The Importance of Walking a Mile in Your Employees' Shoes

    Empathy in leadership has never been as important as it is today.

    Cousins Subs CEO Christine Specht.
    Cousins Subs
    Christine Specht started with Cousins Subs as a crew member at the Germantown, Wisconsin, location.

    The current business challenges brought on by the pandemic make being empathetic more important than ever before in the workplace. Not only are leadership team members and restaurant managers heavily affected by the volatility of the COVID-19 pandemic, crew members and associates also operate with a fear of the unknown.

    What is empathy? To me, it’s simply putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to get perspective. It’s important to do so because being empathetic makes you a more well-rounded leader, especially when you recognize there is only one of you and therefore everyone else is different.

    Business leaders are by nature incredibly smart and talented individuals who are diligent about acting in the best interest of their company, employees, guests and stakeholders. It’s important that these leaders focus on applying not only their IQ but also their EQ to day-to-day operations so they can effectively lead with an understanding of the complete state of the business.

    Working in the restaurant industry, we are fortunate that there are many opportunities to exercise empathy. At Cousins Subs, our four core values—grounded, optimistic, passionate and purposeful—guide our everyday operations and help us achieve 100 percent guest service.

    Cousins Subs

    Employees want to feel heard.

    I stay grounded by identifying with my employees to fully understand their challenges and opportunities to improve their employee experience and enhance our restaurant environments. To do so, I work at least one shift in each of our more than 30 corporate-owned Cousins Subs locations each year by serving as a cashier. This fun, small gesture shows employees I am here for them and enables me to keep worries at bay by reassuring store teams that because of their hard work and dedication our company is in a great position. In fact, our year-to-date same store sales are up by over six percent and our average check increased by more than 14 percent to date in 2020.

    Working in-store is also a great opportunity to solicit honest feedback and ensure your employees feel heard. We all know the ticket to receiving the best employee input is creating a forum to chat. Oftentimes the best way to do so is to meet them where they’re most comfortable like their restaurant.

    I began my career at Cousins Subs as a crew member at the Germantown, Wisconsin, location when I was in high school. This experience alone gave me a lot of perspective and cashiering at our restaurants each month has shown me that leaders cannot fully understand their business until they work (a shift) in employees’ shoes.

    To many leaders like me, empathy is more than understanding. It’s demonstrating appreciation. When I work in our corporate-owned restaurants, I thank all team members for their hard work and dedication to Cousins Subs. Now more than ever, restaurants are under a microscope. It’s critical that employees know how much their attention to detail, flexibility and commitment to exceeding guest expectations is appreciated during this incredibly unique and in many respects trying time.  

    Last, but not least, be sure to provide employee rewards and recognition when they are earned. We’re human, and by nature we want to feel appreciated for our hard work. Amid the pandemic, Cousins Subs distributed more than $60,000 in retention bonuses to corporate restaurant crew members as a token of gratitude for staying with the company through the pandemic thus far. Additionally, Cousins Subs has promoted 52 employees within our corporate restaurants and support center and celebrated 186 work anniversaries in 2020 both for corporate support center and restaurant employees.

    There is no better way to make yourself a more well-rounded leader than rolling up your sleeves and working a shift in your employees’ shoes. Business leaders will be pleasantly surprised with what they’ll learn and how doing so not only humanizes their brand for them, but also them as a leader to their employees.