Paula MacKenzie has emerged from a potentially career-defining business crisis with a clutch of awards and plaudits for her handling of a supply line breakdown that, at its height, closed 700 KFC restaurants across the country.
Here, in a new interview outlining her seven lessons for business leaders, the KFC UK & Ireland General Manager describes the intense pressure of dealing with a fully-fledged crisis in the eye of a media storm.
One: Get to the source of the problem – fast.
It was Valentine’s Day, 2018 when I first became aware that something was wrong. I was in Stockholm on holiday and I started to get calls from people in my senior team. We were changing to a new distributor and shifting all our volume to their new supply depot in Rugby. The morning of the switch I began to get reports of problems with deliveries coming in and going out of the depot.
Within hours we had an increasing number of senior leaders at the Rugby distribution hub. We needed to get close to the source of the problem and understand what was going wrong. It’s important not to manage from a crisis centre, but to get a proper, first hand diagnostic on the situation.
As a leader, you need to acknowledge what is happening in front of you and be proportionate in your response. In the beginning, of course it is not actually a crisis; but as time goes on you need to be able to use your judgement of when, in fact, it is a crisis and mobilise and deploy as such. Within 24 hours of the first calls, it was obvious that we were going to have to start closing stores – it was at that point we truly knew we were in a crisis. The supply chain is the lifeblood of any retail business, and so if the blood stops pumping, as a business you go down very quickly. A gentle reminder to us all how important our supply chains truly are.
In times of crisis – even more importantly – a key leadership trait, I believe, is to keep a clear head and get to a critical diagnosis of all the issues in play ASAP and define the extent of the problem. It soon came to light there was no single fix. We had to systematically set up the right teams to attack a variety of issues and address multiple elements and multiple levels of complexity.
Two: Remember you are managing a team as well as a situation.
As the situation evolved, we had to think people first, crisis second. Before you have experience of managing a crisis it would never dawn on you that you would have to think about anything other than the challenge in hand, but in reality we had to almost immediately begin considering how our people could keep going in the very extreme conditions where we had to set up an operational crisis room, a supply chain and a media crisis room as well as a crisis room at the Rugby depot.
People were staying through the night as we mobilised our whole business and many of our team were away from families and loved ones for a sustained period, so making sure they could stay in good health was top of mind. Adrenaline only lasts so long- so once you are into 3 weeks plus of a crisis situation – thinking of people’s wellbeing in 360 degrees is paramount. We were overt in thinking about catering, sleeping arrangements, rest periods and scheduling, all so that people could cope and not burn out during fairly tough physical working conditions and huge mental pressure, as well.
One to also consider as a leader is that stress itself can change people’s behaviour. It’s tough for people to deal with sustained pressure and carrying huge accountability. It can feel that the eyes of 1000’s of people are relying on and wanting positive updates and maintain clarity and levelheadedness is important.
The flip side to all of that is that there is nothing as unifying as a single mission for a business to rally behind… So again as the leader it’s your ultimate job to keep uniting and leading everyone in that purpose.
Three: Be prepared for disbelief, exhaustion and battery packs!
At the height of the crisis we all had times when we were thinking: ‘How has this happened? Can we just go back in time for a few days?’ Everyone has moments of disbelief, while you know alongside that everyone is doing their best to hold it together.
News cascades through the system and it breaks at different times for different stakeholders – from employees to our franchisee businesses. As a leader you have to be empathetic to the disbelief they experience. We were running on pure adrenaline for the first 16-20 days, so it was inevitable that energy levels would crash about two weeks later. We were working 20 to 24 hours a day and many of the team were effectively living in the distribution centre. Some days there was barely time to stop to eat, drink or even go the loo(!)… And being constantly glued to my phone is a memory that will stay with me for years… You certainly learn to need a huge battery pack attachment!
People go through the SARAH curve at different rates and many times over: experiencing shock, anger, rejection, acceptance and hope. Then you find yourself getting angry again in a moment and going through the cycle again. It was clear that some people process shock more quickly, with others taking several days. Your team can suffer from mission fatigue and there’s a wider sense of frustration, anger and confusion because people’s livelihoods are being affected.
At home, I was barely present for the best part of a month – it would seem like insanity if you weren’t living through it. It’s now been over a year since the crisis began and it took me till this Easter to finally sleep and just go, ‘How tough has that year been?’ The exhaustion was extreme.
Four: Carefully consider whether to go on camera.
In the media, the story started with customers noticing a handful of branches were closed, before journalists picked up on that. We began putting up some early Q&A’s on our website, but even then we didn’t know how long and how extensive the closures were going to be. Soon a groundswell of media started to label it the “KFC Crisis” and we received 300 media inquiries in ten days which is more than we normally receive in a whole year. Every element of the business was under the microscope, so it was important to keep to a single version of what was happening that could be universally reported.
