Episode 108: Meaningful Culture with Tom Frank

Tom Frank PF Chang's


Tom Frank is a lifelong culture engineer who works to help local and national companies create a better world for their employees – all by asking employees what they want!

Previously Frank co-founded the popular restaurant chain PF Chang’s as part of the original development team and helped develop the foundation to grow into a global chain. For the past 15 years, Tom has served as the culture engineer and modern elder at Round World Management, where they’re developing leaders in both the hospitality industry and many other markets and helping people represent their belief systems as a foundational piece of the business culture. In his most recent project, Frank created the I’m Essential project as a response to the COVID 19 pandemic and the impact it’s had on all of our small businesses.

In this episode Tom and Jon discuss the four ingredients to a perfect company mission; how to create, maintain, and measure culture; and the essentialness of all employees.

Learn more about the I’m Essential Project at imessentialproject.com

This episode is sponsored by eLearning Brothers. Learn more about their Virtual Onboarding program here: http://elb.learninglifeshow.com/

Check out this episode!

Alissa Galligani (00:00):

Hey everyone. It’s Alissa. Galligani here, Senior Producer of Learning Life with Jon Tota. Thank you for tuning in to the show each week. We love our Learning Life community and are so grateful for your support. We would appreciate it if you would take a minute to rate and review Learning Life on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. It helps new people find the show so we can keep growing our community and bringing you great interviews about the business topics you care about. Thank you so much. That’s all for me. Now onto the episode.

Tom Frank (00:25):

You’ll be amazed. If you stop and ask your employees, what is your idea of a better company, a better job to come to work every day for what is your idea of a better world? You’ll be amazed at how good they are at answering that question and how good they are at articulating their idea of what they want from their boss.

Intro  (00:43):

Welcome to Learning Life, where top experts share their business knowledge and personal journeys each week. “And The thing that I realized from the CEO to the NFL football player, to the janitor – we’re our toughest critics, and we’re hardest on ourselves.” – James Lawrence And wanted to bring education to the market. I wake up in the morning and I am constantly learning.” “The only way to grab somebody’s attention is with a story” – Cal Fussman. Happy learning. And now your host, Jon Tota,

Jon Tota (01:12):

Welcome to another episode of Learning Life with Jon Tota. My guest today is Tom Frank. Tom is a lifelong culture engineer helping local and national companies create a better world for their employees. He co-founded the popular restaurant chain PF Chang’s along with Paul Fleming and Phillip Chang as part of the original development team. And then the director of training. Tom helped PF Chang’s develop the foundation that grew to over 200 locations across the U.S. And another 66 international. For the past 15 years, Tom has served as the culture engineer and modern elder at Round World Management, where they’re developing leaders in both the hospitality industry and many other markets and helping people represent their belief systems as a foundational piece of the business culture. Most recently, Thomas created the I’m Essential project as a response to the COVID 19 pandemic and the impact it’s had on all of our small businesses. So I’m excited to share Tom’s important message with all of you, Tom Frank, welcome to Learning Life.

Tom Frank (02:08):

Wow, Jon that was great. That was, that was a great introduction. That’s the best I’ve ever had. I really appreciate it.

Jon Tota (02:14):

Thank you, man. I appreciate it. Well, thank you for being here. Really excited to have you here. You and I chatted for a little while, and I’m just excited for my audience to get to meet you. You got a ton of knowledge to share and a lot of fun stories. So thank you for coming on the show.

Tom Frank (02:29):

Sure, my pleasure.

Jon Tota (02:30):

So what I like to start with is just kind of going all the way back and understanding everyone’s journey. You’ve kind of got this entrepreneurial background, but also this background as a, as a head of training and leadership development. So tell me what, what was the genesis? What got you into this? What was the very first stop along your, your journey in this industry?

Tom Frank (02:51):

Wow. I was 16 years old and I was busing tables. And I remember back in those days, even then even at 16, I knew there was a better way to run a restaurant. And like I knew that it wasn’t supposed to be us against them. Like it wasn’t supposed to be the front of the house against the back of the house or the managers against the employees. Like I knew I, and the one thing I knew for sure is it wasn’t supposed to be us against the customers. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in a place that’s us against the customers, but I have.

