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To Get the Most of Your Team, Treat Them As More Than Just Employees

As leaders, we must ask ourselves tough questions and face this year's challenges with a human perspective.

This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The year 2020 was supposed to be a big one for Sonic. We were in the midst of rolling out our brand relaunch, including a new identity, with a logo, icons, and colors as well as a new creative campaign and drive-in prototype design. When the pandemic hit, you’d think our core model (the drive-in!) would make us perfectly suited to the moment. And it did. But of course, nothing in 2020 was that simple. We closed our patios and limited indoor dining spaces to be fully compliant with local, state, and federal guidelines. And we took immediate action to create a COVID-19 task force, while communicating frequently with our franchisees and operators. Still, we’d often say, “This is the right thing to do today. Two days from now, we may need to change it.”

Courtesy of Sonic

And we forged ahead. 

We all have to lead with resilience and flexibility. In the restaurant industry, that means asking fundamental questions like: How do our guests want to access their food? What needs do we fulfill for them? Sure, it’s selling them food, but I’d argue that people want connection and a little oasis in their daily routine. They want to enjoy a meal with their families and friends in a safe and comfortable space. That’s our opportunity.

Related: 4 Steps for Building Your Team's Resilience

But it’s not the only one. This year has pushed us to go above and beyond. In addition to fighting a pandemic, we’re facing layers of economic tumult and racial injustice. We’re in a time where we have the chance to grow and impact meaningful change — and we should all take it upon ourselves to reflect on what we have learned and think through how we can lead and act differently to build our families, organizations, and communities.

I feel this personally because I’m a woman of color who looks white. As I grew my career, I was told that the office is where I come to do work — not to share who I am. People didn’t know that I immigrated from Mexico when I was 2, and that I have family members whose beautiful brown skin meant they had different experiences than I did. Because of this perspective, I’ve been able to see the value in learning about people I work with, understanding where they come from and how that shapes their approach to business and everything else.

It’s also a perspective we all need today in the conversations we’re having about diversity. It’s essential to ask ourselves how, as business leaders, we really plan to create and grow teams that are based not just on professional experience and talent but also on the richness of the members’ 360-degree lives — and what that brings to the table for us.

Related: 5 Tips for Team Management in Trying Times

True systemic change, the kind that’s meaningful, impactful, and real, is going to take time. But we’ve got an opportunity here to start. And for leaders right now, our teams, our franchisees, our families — they’re all depending on us to get through this uncertainty in a positive and constructive way.

That’s a lot of responsibility. It is important that we allow ourselves to have bad days and to feel the weight of the world on our shoulders. But it is much more important that we get up and understand we have a higher calling—and that’s to be a part of building something bigger than ourselves.  

Check out more stories from our October/November issue's list of 100 Powerful Women.