every November, restaurant staff who have impressed during ‘mystery shopper’ visits are rewarded. “We’re not there to catch them out, but to see them at their best,” says Forrester. Her next big plan is to produce a book containing case studies of exceptional service.

 

 

Don’t be afraid to lose people

When Forrester arrived at Friday’s, she knew what she had to do: “We had to redefine the culture, engage our people and reignite the brand.” This meant taking a brutal approach to ensuring the right people were on board. Everyone in the organisation was assessed and classified as ‘players’, ‘wannabe players’ (who needed more training), ‘potential players’ (who could go either way) and ‘assassins’ (who had the ability to sabotage the transformation project).

Out went the assassins. “Things were much better when we got rid of them,” Forrester says. As US restaurant guru Jim Sullivan would say, it’s about getting rid of the ‘dead wood’, and Friday’s repeats the exercise every year. First time around, 12% of Friday’s 3,000 employees were sifted out, with a further 20% told they needed to improve – “which most did,” Forrester says. Four years on, just 2% left.

 

Get on top of succession planning

While not looking to move on any time soon, Forrester is building a strong team around her and says there are already a handful of contenders to be her eventual successor. Most of her senior managers are graduates, but that doesn’t mean they lack shop-floor experience. 

“They might have degrees, but they’ve also fallen in love with the brand, often having worked at Friday’s while students and then deciding this is a career path for them,” she says.

Of the restaurant managers currently in training, 70% are internal appointments, and external candidates are only accepted after an intensive 12-week programme. Crucially, no one is appointed as a general manager directly from outside the company. This ensures everyone truly understands Friday’s culture, values and ambitions. 

 

Be authentic 

Without truly knowing a company inside-out, it’s very difficult to make a real difference, so Forrester has spent a lot of time in the US with Friday’s founder Dan Scoggins in a bid to tap into the brand’s original values. 

“It was important to go back and study what made Friday’s in the first place,” she explains. 

Having done so, she was able to identify the problems with the UK business and bring authenticity to the fore. “Values had become really corporate,” she says, citing her three values for the business as “pride – a contagious belief in our family and brand; passion – pursuing excellence on our stage; and personality – seeking opportunities to shine”. 

“It’s about how people dress and look after themselves and the place,” she adds. “How they interact with customers and colleagues. When they come to work they have to bring their personality with them. You have to be authentic. Brands have to stand for something. There has to be an emotional attachment.”

Authenticity is evidently one of Forrester’s favourite words, and she is seen as a truly authentic leader by those who work for her. “If it looks good, you’ll see it. If it sounds good, you’ll hear it. If it’s marketed right, you’ll buy it. But if it’s real, you’ll feel it. That authentic Friday’s feeling is what differentiates us.” 

 

A version of this article was originally published in the Peach Report