Jon Tota (03:21):

Yeah. Yeah. And it’s funny you say too, because I started my career right out of college. I went to four years of college and my first job out was working on an Applebee’s, which my parents, my parents weren’t crazy about that. And then I went to a nicer restaurant and I always believed this- that almost all of us will eat in restaurants at some point through or at many points through our lives. And you should just exist in the industry at some point, be either on the front side of the house or the backside of the house, just so you can understand what goes on and how to live in that world.

Tom Frank (03:54):

But, you know, I honestly, I swear to God, I worked in a restaurant once that everybody in the, who was working there was having so much fun. And the only thing that got in the way of all the fun that we were having is those damn customers.

Jon Tota (04:06):

[Laughs] Right? And it’s funny too, because I think there’s so many lessons you learn. And I always was a waiter, a bartender and a waiter, but I think you learn so many lessons just in that position, serving people in a restaurant. I always say too, is that no matter how bad you screw up, once they finish their meal, the worst you’re going to get is a bad tip. And then you move on and reset and start over and you can do better on the next one, Right?

Tom Frank (04:33):

Well, you know, you said that I do a lot of training and over the years, I’ve done a lot of training and development, but the joy I have is that I get to train the things that I used to get fired for when I was a waiter. [both chuckle] I’m telling you-

Tom Frank (04:50):

Well, I’ll give you an example. I was working in a restaurant when I first got out of college and I remember a girl, a woman saying to me that Walnut Gorgonzola salad looks really good. Could I get it? But I’m allergic to walnuts. So can you have them leave the walnuts out? So I went back into the kitchen and I said to the chef, I said, I need a Walnut Gorgonzola salad with no walnuts. And he said, tell her to order a different salad. [both laugh]

Tom Frank (05:17):

And I said, I looked at the chef and I said, listen, if you won’t take the walnuts out of the salad, why don’t you go tell her to order a different salad? Why should I, and I got fired from that job, but that just didn’t even make any sense to me. I knew there was a better way to run restaurants. And if you remember back in those days, because you worked in restaurants, think back on it, we used to have a rule for the customers and it was on every menu, no substitution. Like we started, like when did we start making rules for our customers? It didn’t make any sense to me, but I knew there was a better way to run a restaurant. And so when I started, when I decided this is my industry I started growing. I became a manager and then I started I became an owner when I was 26.

Tom Frank (06:07):

I opened my first restaurant. I started opening restaurants around the country and I discovered, Jon, that in order for me to create that better world, that place, that I can come to work and feel good about myself, I needed to provide a better world for everyone. Because for me, it was simple to me what I was trying to create for myself as a place where I could come to work every day, knowing that I was valued for the quality of my work, knowing that I was being judged for how good a job I was doing and not my waist size, I’m a big guy or who I was dating. What I knew is that I wanted to come to work every day in a place where I could feel good about myself and be valued for the quality of my contribution, but in order to create that for myself, when I became a manager and an owner, I needed to provide it for everybody around me and not my better world, by the way, their better world.

Tom Frank (07:02):

So a lot of people ask me, so, Tom, how do you know what another person’s better world is? Okay. ask them? You’ll be amazed if you stop and ask your employees, what is your idea of a better company, a better job come to work everyday for what is your idea of a better world? You’ll be amazed at how good they are at answering that question and how good they are at articulating their idea of what they want from their boss, what they want from their fellow workers, what they want from the company they’re working in. So some other people will say to me, well, isn’t everybody else’s idea of a better world different? And the answer is, yeah, of course it is. But then it becomes our job is leaders to surround ourselves with people, to hire people that are at least moving in the same direction as our better world, right. And that every, at least have a similar enough idea of what a better world looks like, that we’re all moving in the same direction. So I guess what I’m asking people to do is kind of weird. I’m asking managers and owners to embrace their selfish, think about what you want to come to work to every day, and then hire people and develop people around you who want to move in that direction. It makes a big difference.

