‘Breast Cancer Made Me a More Intentional Person.’ – The Beautiful Purpose of Setbacks

Setbacks are experiences we all try our hardest to avoid. No one likes to feel like they’ve lost years of hard work or have wasted time going down the wrong path. However, setbacks are often God’s way of redirecting His children to find the way back to His plan for each of our lives. Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc., opens up about three of the biggest setbacks she’s faced in her life and shares what each one taught her in the end.

You can listen to this entire conversation with Cheryl on our podcast, Driven 4word! Listen below or click here to find your preferred listening platform.

What do you think the purpose of setbacks is in our lives?

From a faith perspective, I think the purpose of a setback is to draw us close to God. Sometimes setbacks happen when we thought we were close to God, and He draws us tighter still to teach and grow us in some fashion. Sometimes setbacks happen when we’re a long way from God and paying attention to His intent for our life, and He yanks us back into close proximity to Him and His purposes. I think most of us would say setbacks (I call them trials and tribulations) are not usually that much fun and not usually something we go seeking out. But often, a setback is the source of a lesson, a learning, a growth spurt, if you will, in our understanding of God and what He would have for us. I believe God’s trying to create a place where we will flourish. We’re the obstacle to reaching that place so I believe setbacks are very much for our wellbeing, despite some of the pain attached to them.

How did being accepted into a premier music school as a piano major turn into a setback for you?

Well, obviously, I’m not a concert pianist today! I was an accompanist to my high school choir, so this is where my desire to be a piano major started. I had played the piano since I was four years old. My mother was my piano teacher, and then I eventually had really talented piano teachers who challenged me and made me better. But I had this one opportunity to audition for the music school at Indiana University. It is the highest-ranking state-funded school in music and probably second-highest ranking of all private schools in music. It’s a phenomenal music school. My music director had said, ‘If you get into this school, you must go.’ So I auditioned, was shocked to get in, and I went. But like many of us find out, the first thing you try in school or life isn’t always the best thing.

I brought my best music skills to Indiana University. I was a long way from being of the caliber of student that ends up being a concert pianist. I was just hoping to be a music teacher in a high school somewhere! The program was pretty intimidating and demanding. At the end of your sophomore year, you have to perform for the piano faculty and they tell you whether or not you get to go forward in your study. It was called a jury. And it felt like a jury! It was scary tense. In my case, the outcome was that my piano teacher, a respected faculty member at the school, thought I had made tremendous progress and was playing beautifully. One of his friends, a Russian pianist lady who did not agree with him, stood up and called my piano playing something that meant “trash.”

Whatever word she used was devastating to me. I had worked as hard as I’d ever worked to get to the level of piano playing that I was at that day. I was pretty devastated by her very frank feedback and perhaps an overreaction. From that blow to my confidence, I quit. It led to a lot of good self-assessment about what my wiring was for and what my skills were. I was not wired to be in a piano practice room by myself for eight hours a day. I’m an extrovert. I love people, I love teamwork, and I love to make things happen in groups. I just wasn’t meant to be a pianist. And sometimes that’s what setbacks reveal. I was just in the wrong place and I needed to make an edit, a change that would line me and my gifts up better with God’s plan and lead to a better outcome. I have no regrets about going to music school. I ended up staying at Indiana University and things turned out well for me, so it was a necessary setback.

When you were in your mid-career, a series of events happened that really tested you. Can you share more about that time?

Anyone who does a “merger” between family and work will hit these family and work stress times, so I thought it was really important to talk about them. This particular setback happened when my husband and I had been married 10 years. We had two children who were six and one, so we were in those very young, very demanding, ‘don’t get a lot of sleep’ years. Both my husband and I worked. He traveled extensively and I also traveled. This was a demanding time in our lives! My husband’s parents were older than mine, and therefore they were having health issues and challenges before mine did. Right after our second daughter turned two, my husband’s mother passed away suddenly, and his father was diagnosed with cancer.

As you can imagine, that situation made my husband and I go, ‘Oh my goodness, let’s think this all through. Let’s reassess.’ We lived a long way from my husband’s family. They lived in Michigan, and we lived in North Carolina. My husband Chris and I just kind of stepped back and said, ‘What’s the message in this time of life? What is the priority? How do we think about work and family at a time like this?’

That set of challenges led us, as we call it, to our ‘joint midlife crisis.’ We really weren’t in midlife yet but kind of an early midlife crisis. We both quit our jobs ( which I don’t recommend!) and we decided to move back to Michigan and make sure that we took care of our family needs first and were there to be a support to Chris’s dad as he mourned the loss of his wife and dealt with cancer treatments.

