For Chipotle’s Steve Ells, less is more

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management,Profiles in Leadership

Leaders of large organizations cannot meet regularly with every employee to reinforce important points. So a CEO needs to take creative steps to communicate to a far-flung workforce.

At Chipotle, the burrito chain, founder and co-CEO Steve Ells sends messages through multiple channels. He designs each restaurant to maximize interaction between customer and food preparer, which re­­minds employees to connect with each visitor and deliver personal service.

As people give their order, employees maintain eye contact and rarely turn their backs. In competing fast-food joints, by contrast, employees often turn and walk away from the customer after taking an order.

Similarly, Ells commu­nicates the im­­portance of serving fresh food by positioning his employees behind the counter grilling meat and stirring rice. Customers can see their dishes being prepared; if they order guacamole, employees are trained to say something like, “It’s a good batch. I just made it.”

To convey the value of quality ingredients, Ells takes a minimalist ap­­proach. He communicates powerful messages with few words. For example, he told managers that ­Chipotle was eliminating onion-­cutting machines in favor of having staffers cut each onion by hand. They knew this would be more time-­consuming, but Ells simply said, “It tastes better.”

Ells faced a different kind of communication challenge in 2011 when he wanted the public to know Chipotle buys vegetables from local farms and supports sustainability in other ways.

So he commissioned a two-minute film called “Back to the Start” to air on television during the Grammy Awards.

The story follows a farmer doing business locally. It contains no speaking, and the only promotion of Chipotle is as it ends—when the word appears on the side of a delivery truck. Viewers learn of Chipotle’s devotion to buying from local farms without feeling subjected to a preachy commercial.

— Adapted from “America’s most inspiring CEOs,” A.J. Jacobs, www.esquire.com.

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