Jon Tota (08:22):

Right? Right. And now, and now you learned this while you were an owner operating your own restaurants, and then you partnered up with the, the other gentlemen that start PF Chang’s. How did that work? Because I think when your story, it was really just to start one restaurant. It wasn’t as planned to have a huge restaurant chain, right.

Tom Frank (08:42):

We never talked about opening more than one restaurant. And I think that’s really, really important because what it allowed us to do is it allowed us to work in a place of a great deal of creativity. We were able to do whatever it was that we believed made PF Chang’s, a great place to work and a great place for our customers. We knew what that recipe was. And so when we walked in the door to train our employees, we understood what the belief systems, what the guiding principles were that were going to take us in the direction of our better world. And by the way, to this day, the better world is a part of the culture at PF Chang’s.

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Tom Frank (10:07):

You know, culture, unfortunately, Jon is an incredibly overused and misused term in our industry. We everybody’s talking about culture. Culture is what exists culture is as culture does, is my saying culture. Isn’t the poster on the wall Belcher. Isn’t what we put in our training manuals culture. Isn’t you know, isn’t what we say it is. It’s not our aspirations. It’s what actually exists. You know, my favorite saying is from Howard Moscowitz, he says “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” To your employees, your culture is their horseradish. What’s actually happening. If you, somewhere in your, all of your training material or all of your HR manuals have the word respect, and you have one manager, one manager in your company that’s bullying or disrespecting their employees to those employees, you are not a culture of respect and everything else you told them loses credibility.

Jon Tota (11:05):

Yeah. Yeah. And I, and I think you really hit the nail on the head because we work with so many learning and development departments and HR departments and culture has really been, just dropped on them to be kind of part of the training program, part of the new employee orientation. This is part of leadership development, and it’s so much bigger than that. It’s, it’s not something that you can just go and buy a training program that’s going to teach culture to people, but it really has a, in the work that you’ve been doing with HR and you’ve gone on to work with many different companies outside of the hospitality space. Are you seeing the same dynamic in all, all industries when it comes to culture and the development of it?

Tom Frank (11:49):

Try going into most companies and ask them what their, what their mission statement is. And sometimes even the CEO kind of looked at you and say, wait a second, hold on, I know it. Wait like, I just read it. It starts with let me think about it. I actually did a consulting work with a company. And the funny part of it is I asked that question in a room where the mission or the mission statement was on the wall and people couldn’t tell me what the mission statement is. I swear to God, the mission statement was up on the wall and they couldn’t tell me what it was.

Jon Tota (12:18):

They know it cost them a hundred grand with the consulting firm to have it drawn up.

Tom Frank (12:22):

Whatever, or their values. And so I think the important thing is that if you are going to have a mission statement, if you are going to have a value statement or a purpose statement, they need to have four very clear, very basic qualities. The first thing is they need to be a shared belief that everybody in the company needs to understand what that value means or what that mission statement means. Not only to you, but to them and to everybody in the organization, there needs, it needs to be aligned completely. I worked on it with a company in New York where the CEO and the COO both picked honesty as their number one core value. And so I went to the owner and I said to her, I said, so tell me why you picked honesty as your number one core value. And she said because I want everybody in the company to know that they can be completely honest with me about anything. I want them to know that they can come to me and tell me anything that they, that they feel or anything that’s going on. So I said to the CEO, I said, so tell me about why you picked honesty as your number one core value. And he said, well, I don’t want people stealing from us.

Jon Tota (13:34):

[Laughs].

Tom Frank (13:34):

No, no. Think about it.

Jon Tota (13:35):

It’s totally opposite. Yeah.