We moved to Michigan without jobs and without clarity about how the career thing would work out. But we trusted that if we made the priority right, the career would later sort itself out..and it did. The testimony I would give you is that when God gets your attention through a family circumstance that needs your full attention, He’ll still be there when you need to go back and sort out your career again. Chris and I both did some consulting projects to make ends meet, and then we both landed in a new role—I landed at Domino’s Pizza, and Chris landed back in the consulting field again.

Things went on from a career standpoint, but we never wanted to look back on those times when your family needs you and say, ‘Oh geez, we were kind of too busy at work to sort that out.’ We had four really good years with Chris’ dad and got to know him really well. There was a lot of joy and a lot of celebration and laughter, even though he was very sick, and there was a lot of challenge. But no regrets!

In 2001, you received a breast cancer diagnosis. What went through your mind when you got that news? How did that affect your plans and the goals that you had set for yourself?

I am a planner to a fault. I mean, I plan everything. If I hadn’t been a CEO, I would’ve been a wedding planner! Up until that point in my life, most of my plans had more or less been executed. I hadn’t had a whole lot of setbacks to my plans. But this was my moment.

I had a routine mammogram, experienced no issues, and went on with my life like you do. Then just a few months later, I discovered a lump in my breast. I went back to the doctor and said, ‘Hey, mammogram looked fine, but this doesn’t seem fine, so let’s check it out.’ And she goes, Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing.’

Long story short, we did a biopsy, and it was breast cancer. It caught my doctor by surprise, and me by even more surprise, I’ll never forget the surgeon who did the biopsy. He pushed a legal pad and a pen across the table and said, ‘I’m giving you this pad and pen, because I find no one ever remembers what I say after I tell them they have cancer.’ And he was right. If I’d not had a piece of notebook paper in front of me, I would have had no clue what he said after that. The doctors immediately start talking about what they’re going to do next, and what surgery you’re going to have, and which treatments you’re going to do, and blah, blah, blah.

Your brain is frozen at first, right? You have breast cancer. There was no history of breast cancer in my family. Of course, you immediately start thinking about death, and who’s gonna raise your children. Is your husband going to re-marry? All kinds of crazy things go on. I remember yelling at my husband that, when I died, he would have to remarry because he didn’t know how to do hair bows! That’s the kind of thing that you think about when mortality comes into question.

A really good question to ask yourself is ‘If my life is cut short, or shorter than I think, what will be my story? Will I have lived out my life for the best of my beliefs and my values?’ In the long run, I was really glad that question came while I was still relatively young, I was 45 and I had time to make some adjustments. One was to get more comfortable understanding that God is the planner, not Cheryl. I needed to be a little bit more surrendered and less confused about who was in control. My cancer journey taught me a lot about the sovereignty of God. It taught me a lot about trusting God in difficult circumstances.

Now, I can’t talk about this chapter of my life without miming unlocking clenched hands. Be open to what God has for you, because that’s really how we’re intended to live life. We’re not going to know all the answers or have a plan that works out just perfectly. We just have to be confident enough in our God and in our faith to walk open-handed toward the things He has for us. Breast cancer really opened my eyes up to these realizations. I read The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, a transformative understanding about what the purpose of life is. When I really thought about what I wanted my life and my work to stand for, I started studying the intersection of faith and work, which has become my primary area of ministry. I started studying the idea of servant leadership deeply and what legacy I might be able to lead or what I could contribute in that arena to change the course of the dialogue. Breast cancer made me a very intentional person, because I knew that life was short.

Cheryl Bachelder is a passionate, purpose-led business leader — the former CEO of Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. From 2007 to 2017, she led the transformation of a tired brand and discouraged organization into a top-performing quick service restaurant chain. The story of the Popeyes success is chronicled in her book Dare to Serve: How to drive superior results by serving others. Cheryl’s earlier career included brand leadership roles at Yum Brands, Domino’s Pizza, RJR Nabisco, The Gillette Company and Procter & Gamble.

Today Cheryl’s aim is to encourage and invest in senior leaders, helping them to understand and implement Dare to Serve leadership in for-profit and non-profit workplaces.

Cheryl serves as a director and chair of the compensation committee at US Foods Holding Corp (USFD). She is currently the lead independent director at Chick-fil-A, Inc. She is an advisor to Procter & Gamble’s franchising venture, Tide Dry Cleaners. She is a member of CEO Forum, an organization that encourages and disciples Christian CEOs and senior leaders. She is a mentor to ministries that develop future Christian leaders: Spring Hill Camps, Crossroad Farms, Work Matters, and CRU.

Cheryl holds Bachelor and Masters of Business Administration degrees from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. She is married 40+ years to Chris Bachelder and they have three grown daughters, two terrific son-in-laws, and five handsome grandsons. Cheryl and Chris reside in Pinehurst, NC. They are avid learners, fans of the classical education movement, and can always be found reading a good book!

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