Culver's Leadership Wisdom - April 2022

Culver's Leadership Wisdom - April 2022

I remember clearly, about 10 years ago I was people watching at a Culver’s restaurant in Antigo, Wisconsin, during a work trip. I watched as a mature couple were approached by a young employee as they were finishing their meal. The teenager chatted with them, took their empty trays for them (normally a self-service function at fast food restaurants), and carried on a very attentive conversation until the couple slowly got into their coats and headed out. It looked obvious, the pair left happy – exactly what Culver’s says it will do.

My office is in Culver’s home town. This place does an amazing business, and it’s not just about the sweet, creamy custard. I heard Lea Culver speak recently at the Sauk County Institute for Leadership, and the pearls of wisdom she shared about their family business journey line up pretty well with leading rural healthcare.

Work the counter.
Before you can buy into a Culver’s franchise or be a store manager, you have to go work at one of the restaurants for a significant amount of time working as an employee-or what Culver’s calls a team member, learning the operations inside and out. It creates a connection to the people who will make you profitable so that you appreciate your strongest asset – your front line team. It also sets the stage for remembering every person, in every position, is critical to your success, and no one is more important than another. Where can you roll up your sleeves and show interest in learning about your employee’s role?
Love people.

There are multiple generations working side-by-side at Culver’s. When asked, “How do you manage the tension between the teenagers, working moms, grandparents, etc.?” Lea Culver seemed almost surprised by the question. There doesn’t seem to be the challenge between generations that exists in many other workplaces. She attributes this to their philosophy that runs through all of their training of building relationships between people and caring about them. They don’t just call people team members, they are intentional about creating a team. What is your vision for the kind of relationships you want to see between employees? How will you communicate it, model it, and hold people accountable for it?

Adapt, and adapt again.

People who trust you will move more quickly into the unknown with you. Everyone had to adapt during COVID, switching to what we can do vs what we can no longer do. For Culver’s, it was rapidly and successfully ramping up the drive through. We’ve shown we can adapt in healthcare too, pulling together to meet the needs of patients in a pandemic. What is next? What have you learned from the past two years that positions you to be proactive for the future of your team?

Sometimes, you say no to growth. 

Getting bigger does not always translate to getting better. There was a time in this franchise’s growth where opportunities came faster than they were ready for. The owners hit pause on expansion to re-evaluate priorities and put structures in place for future consistency as they grew. It’s a fine line; if we act too slowly we can miss something. But we can’t do everything and do it well. What growth opportunity do you hope for, and what is the first step to get ready for it?

Have a mission people can get their arms around.

Just like the couple in the Antigo restaurant, Culver’s mission is that guests leave happy. It’s straightforward, clear and relatable to every team member, driving every interaction. Rarely can someone articulate their hospital mission back to me. If they can, it is often just memorized words. We are all about healing, caring, etc. But what is it that makes you “you” and not the healthcare facility down the road? What if you asked employees to put the mission in their own words vs the plaque on the wall? How would they describe it?

Invest in people. 

Scholarships, tuition reimbursement and cross training are things we all do. It’s best practice for growing our own and educating the workforce we need. I suspect Culver’s knows that providing college scholarships will not result in all those students coming back to work for them. But those recipients feel appreciated and valued for their potential, and that’s good for business. Remember Richard Branson’s phrase, “Train them so well they could leave, but treat them so well they won’t want to.” How are you demonstrating that the investments you are making are for them? It’s the same dollar cost, but the difference in intention matters.



Jo Anne Preston In Jo Anne's current role as Organizational and Workforce Development Senior Manager at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative (RWHC) her aim is to offer to leaders straightforward tools and inspire the courage to use them.
Leading The Way In Five Mintues A Day

Lead the Way in Five Minutes A Day: Sparking High Performance in Yourself and Your Team, by Jo Anne Preston is currently available for purchase.

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