I imagine a lot of CEOs might feel the need to be the one giving interviews on camera and in many situations that’s probably correct – but it wasn’t right for our situation. Given the nature of the issue we resolved to lean into the power of our brand and talk with the brand’s voice.
The empty bucket advertisement we used with our apology was very well received, but we didn’t use it straight away. (The famous advert cheekily switched the letters KFC to FCK and included the line: ‘We’re Sorry. A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal’). The decision to run the advert might normally have meant a lot of soul searching, but in a crisis everything is so heightened. You are making BIG calls all the time, so it was just: ‘That’s brilliant, I think that’s right’. Gut instinct told us it was the right thing to do, and following a check in with our legal team, we decided to back its creative brilliance. (It went on to win a Gold Cannes Lion in the Print & Publishing category).
It became an illustration of communicating as the brand that people know and love, speaking as they would expect us to talk, not just with a CEO or a CMO on camera. It was also a lesson not to underestimate how interested people are in a situation when it involves a major brand. We’ve since had a lot of awards for the way we handled it.
Five: Have trust in those around you.
In a crisis you have to be intrusive and yet continue to run a high-trust environment, while retaining decision-making for the important calls. It’s important to remember that both, before, during and after a crisis you also have the license as a leader to ask the toughest questions in order to deal with issues in the best way you can.
The philosopher Edward De Bono talks about having ‘six thinking hats’. He describes one of them, the black hat as representing: Caution, Pessimism and Soberness. Metaphorically wearing this black hat means considering what can go wrong in a situation and the importance of developing and strengthening your mitigation strategies.
Today, KFC UK and Ireland is a stronger brand and company because of what we’ve been through together. It is true what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but it also true that it also gives you mouth ulcers, for sure.
Six: Be bold, be brave and come back stronger.
At its peak in Feb 2018 we had 700 stores close and there were 16 weeks when it was very difficult to run the business. It can feel like you are just a shell of your business and, while you may be alive at this point, everyone is angry, worn out and frustrated, but your focus has to be on getting the life blood pumping again and resuscitating the business.
For everyone working to get us back on our feet, there was never a sense that this was too much hard work. I remember FaceTiming my husband to ask him to pack a bag for me and him walking around our bedroom on the phone while I went ‘Oh, that coat, that scarf, that pair of trousers.’ In 12 years of marriage, I’d always managed to pack my own suitcase! That’s just a small personal anecdote but the same stories were happening to our extended team across the business.
After six months we had succeeded in shifting some of our distribution back to our previous distribution partner. It was hard, but we had to keep heading towards that pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel. The system was back on an even keel, but there was still so much work needed to get us back on track. It’s such a British trait, but success is just consistently putting one foot in front of another.
Undoubtedly what doesn’t kill you, does make you stronger… and our business is coming back stronger for the experience. Although it was not a war and nobody died, it was a battle to get and keep our restaurants open which required everyone pulling together, and the lessons you learn and the trust you build in those trying of times, bond you culturally in ways you never thought possible.
The frustration is that, while 2017 was incredible, the events of 2018 meant it was difficult to focus on much else. This year, 2019, has been spent building ourselves back to full strength, oxygenating the business, and getting back to the growth trend we know it deserves and we can reach.
Seven: Culture is your bedrock
Our business has a fantastic culture; it’s built on years of relationship building, investing in people, and trusting in each other’s talents and motivations. It is that strength that meant we were able to get through the crisis. It’s a learning that will always stay with me; it proves that a business’s culture can come to the fore in the toughest of times, much more than people would ever think possible. Without that culture you really are nothing. ‘People first’ has always been our mantra – and it will continue to be so.
In the future I would love our story to be a Harvard Business School case study that shows you can come back stronger. I will always remember someone said to me at the time: “Oh Paula, I’m actually relieved this has happened, because it means you, KFC, will never change anything again.”
I told him: “Don’t believe that for a second. Yes, this change hasn’t worked for sure, but you always need to be healthily dissatisfied with the status quo and drive change as a business”.
That is what motivates me, that inner strength. I don’t want us to stop being bold and brave. We won’t be scared of change; change to unlock progress is good. It’s a concept we’ve talked about as a business as well.
We are stronger and closer as a group; our brand transformation is on track and gaining momentum daily and our teams are full of great and talented people. This crisis is always going to be in our history but it absolutely doesn’t and won’t define us. Our best days remain ahead of us, 100%.
Paula MacKenzie is the General Manager of KFC UK and Ireland.