Two weeks removed from the tragic killing of George Floyd, protests and demands for change have yet to lose steam.
Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison is calling on his company and other leaders to join that fight against racism and social injustice.
After a series of incidents involving black Americans and police officers in recent years, the U.S. reached a boiling point on Memorial Day when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
Chauvin was later fired from the police department and charged with multiple counts of murder and manslaughter. Three other officers—Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Kueng—were also fired and subsequently charged for their involvement.
Morrison says he initially felt outrage and anger. The incident fueled a strong sense of responsibility to ask questions such as “Why is this happening” and “What can we do to continue to talk about this and bring it to light?”
“That anger turned into concern about the future, certainly for our country,” Morrison says. “I also felt a deep sadness obviously for George Floyd’s family, but at the end of the day, the fact that it stirred me emotionally really brought to mind my responsibilities as a leader and what I can do to do something about it.”
The CEO expressed these thoughts in a weekly Zoom meeting that Wingstop has held since the beginning of the pandemic. He shared his emotions and frustrations with what’s happening in the U.S., which he says is typical because the company usually has conversations in which team members discuss what’s on their mind.
For weeks, COVID was Morrison’s focus, but the death of Floyd weighed heavily on his mind. When he finished pouring out his feelings, the company turned off the “mute” button, giving more than 250 people in the meeting an opportunity to give their point of view.
“It was amazing what happened from there—a ton of raw emotion,” Morrison says. “I mean tears were shed. Everybody really stepped in and had an honest, vulnerable, real discussion. And from there, I left feeling, ‘All right you know what, this is something I have to do something about,’ and we’re certainly as leaders given the opportunity to speak. … In this particular case, that meeting left me more encouraged than ever to reach out and speak on this to anybody who would want to listen to me.”
The next move was determining how Wingstop can advance the issue of racial discrimination, raise awareness, facilitate honest conversations, engage in dialogue, and listen intently.
Similar to what the company did with COVID, the brand is forming a task force to keep the messaging alive and consistent among all team members and partners.
Morrison says that message centers first and foremost on listening, especially for white citizens like him who don’t experience the pitfalls facing black citizens each day.
“I think that listening is paramount and step one in our efforts to then utilize that to effect change,” Morrison says. “The change in the discussion centers on continued reinforcement and training, which we’ve done, but I think we can continue to get better around unconscious bias. We as an organization clearly understand that unconscious bias exists, but I think we can do more to make sure that we identify and point out the areas where that can come alive and what we can do to eliminate it. A lot of that starts with listening and then the dialogue between ourselves with our teammates, ourselves with our franchisees, and ourselves with our consumers, as well. So as we work through those, I think those are going to be key elements of making sure that we don’t let this go and we move on to the next thing that happens to us—that this becomes something that’s ingrained in our culture, in our everyday lives, and our everyday conversations.”
As a white man, Morrison acknowledged he doesn’t know what it’s like to deal with racism. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t seen it, but he cannot begin to understand specifically what it means to be in the shoes of a black person in America. He adds that Wingstop supports peaceful protests, and that he hopes the demonstrations continue to shed light on racial injustice.
As a CEO of a large company, Morrison says he can leverage that platform to listen and vocalize what needs to be said.
“Not all conversations are going to make for change, but I do believe that they are a big step, and one of the things I’ve noted in my comments publicly is that it’s not just me,” Morrison says. “It’s every CEO in America; it’s every leader in America. We all need to be not just saying that we empathize with what’s happening in America and what has been happening for quite some time. But separately, making sure we’re doing something about it because we have that responsibility as leaders.”
“I think about what happened to George Floyd, and an individual who was given authority misused it and that led to the death of George Floyd,” he continues. “And we as leaders have authority and we need not misuse it, but let’s leverage it in the right way to encourage and support and drive more change. If we do that and we continue that, I think we will make a big impact because our company has somewhere around 20,000 to 25,000 employees—that’s a lot of lives that we can influence. That’s a lot of dialogue we can have. Now multiply that by the number of leaders in America, and I think we all have that platform and I think we all have that responsibility to listen, to empathize, and to take action. Those are the key steps.”