Tom Krouse of Donatos Pizza: “Talk less and do more”

Know yourself and work with the tools you bring. Bring your personality to work. Talk less and do more. Show up and give back. Learn how to apologize very well. Also, remember to say YES until there is a reason to say no. If you always start with no, you will miss out on possible […]

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Know yourself and work with the tools you bring. Bring your personality to work. Talk less and do more. Show up and give back. Learn how to apologize very well. Also, remember to say YES until there is a reason to say no. If you always start with no, you will miss out on possible BIG things.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing President and CEO of Donatos Pizza, Tom Krouse.

Donatos features the Edge to Edge® pizza, created by Jim Grote who founded Donatos Pizza in 1963. The company was classified “Best in Class” and acquired by McDonald’s Corporation in 1999 at a time when the burger giant was buying small concepts. McDonald’s sold the chain back to Grote and his daughter, Jane Grote Abell, in 2003. CEO Tom Krouse and Jane Grote Abell are married. Donatos and its franchise partners operate over 260 locations coast to coast in 14 states through its partnership with Red Robin and its availability in sports and entertainment venues.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

For me, there was always bound to be an intersection of coaching, teaching, and expression. When I was a young man, I was always drawn to coaching and teaching. I was a little league football coach, I was a summer day camp leader, I was a playground leader at an elementary school, and I taught continuing education classes.

I was also a musical writer and performer, and my early career was in communications and marketing. Learning how to communicate effectively was my principal skill.

As I reflect on my current position, my role as a CEO really is a combination of those three things — a teacher, a coach, and a communicator.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

On my first day on the job at the ad agency I where I got my start I was told to present new slogans to the client. My first question was “What client?” Answer: The biggest client the agency had (State of Ohio). My next question was “When is the presentation?” Answer: Now. My third question was “Where is the meeting?” Answer: In the board room. My final question was “Where are the slogan presentation boards?” Answer: In the board room. So, I sold their biggest client a slogan sight unseen on my first day. I guess I learned early how to think on my feet.

Another interesting story would be falling in love with the daughter of the founder of Donatos.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“The answer is yes…until and only until there is a reason to say no.”

I was a young Account Exec at a small agency that serviced the Wendy’s business. We didn’t do the big TV creative nor buy any media. We did lots of little projects that helped pay the bills for this agency with a single owner. One morning, I was in the office earlier than anyone else and the phone rang. It was a Wendy’s executive asking if we could place a media buy for them. I politely told them we didn’t buy media. I later found out from the owner that they were in a crunch and needed us to buy print in major national newspapers as part of a class action settlement. It was a very unsophisticated project that we could have easily done that would have netted us nearly half a million dollars…and I said no. It still pains me to think about.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

Good to Great, by Jim Collins.

I am obsessed with the concept of focusing on only the most important things in the company. The concept of Big Rocks is a big part of our success at Donatos. We can focus on anything, but what are the things that will get us to our vision most effectively. (We can describe the metaphor here with Big Rocks, pebbles, sand)

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Donatos, we are driven by the idea of “doing the right thing.” It may not always be the easiest or the most profitable in the short term, but by treating others the way you would like to be treated and leading with love, you will always be led to do the right thing. We have thousands of examples — from the way we care for our associates and treat our customers, to the way we closed a market under McDonald’s ownership, to how we have treated “windfall” profit events by putting the money back into the company. When your brand was founded on treating others the way you want to be treated and you try your best to live that out each and every day, good things happen.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Focus less on the title, the money, or the exact path, but instead to focus on what value you can bring to an organization and work hard to just get results. In the end, it is the results that open up your career, not your words, your promises, or your passion. Those are just tools. Become indispensable by getting so many results that everyone wants you on their team. Then, you can choose which leadership role you want to take. Careers do not follow a straight line. Be flexible and open, and work HARD.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

What a great question. I was told by a boss early in my career that I needed to “fit the mold” of a businessperson. What he meant by that was to look, act, speak, and present myself in a way that gave off what he felt was the right way to be. Basically, change my personality. Well, I was so bad at it and I was driving clients away and feeling inauthentic. Years later, I studied “How to be the best version of myself.” Understanding my strengths and weaknesses and then leaning into my strengths, I became a leader who felt comfortable in my own skin. Donatos has been the kind of culture that allowed me to be my authentic self, and that makes all the difference.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Opportunity seeking: By saying yes until there’s a reason to say no, we have been able to keep an open mind to new opportunities. Years ago, an executive from Kroger, who was an idea man, asked us if they could sell Donatos pizzas freshly made in their stores. Well, we only had a dough plant at the time and had no capabilities to handle such an opportunity. The simple answer we gave was, “YES.” And then, we spent months trying to figure that out. Today, we have a fully automated pizza manufacturing facility that produces $30 million worth of pizzas for 8,000 grocery stores nationwide.

