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How This Food Industry Innovator Used His Experience Working for the World's Biggest Brands to Transform Chipotle In Just 3 Years

Nine leadership lessons from Chipotle chairman and CEO Brian Niccol.

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Since food industry innovator and leader Brian Niccol joined Chipotle Mexican Grill (Nasdaq: CMG) as its CEO in 2018, the company has been virtually unstoppable. Within two years of his tenure, nearly all 2,500 Chipotle locations had been retrofitted for the future with digital ordering capabilities, and the had rolled out approximately 100 “Chipotlanes,” giving customers the ability to digitally order ahead and pick up their food via drive-thru lines. This was well before other chains funded the infrastructure to prepare for the massive shift to off-premise dining due to the pandemic. This is exactly the kind of forward-thinking any organization wants to have under a new CEO, so I was thrilled to talk to Niccol for the latest episode of Comparably and Entrepreneur’s Leadership Lessons series.

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

Related: Free On-Demand Webinar: How Chipotle Connects Corporate Growth with Social Responsibility

Niccol has had a quick rise to the top and developed a niche for spearheading companies that made food he already had a baseline affection for from his lunchbox days. He began his career at Procter and Gamble, where he worked on Scope and Pringles as a manager, then he held executive roles at Yum! Brands as CMO of Pizza Hut (where he remembers getting pitchers of Coke and pizza after little league games as a kid) and CEO of Taco Bell. In just three short years, Niccol’s time at Chipotle has been incredibly successful in redefining the company as an easy to access purveyor of delicious fast-casual food — as well as the home of incredibly happy and cared-for employees both in corporate and at the individual restaurants. 

Not only has Chipotle received numerous global recognitions and honors, but Niccol himself has also been placed on notable lists, including Fortune’s “Businessperson of the Year,” Bloomberg’s “People Who Defined 2019,”  Business’ “Leader of the Year,” and Comparably's “Best CEOs.” (Comparably is my company.)

“I always want our organization to behave like we're still one restaurant that opened in Denver on Evans Avenue,” Niccol shares. “I never want to be seen as the big, bureaucratic, slow-moving organization that's afraid to learn.”

Here are nine more takeaways from my discussion with Brian Niccol on how Chipotle has evolved during the pandemic and is continuing to be a brand with a demonstrated purpose, as it leads the way in digital, technology and sustainable business practices:

1. Entrepreneurs need to be creative and resilient

Thousands of new restaurants open every year, and thousands close. The special breed of entrepreneurs who play in this arena need to be creative conceptually and incredibly resilient. “You can learn so much just by going out to eat and seeing what's happening,” Niccol says.

2. Be ready and willing to put yourself out there

Even though we all know that failure is a possibility, when you have a great idea you must get behind it 100 percent. “If I’ve got an idea I’m going to go after, I'm going to see it through,” Niccol says. “If it doesn't go exactly how you initially planned, you have to have the courage face that and learn.”

3. Not every incident is a win or lose situation

Don’t worry about speaking up and potentially putting your foot in your mouth in front of higher-ups. “I used to think that every interaction came down to winning or losing, but looking back on it, it's more about how you are growing. Everything is not a win or lose situation,” Niccol says.

Related: How This 30-Year Software Industry Veteran Scaled His Company to a Successful IPO

4. Your ideas need to become your team’s ideas

Your organization will be more powerful when you influence your people to adopt your ideas as their own. “You’ve got to learn how to get the organization to move and be excited,” shares Niccol. “And to lead through others, as opposed to just putting your shoulder into it saying, I know this is right, I'm going to get it done myself.”

5. Employees should be passionate about the brand they’re working for 

Niccol says people looking to join the Chipotle team need to be passionate about the food and its culinary practices. “The movement is real, these things all matter to our restaurant leaders. And when it matters to them, it matters to their team.”

6. Simplify things

The bigger the challenge you’re facing, the simpler the plan needs to be to address it. “Nobody knew a global pandemic was looming, but what I definitely knew was that customers demanded more access with less friction,” says Niccol. In terms of the company’s digital transformation, he and his team boiled the issue down to some key milestones that they wanted to accomplish. Less than a year after beginning the process and before the Covid-19 lockdown, nearly all 2,500 existing Chipotle locations had been fitted for digital ordering and pickup. 

Related: How a Seasoned Silicon Valley Veteran Keeps Innovation at the Forefront of Business

7. Know the ingredients that make the customer experience an unqualified home run

That makes sense to anyone who has ever dined at a fast-casual restaurant, but with so many dining options in the marketplace it is not always an easy feat. When Niccol came on board, he had the organization hyper-focus on the things it did really well while also identifying one big opportunity for improvement. In addition to perfecting specific items on its , Chipotle’s success over the past three years is certainly due in some part to its commitment to the value chain around food, from local farmers to sustainability practices. This purpose for cultivating a better world has resonated with customers.

8. People come first

A company is only as good as its people. It might sound cliché to some degree, but that doesn’t alter the truth of the statement. Some things don’t change with processes. In order to get those rave customer reviews and , you must first give your employees a great experience. “If you were to talk to everybody on my executive team, I think they would all share that same sentiment,” Niccol states matter-of-factly. “If our employees are having a great day, our customers are going to have a great experience. That's the simple proposition at the core of this.” 

9. Never be complacent

When asked about the future, Niccol says he can’t get himself to adapt to using the phrase “new normal,” as it doesn’t sit well with him. “I don't know why, but that term is like nails on a chalkboard for me. It implies you’re going to be complacent, that things aren't going to change anymore. And I believe change is part of the process of staying connected and relevant with the consumer experience that you want to provide. It’s something I’m excited and passionate about.” 

To hear more from my hour-long conversation with Niccol — one of the high points of the series so far — watch the full webinar. These info-packed episodes get our listeners into the minds of successful leaders, from the CEOs of Zoom and Nextdoor to GoDaddy and DocuSign, as they share one-of-a kind advice for current and future entrepreneurs.

Related: How Lynn Jurich Turned an Innate Passion for Saving the Environment into a Definitively Disruptive Energy Company

Jason Nazar

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Jason Nazar is co-founder and CEO of Comparably, a leading workplace culture site that provides the most accurate representation of what it's like to work at companies. He was named LA Business Journal's "Most Admired CEOs in LA" & "Entrepreneur in Residence for the City of LA" by Mayor Eric Garcetti.