Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Mike Rotondo, CEO Of Tropical Smoothie Cafe

I spoke to Mike Rotondo, CEO Of Tropical Smoothie Cafe, about the lessons in leadership he has learned from over two decades at leading restaurant management, franchising and food-service experience companies

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice and thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Mike: I can honestly say, my time at Tropical Smoothie Cafe has changed my life for the better. I experienced a heart attack in 2011. After that, I realized that I was not taking care of myself for my family, or for my team – but also that I wasn’t taking our company values to heart. We inspire our guests to Live Better, but I wasn’t living by that motto. I made significant lifestyle changes after having a heart attack and ran the Chicago Marathon in 2016 – an impressive accomplishment for someone who never exercised routinely.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Mike: Early on in my career, I was known for challenging the status quo – for pushing the limits of the franchise model for established brands like Wendy’s, HoneyBaked Ham and Arby’s. Over the years, I’ve learned that calculated risks are important, but they need to fit into the proven franchise model. Once you figure out the secret sauce, implementing the model consistently is key.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Mike: I am passionate about continuous learning and self improvement. In 2017, Tropical Smoothie Cafe made some strategic hires to invest in the leadership of the brand. The expertise of these leaders, brings new competencies to the brand and I am learning more than ever. In the past six months, I have gained a deeper understanding of technology, legal, supply chain, and marketing because of the high caliber people we’ve brought on board.

As I continue to learn from the team, I also recognize there is so much more I can learn to become the best leader for this brand. I have experienced many successes as a team member and leader throughout my career, but know the CEO role is far more than execution and primarily focused on leadership. I always look for any opportunity to be among other successful leaders. I seek other leaders out to learn from them ways to build the Tropical Smoothie Cafe brand and my role as a CEO to its full potential. The brand is in full growth mode and the potential is growing steadily.

Jack Welch said it well, “Great business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?

Mike: I’ve worked with a lot of great leaders. These leaders taught me about values, balance, relationships, transparency, and how to handle the chaos.

Values: Share your personal values with the team. When the team knows what is important to you, the expectations become more clear. My team knows that I expect them to communicate with, inspire, and defend one another.

Balance: Balance is critical in the service business. As CEO, I have to intentionally schedule balanced field time and office time. Both our franchisees and my service center team deserve equal attention and leadership from me.

Relationships: When you become CEO, you accept that you will be seen as “unapproachable” – almost overnight. You have to work hard to build trust and maintain relationships with your former peers, and to be relatable to your team. Solid Relationships is one of our core values at Tropical Smoothie Cafe.

Transparency: Building strong relationships in this business is much easier when you are fully transparent with your team and franchisees – and this includes being open to receiving honest feedback.

Chaos: When the chaos gets the best of us, we all have bad days. On those days, the leader is the only one in the spotlight. When you have a bad day – take a break and reset your mindset – if you don’t, a bad day for you turns into a bad day for everyone else.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Mike: Great leaders focus on the culture, people and the customer(s) they serve.

Culture: For Tropical Smoothie Cafe, our culture is built on our team’s creative spirit, ability to maintain strong relationships, and play-to-win attitude, which are present in all that we do.

People: People are at the heart of our company. We invest in our people capital at the support center to meet the demand of our growth. We develop relationships that are founded on trust, doing the right thing and respect for the unique talents of our teams, franchisees and vendor partners.

Customers: Our franchisees are our number one customer. We are committed to communicating to them frequently, focusing on their profitability and demonstrating that we care. In return, they understand and love the restaurant business, embrace the franchise model, and are passionate about delivering a uniquely Tropical Smoothie Cafe experience to the customers they service in their community.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Mike: Great leaders acquire, train, develop and retain great talent. When I hire a new employee, I ask myself if they will be on my SIDE – I look for individuals who are they Smart, have Integrity, Drive and Enthusiasm. I am inspired by people who know the business inside and out, do everything with honesty and to the best of their ability, are driven to overcome obstacles and achieve success, and are enthusiastic. These qualities are also ones I aspire to as a leader.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?

Mike: Building Solid Relationships – I enjoy reading. I am constantly seeking new ways to connect with my teams and our franchisees. There are some great reads that have really shaped who I am as a leader. Lately, I have been sharing the get it, want it, capacity to do it philosophy from the book Traction by Gino Wickman with our leaders to help them identify great talent and develop their teams.

Creative Spirit – I enjoy cooking. I developed the Island Green Smoothie – the first of it’s kind to include kale and spinach – and our director of franchise operations and I developed our flatbread sandwiches before we had a culinary team.

Playing to Win – I am passionate about giving back to the community. Tropical Smoothie Cafe is the largest donor of our national charity partner, Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine. Twice a year I volunteer at camp along with other team members. We also partner with Covenant House Georgia, and I participated in their executive sleep out in November 2017. These opportunities help keep me grounded in my role as a leader.

Live Better – I enjoy running and completed the Chicago marathon in 2016. Setting the example by living our values and knowing how to blow off steam is extremely important as a leader.

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