Tom Frank (13:37):

Yeah. One person, the owner who sees that particular value is about trust. And the other one sees honesty about distrust. Like how useful would a value like that be? So the first thing you need to do is you need to create a, a shared belief around what that actually means to everybody in the company. You need to creat alignment. Second thing it needs to do is it needs to drive specific behavior within your organization. You need to be able to determine what is the behavior around that particular value. I worked with a company that chose caring is one of their top core values. And so I said to them, so tell me how do you measure it? And they’re like, what? I’m like, how do you, like if caring is one of your top core values, what are the specific behaviors around caring and how are we going to measure it?

Tom Frank (14:33):

How does it show up in your workplace? And they looked at me and they were like ??? I’m like, okay, so what are you measuring? Like, what is it you’re measuring? And they said, well, we’re measuring sales, we’re measuring customer turnover, we’re measuring guest frequency, all of these quantitative things they’re measuring, but, but yet on the wall it says caring is more important to you than anything. Are you measuring that? So we started the Cool To Care program where we determined what the behaviors were around caring. And then we not only did we measure it, but we used it to recognize and reward the people who demonstrated the behaviors around caring. It made a huge difference because all of a sudden you have what’s called social proof where the other people in the organization see that the people who actually are demonstrating the behavior of caring, being recognized and rewarded, that makes them cool.

Tom Frank (15:26):

So we created this Cool To Care program and did a program, an entire program around it, where people, where we ended up with the Cool To Care banquet which is really important. Okay. So that, that’s the second thing. The third thing it needs to do is it needs to become a tool your managers can use to manifest that behavior, that it needs to be useful for the managers to understand that these are our values, and this is how we’re going to, what we’re going to use to manifest that behavior. So that these values show up in our restaurant or our business every day. And so that we manage through it, we hire for it. We manage through it. We adjust people’s behaviors specifically to the core values that we’ve chosen for our company. And the fourth thing is it needs to become part of your language because cultural anthropologists who study ancient culture, the first thing they look for is how advanced their culture is. I mean, their language is, because language and culture are really the same thing. The more advanced the language is and the more attuned language is to the aspirations of the culture, the more likely that those aspirations will show up on a day-to-day basis. And the great companies are very attuned in terms of language and culture.

Jon Tota (16:48):

And so I think those are really, really great points. So for everyone just to summarize and tell me if I get it right, Tom. So basically when you’re looking at a mission statement, you’re trying to hit on these four big, the big four components shared beliefs. So to make sure you’re aligned, make sure that you can drive behavior with measurable results, make sure it’s a tool. So it’s actionable. And that it’s a language. I, I think those are really important because I think so many people get, they miss on one of those points or a number of those points when they’re developing their mission statement or the core values, right?

Tom Frank (17:22):

Well then they become the poster on the wall. And then the poster on the wall stops being the poster on the wall. It just starts being the wall. And then you might as well paint over it because it’s actually meaningless. And then once you do that, then you have no belief systems in your company that really drive anything, any particular behavior. And you know, it’s funny how many people will tell me that, you know, call me and say, Tom, we need some help. And I’d say, well, tell me what’s going on. And they say, well, we don’t have a culture. Well actually you do have a culture. You might not like your culture, but believe me, you have a culture.

Jon Tota (18:00):

So now tell me what I really want to talk about the I’m Essential project. So this is kind of an- obviously with everything that was going on with the COVID pandemic and the shutdown and the impact that’s had on all of the, you know, main stream economies, all of our small businesses, particularly, probably more impacted than any of them is hospitality, restaurants, and bars out there. So tell us what, what was the genesis of the essential project? What got you involved in this and making this happen?

Tom Frank (18:31):

At the beginning of the pandemic, I figured, well, there’s going to be a couple of months where I’m not going to be doing any work. So I went and bought one of those thousand piece puzzles, and I was sitting at the table doing one of those thousand piece puzzles. And I had two epiphanies, Jon. First one was I hate puzzles. The second one was, I really should be getting up from this puzzle and doing something important, like something meaningful. And you know, I spent my entire career trying to focus on making my employees feel essential. And the government had decided to use the term essential workers and non essential workers and right off the bat that I just wasn’t okay with that because I always knew my employees were essential. And, and now companies, business leaders started like making decisions about who was essential and who wasn’t essential.

