While Bert Thornton swears you to secrecy when revealing a key ingredient in his namesake chili that’s been tantalizing taste buds at Waffle House restaurants for more than 30 years, the Vice Chairman Emeritus is much more vocal on issues affecting the industry such as leadership, branding and common-sense guest relations.
In his new book, “Find an Old Gorilla: Pathways Through the Jungle of Business and Life,” Thornton offers practical business advice and champions the mentor relationship. The gorilla example in the title refers to how young gorillas follow and mirror the behavior of older ones. Thornton, who estimates he has offered guidance to thousands over the past 40 years, views himself as being both the young and old gorilla.
“I think I have always been both at the same time even today, but the shift came as more people sought me out and I realized what I had to offer them: answers, motivation, hope,” he said. I’ve learned something from everyone even the ‘leadership challenged.’ From them I learned what not to do.”
A main reason Thornton wrote the book is because he feels his own success entails being willing to share what he’s learned to help others find their own path to success.
“With success comes great responsibility and a part of that responsibility is to provide good ‘coattails’ – the responsibility to develop the next wave of leaders. It’s not what you have that’s important, but what you leave behind.”
Thornton emphasizes the value of the mentor dynamic and urges people to seek out a mentor who shows interest in being a mentor, listens, has knowledge in your specific area of interest and commands peer respect. He believes leaders need to cultivate a number of skills including “peoplebility” or the ability to to get “buy in” on the effort and have them to do what needs to be done.
“I know a lot of successful people and I don’t know a single one who has not had a great mentor. Finding a great mentor is very, very important and more difficult than you would think. Just because someone appears successful does not mean they would be a good mentor for you at this particular time. Just because you can do, does not mean you can teach people to do. Great players don’t necessarily make great coaches.”
Common mistakes leaders make include getting distracted from the goal, not putting people first and becoming fault finders, according to Thornton.
“They get lost,” he said. “They forget that 50 percent of the leadership they get paid to provide is to themselves. They don’t show up and they don’t follow up or they fall in love with themselves and their ideas and lose flexibility.”
A Brand Apart
Thornton takes a unique perspective on the concept of branding.
“Think about a real brand, as in a cattle brand. It is applied, not pursued,” he said. “You acquire a brand by what you do, how well you do it, the quality of your products, the value you offer and the experience people receive. So, a brand is really a condensation of all those thoughts and people’s opinions into one sign, one logo, a product, a name- it’s the nickname for all the feelings people have about your business or product. A positive brand is a great thing to have but, even greater, are the qualities behind the brand that gave it that stamp.”
Thornton, who joined the chain in 1971, still works behind the counter and always has because it’s part of the Waffle House culture for all employees to work in the restaurants and interact with customers on a regular basis.
“That’s where the action is,” said Thornton. “Behind the counter is where you find out what works and what doesn’t work, who works and who doesn’t work. In our culture, our customers like to help us run the business and are always eager to tell us what they like and what they don’t like. You can’t get that sitting in an office.”
“Find an Old Gorilla: Pathways Through the Jungle of Business and Life” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Lulu Publishing.