Communication: My early career experience in marketing has trained my to always look for ways to take the complex and make it simple. This is critical for the organization to absorb our strategies and vision.

Fun: I try to have fun in the work we do. Sometimes, it may seem silly, but when people are laughing and enjoying the people they work with our challenges become lighter and our performance actually improves. I play in a silly bluegrass cover band and our team is able to see me being easy going and having fun. That helps open up our relationships for laid-back, honest conversations.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

Ultimately, you have the final responsibility of the health and well-being of the company from customers, associates, Franchise partners, shareholders, and community partners. Until you have been the CEO, you really cannot understand the impact of that.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I think there is a growing belief that CEOs are purely driven by greed or personal financial gain. Like anything, that may be true about some, but I find that many CEOs are mostly motivated by improving the world around them — whether its jobs, personal value for associates, or through philanthropical work. Commerce is merely the vehicle or the fuel that drives a mission that is more often than not bigger than pure profit. Another myth is that the bigger the organization, the more self-motivated the CEO. Often, it is the scale that a larger, successful company can have that allows many more positive things to happen in the communities they do business in. Big does not have to mean bad.

What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The biggest mistake I have seen C-suite leaders make is to go into an organization or division and start trying to make change before truly understanding the organization. People who have executive experience tend to be very driven and performance oriented. Going slow can feel like failure to them. However, by going too fast, too many worse things can happen. They can misjudge the situation by not fully analyzing it. Sometimes, they try to carry forward the same solution from a previous employer or job. They can also miss the opportunity to build relationships which gain trust. And trust builds collaboration and energy that is more people centric. The hardest part is not the decisions themselves, but how they go about bringing others along with them. Once you start breaking trust by moving too quickly and not showing what is in it for others, the organization starts to reject the leader like an antibody pushes out an invader.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Communication. As I said earlier, the decisions are often not the hardest part. The hardest part is first taking time to LISTEN to your people. While sometimes you may not hear anything COMPLETELY new, you will allow others to be a part of the solution. And by the way, sometimes you just might hear something you had never considered or were too stuck in your past to consider. You also have to take the time to communicate decisions properly. Who should you talk to first? In what forum should you communicate? How will you communicate in a way that is compelling to you audiences? All this takes time and while slowing down is so hard it is so important for executives running a company.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. People aren’t looking for answers and programs…they’re looking for vision and inspiration. Take the complex and make it simple by focusing on the Big Rocks to do less, better. Align, plan, and execute. Eliminate as much sand (the tasks that do not ladder up to the main goals and objectives) as possible.
  2. Know yourself and work with the tools you bring. Bring your personality to work. Talk less and do more. Show up and give back. Learn how to apologize very well. Also, remember to say YES until there is a reason to say no. If you always start with no, you will miss out on possible BIG things.
  3. As a CEO making time for yourself and your family must be a priority. It is key to learn to say no when it comes to overcommitting your time and spend time on what is important. I ensure that both myself and my team focuses on the big rocks versus the sand. It important to find that work/life balance so you are at your best in both places.
  4. When asked for a decision on something, always ask first: “What do YOU think?” 90% of the time, the person asking the question already has the answer. Don’t try to always be the smartest one in the room but use facts to make a case because passion alone doesn’t sell. Surrounding yourself with a great Leadership Team is vitally important.
  5. Join a CEO peer group immediately. Being a CEO is a unique job that NO ONE in the company can truly appreciate or understand what goes into it since there’s only one person in your company with that title. As a result, it can wear you down and make you lonely if you don’t have CEO peers to learn from and relate to.

In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

First, be accessible. Talk to people and don’t make every touch point a formal meeting or task-oriented discussion. Check in with people and ask them what is on their minds. You will hear unvarnished information PLUS people will know you care about them. Dave Thomas at Wendy’s used to call it MBWA — management by walking around.

Also, celebrate successes. I admit I can do better on this one, but by allowing people to celebrate one another we all feel valued and part of something special. We do something called Promise in Action at the beginning of almost every meeting. It’s a time where people can spontaneously celebrate others for what they have done to support our mission and vision. It’s so cool, sometimes we let it go on and on.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Wow, what a question. I have people in my family who struggle with mental health issues and I think all of us at one time or another have struggles in this area. Yet, mental health is such a stigma that people do not openly discuss it and therefore are not treating it wholistically. On top of that, we have a health care system that treats mental illness differently than physical illness. Symptomatic behaviors that are difficult to understand are too often categorized, judged, and therefore ignored. And what victims need is the opposite of being ignored. The movement I would like to see is one of understanding and acceptance. From that comes healing. And this universal healing would have the most significant impact on the world… reducing poverty, violence, prison overpopulation, unemployment, hate, and even war.

How can our readers further follow you online?

They can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomkrouse/

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