Tom Frank (19:31):

And, and some people were actually told that they had to come to work and, and risk their families and risk their health and other people were sent home. Not only were they sent home or furloughed or whatever, or fired, but they were sent home with this label nonessential. Oh man, like isn’t a bad enough to be sent home? But now the government has determined that it’s, you’re, you’re being sent home because you’re not essential. There’s nothing right about that. And so I was thinking about how important it is that everybody understands that they always have been essential and they always will be essential regardless of what they’re going through right now. And so I called my friend, John Flor, who is a graphic artist. And I said, John, what can we do about this? And he said, well, let’s create these stickers or buttons or something that say I’m essential.

Tom Frank (20:22):

And they could put their name on it and they could wear it and people could give it to them. And their bosses could give them the sticker and say, listen, I want you to know how essential you are to our organization. And so he created the stickers. And I tell you what the, the amazing thing about the project is when you do good things, when you do important things that attracts good people. There are so many people that are involved in this now that I’m getting that are contacting me saying, I just wanted to meet you and talk about how you created this program.

Jon Tota (20:52):

It’s a simple thing. It doesn’t cost you much to do it. I’ve been doing it you know, giving out the stickers. I got, I have my package of I’m Essential stickers here. I’ve been giving them out to my employees. And it’s a simple thing to do, but just showing that what you’re doing is meaningful to other people and that you’re having an impact particularly now, because I think people are in this very vulnerable state now that they don’t know, like, is my job really that important? Am I one of those people that’s not really indispensable? Or am I expendable when push comes to shove? And I think it’s just one of those nice ways. Again, it’s a culture thing in another way also, but it’s a nice way to let people know that everyone really matters in their own way. I think it’s, I think it’s just a great initiative all around.

Tom Frank (21:39):

Jon, I think in our businesses we need to understand just how damaged our employees are by everything that’s going around. Even the ones that are not sick. You don’t know what they’re going home to. You don’t know the fears, the uncertainty that they face every day and how they’re dealing with it. And I think that it’s really important. It’s our job now to share a sense of meaningfulness and self-esteem and pride with these people. I think that we can’t expect our businesses to reopen or be successful until, and unless we face and deal with the mental health of our employees bottom line, that we can’t make our business whole until we make our employees whole. So if you’re wondering what the ROI of that is, it’s clear, we can’t do this without our employees and our employees need to understand that.

Jon Tota (22:33):

It’s just so important. That’s. So for all of our listeners who are interested in this and want to get involved with the project, I think there’s probably not one business owner out there listening who would not want to do this. This is, you know, obviously something that’s important and particularly right now, how do they find out more about the project? How do they get involved? Is it imessentialproject.com? Is that the website?

Tom Frank (22:57):

It’s imessentialproject.com And there’s no a just, I have no apostrophe either. Just I’m Essential Project. I M Essential Project and .com. And then we have an Instagram page, which is the same, I’m Essential Project and we’re on Facebook. And, and we try to post on, on LinkedIn as much as we can. And, and let me point out something that this isn’t the solution, the sticker, isn’t the solution to the problem. You’re the solution to the problem. And I’ve yet to have one person who didn’t understand the importance of making sure their employees, mental health is being addressed, who who’d wants to apply these stickers. This is for people who already understand, and this might not be specifically what your company needs. So contact me on my email [email protected]

Tom Frank (23:50):

And we can come up with something proprietary for you. There’s one company that is, that is actually putting t-shirts out. They sell fried chicken, and it says on the t-shirts for their employees, it says I’m as essential as fried chicken. I mean, like, let’s, let’s clear this up, like let’s, we can make it proprietary. We can make it just for you, but deliver this message one way or the other go to the website. You can, you can read all about the intention of the project. You can go directly to www.go2Ecommerce.com and you can get the sticker. You can order the stickers right there. I mean, come on, they’re $20. So I’m going to make a deal for anybody who’s listening right now that if you order a hundred stickers for 20 bucks, and you take a picture of somebody in your community that is1 essential to you and send it to me on my, on my email, I will send a hundred stickers to any school in your community that you want to honor the teachers and the, and the people working in that school.

