To grow, you have to be open and vulnerable. You have to have thick skin, and share even when you’re going backward.”
CryStAl AShby: hello, John. It’s almost 10 years for you at Denny’s, right?
JOhN mIllEr: Yes, February the 1st.
CA: Congratulations. has it been the ride you thought it would be?
Jm: it’s never as you plan. my first ride in from the airport, my cab driver asked, “isn’t denny’s the company that had some race problems not too long ago?” that had happened 17—now 26! – years before! despite our progress, we still needed to change that narrative.
CA: So, how did you change it?
Jm: First of all, we had to own it. second, we had to set metrics and goals, hold leaders accountable, so that it’s part of your business literally every day, from the shift level and all the way to the strategic multiyear plan that the board endorses.
CA: how did that process evolve into something you support so strongly?
Jm: Well, it’s a personal decision. is “this is good for business” enough of a reason? does that mean if it’s bad for business, it’s okay to discriminate? my parents said no, and i agree. You need to be principled to be successful. You have to be responsible to the constituencies you’re serving, and we serve everyone.
CA: have conversations in your organization changed now?
Jm: Well, it’s really just more of the same. We’re purpose-driven, and our purpose is we love feeding people: open to all, serving all, supporting all the communities, buying from all communities, and representing the communities in which we serve to make our living. We have a wildly diverse guest base, so our management teams, from entry-level all the way through the board, should be wildly diverse. We’re not there yet. in the past five or six years, we’ve made progress on our board – our chair is Black, and she may be the only one in full service – and in our hires. But by the time you get to the little pyramid at the top, it’s white male. Why is that? What are the lenses we use to make those selections? What are the biases that prevail? one of the problems is that turnover is low in the middle to upper ranks, where senior officers have spent decades with our company to reach those positions. so now when we have an opening, we look through the entire roster. We set targets and goals, require a talented, diverse slate of candidates, and we hit our goals. We’re seeing progress. We embrace openness, and that means we set targets and goals and talk about what equity means. our conversations could insult some people in a different environment, but we’re all getting more comfortable. i’d say the majority of our workforce has gotten comfortable, but there are still cultural sensitivities.
CA: What kind of transparency do you have with your investors?
Jm: if you don’t publish your statistics, you can’t really track progress. to grow, you have to be open and vulnerable. You have to have thick skin, and share even when you’re going backward.
CA: One last question. how do you go about making that culture sustainable?
Jm: the culture of a company, family, home or business is more powerful than any individual. embedding principles and values becomes an anchor to the organization, with tremendous roots and stability beyond any given leader. so, we make sure we talk about this all the time, at every level. i’ve boiled it down to three sound bites: everyone is welcome at denny’s. everyone is treated like your favorite guest. everyone is treated with kindness and respect. With Covid-19 complaints going up, we have new challenges. But when you model care and love, it unites people. my hope is those principles and values do stick. if they’re eroded, it will destroy a company. it will destroy a family. it will destroy a nation. We’ve got to care for each other.
CA: I am going to close with that last statement, John, because you really landed the plane!