Many of us, at some point in our lives, have wished that we could just skip to the end of that chapter in our story to see how it all ends up. But how would insight like that help us strengthen our trust and faith in our God? In her final blog for 4word this month, Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc., ends by talking about some of the most heartbreaking setbacks in her life that helped her learn the art of “wait and see” with God’s ultimate plan, a practice that has led to an abundant personal trust in His perfect timing.
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.
You consider your time at Popeyes to be the capstone of your career but you had thought a previous job would have been the capstone. What happened when you were working with KFC for you to consider this role a setback instead of a success?
While I was at Domino’s Pizza, I was recruited by Yum Brands (the largest restaurant company in the world) to come to Louisville and run a division of the company KFC Restaurants. Yum Brands was a really fancy and impressive company. They were known for their culture and for their success building restaurants all over the world. They were an exciting place, and I was very drawn to the opportunity to be their first female in the executive suite. There was just all kinds of excitement around the opportunity! However, 14 months after arriving there and being the celebrated new female executive, the business started to perform poorly. The brand KFC came under attack around the handling of chickens, which was a major public issue at the time. There was also a movie made about fast food that spoke negatively about the brand.
There were a lot of what I call ‘external forces’ turning against the KFC brand. When you work in a public company, sales have to be up and profits have to be up. It’s real simple. A friend of mine used to say, ‘All the areas have to be going up and to the right for you to still be there.’ We’re supposed to grow businesses profitably so that the business can be reinvested. There’s nothing wrong with growing sales and growing profitability; it’s the whole point of creating a prosperous institution. And
So when sales and profitability went down for the next 12 months, I came under a lot of pressure. Eventually in September of 2003, I was fired on a Friday afternoon. The boss said something like, ‘This just isn’t gonna work out. HR is waiting outside in the the hall to talk to you.’ No one ever wants to hear those words. My good friend was actually the head of HR, so I got to go outside and talk about this with my very good friend Ann.
The way I sum up that setback is this: after debriefing everything in my head and learning from what happened at KFC, I can tell you that every tenant of the way I would go on to lead Popeyes to success was based on the learning that came out of that KFC setback. I can feel bad about this setback and mourn that it was really rough, knocked my confidence, and led me to struggle a bit for a few years as to what I would do next. But in the end, it was preparation for the opportunity that would come to me at Popeyes. I would not have been in a position to lead Popeyes as effectively had I not had that time at KFC. When you have a setback, I encourage you to learn from it as quickly as you can and use that experience as preparation for the next opportunity that will present itself.
After a decade with Popeyes, a turn of events happened that was detrimental to the amazing company culture you had worked so tirelessly to build. What did that time in your life feel like?
It was a huge personal disappointment. A lot of people tell you that as a leader, the legacy is what happens after you’re gone. Popeyes was a public company owned by its shareholders and the board represents their shareholders. Unexpectedly, we got this very high offer to purchase the company and the board voted to sell the company at that price. The outcome (which I knew would be the outcome) was that new owners did not share our passion for servant leadership and the franchising business. They had a different business model, and I knew that everything that we had put in place around servant leadership purpose principles would be dismantled in rapid fire order. And that was hard to reconcile. I had just invested almost 10 years of my life and many other people’s lives building this incredible company culture. It broke my heart to see its end. I felt responsible for the people that would be left behind because of course, I wasn’t gonna be there when a company sold. The CEO is the first to be shown the door when a company is sold.
But here’s the faith lesson. During the sale decision of the board, my daughter Katie knew I was distraught. She sent me a few paragraphs from a piece of literature that in short talked about the fact that God is painting a picture in heaven that we can only see a small part of. The author talks about how an artist was painting a picture of a beautiful tree, yet he could only see a part of that tree, and when God took him to heaven, he was so disappointed that he hadn’t finished his thing. Then God revealed to him what that tree really looked like in heaven.
So what does that all mean? To me, it meant that I didn’t have any idea what God’s plan was for that chapter at Popeyes ending. I needed to trust Him for it. One of the really cool things that happened as a result of the Popeyes sale was that all my well-trained servant leaders were sent out to other restaurant companies and have done a phenomenal job of spreading this leadership approach and are creating environments where people thrive. I’m so proud of them. That’s a ‘wow’ thing that I could have never foreseen.
I went through this ‘woe is me, how sad’ time, which we all do. It’s very natural, but it’s a little bit self-centered, too. The sooner you can get over that ‘woe is me’ thing, the better, and just start watching for what God’s up to. The step that breaks your heart may be the beginning of something very important and good in His kingdom. Trust Him enough to say, ‘I will wait to see that happen.’ Trust that God has a better plan than anything you could have had. That has certainly been true in my personal experience.
When you’ve encountered setbacks in your life, what emotions have immediately come to the surface? How do you keep yourself from getting discouraged and not wanting to move forward?
The most influential part of reading the Purpose Driven Life for me was Page One, which says the purpose of your life is not about you. Rick Warren goes on and writes a paragraph about how your purpose is also not about your family, your plan, or your job. It’s about God’s plan for His kingdom. I think my first reaction to setbacks is probably very similar to everybody else’s. It’s this inward looking and asking, ‘How did this happen to me? Why me? Why now?’
Instead of ‘why me’ or ‘why now in my life,’ try to pivot your first question to ‘What are you up to, God, and how can I adjust my thinking and join You there?’ I’m a big fan of Henry Blackaby’s work Experiencing God. What I love about the study is it’s the philosophy of our faith, which is to wake up and look around and see what God’s up to and join Him there. That idea has helped me be better in setbacks. I still fall apart like everybody else, but then I try to step back from that and say, ‘Certainly God knows better than I. He’s up to something bigger than I can see right now. I’m going to start looking for clues as to where He would have me focus next, where He has work that needs to be done, and where other people have a purpose in His role that I hadn’t seen coming.’ Open mind, open eyes, and a lot more trust in His plan.
What would you say is the #1 thing that has driven you forward in your life?
We’re all wired a certain way. I’m wired for learning, which is why I read so many books and study and constantly try to advance my understanding of things. That wiring has been really central to who I am and how I live. I like to say that leaders should stop leading when they stop learning, because we can’t be teaching other people how to grow and become better if we ourselves stop. Right now, my husband and I are doing something called the Colson Fellows. It’s a one-year study course on a Christian worldview. I’ve never done so much reading in my life and it’s really heavy stuff, but it’s rich and fulfilling to be learning. Learning always leads to something like a new insight, a new action, or a new perspective that you want to frame your life around. So I would say learning is the central theme in my life.
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!
Be part of a global mission to impact 10 million women to integrate their faith at home and at work. 4word is a global organization with expansive networks connecting women every day. Join us and be part of the journey. To learn more about Journey 4word, click here!