Tom Frank (24:57):

This is important that we do this throughout our community, and especially in our businesses. I remember one day driving down the street and seeing a bus driver taking a break, and I whipped around, gave him a sticker and he just lit up. And I said, are you going to wear that sticker? And he said, I’, never taking this off. And, you know, tears came to my eyes and I drove away and I thought, Oh, maybe this was a little more selfish than I thought, because I feel so good right now. Yeah. You can’t just give them a sticker and walk away. This is that opportunity to communicate to them. And I remember, and this is something I learned managing restaurants years ago, that you know, not everybody has the mechanism to process praise into into self-esteem or into pride or into meaningfulness.

Tom Frank (25:43):

So part of our job is to help install the mechanism, the innate mechanism that they need to turn that into something. I remember, you know, you’d say to a bus boy, Hey, Billy, you’re a great busway. And you’d say, thanks and get in his car and turn on the radio and that was it. That’s not what I was trying to do. So I learned to say, Billy, come here, stop. I want you to think about something. And he’d say, yeah. And I’d say, I have a lot of respect for you, and I want you to respect yourself because I watch you bus tables and I realized that you can be anything you want to be in life. If you want to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a great lawyer. If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to be a great doctor.

Tom Frank (26:24):

And I can see that simply by the way you bused tables. To the acute observer, no matter how menial the task, the quality of a man’s work reveals his soul. And I want him to feel that, and I want him to, you know, get that dopamine that serotonin that’s released from self-esteem because I know that that dopamine is more addictive than heroin, man. If I can make somebody feel good about themselves, I mean, actually feel good about himself. Then they’re going to have to come back to me for more. And that’s really gonna be the driving force in their work with me on a day-to-day basis. So maybe the bus boy rolled his eyes and looked at me and got in the car and turned on the radio. But maybe he turned it down a little because it did feel good. So you need to make that opportunity to share this essentialness, this I’m essential sticker with your employees, a meaningful moment where you tell them you help them understand not only what it means to you, but how you want it to make them feel.

Jon Tota (27:31):

Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s so important. And, and so for everybody listening, take a look in the episode notes, we will have all the links to get to ImEssentialProject.com. As, as Tom mentioned, he’s going to graciously offer you that if you get the sticker, spend the 20 bucks and get the stickers, and then send the pictures in that you’ll get another, another set of stickers that you could give out to your, your school, a system where you’ll send them to the school. So I think that’s awesome because obviously our teachers and bus drivers and everyone are doing a ton for all of us, with our kids gradually getting back to school. So that’s, that’s a great offer. And Tom, thank you so much for coming on the show. I think what you’re doing is amazing, and I just love sharing your message with our audience

Tom Frank (28:14):

Jon, earlier you asked me the question about what I’d like to see happen after the pandemic- and God knows there won’t be an after the pandemic, but I want to take the project and turn it into a movement, a movement of unqualified, understanding of the importance of the people in our community and the people in our, in our, in our businesses that they matter.

Jon Tota (28:41):

Right? Right. And, and, and that’s where you see it going, really making some movement beyond just the, dealing with the pandemic and, and getting all our business back up and running. But really this is something, this, this is just core to you being a culture, a culture engineer is a lifelong mission.

Tom Frank (29:00):

Culture warrior.

Jon Tota (29:03):

Well, listen, Tom, thank you so much for being here. I loved hearing your story and everything that you’re up to. So thank you for taking the time to come on the show,

Tom Frank (29:11):

Oh yeah, Jon – you are essential.

Jon Tota (29:15):

Well, thank you. Thank you, Tom. And to all of our listeners, as Tom would say, you are essential to thank you for listening every week. Thank you for sharing the show. Subscribe wherever you’re listening, leave us comments. We always love to hear from you. And until our next episode, Happy learning. [Outro music plays]