The Leader's Code

Excellence in leadership—grounded in science

Why We Benefit From Eating Humble Pie

Humility can serve us well both in business and in life

Everyone loves to talk about their strengths. From commercials to political speeches and celebrities to job interviewees, people are much more comfortable talking about where they excel, rather than identifying any potential weaknesses. The prevailing logic is that hiding one’s shortcomings is the best way to put your “best face forward.”

Although this may seem like a reasonable assumption, both research and case studies highlighting the benefits of humility have emerged in recent years. One of my favorite real-life examples comes from Domino's Pizza. 

In the mid-2000s, Domino’s pizza was really struggling. The incoming Chief Marketing Officer (Russell Weiner) inherited flat sales cycles in the midst of a struggling economy. At the heart of Domino’s’ challenge was the quality of their pizzas, as various internal taste tests had highlighted. Domino’s then took the extra step of gathering feedback from its various stakeholders, including customers and franchisees, to better inform their future directions. Using this critical feedback, they committed to turning out higher-quality pizza and revamped their entire recipe from crust to toppings.

Although the internal directive to change their recipe, which had been in existence for 50 years, represented a bold step, perhaps their most striking endeavor was the level of transparency they showed regarding this critical problem. Rather than try to sweep it under the rug or use creative marketing to detract attention, Domino’s took a highly unusual step of tackling it head-on.

Perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of their re-launch was a series of commercials, which aired in 2009 and 2010. In these ads, customers were shown voicing their disgust at the quality of the “old recipe” pizza (e.g., “The crust tastes like cardboard”). These comments were then followed by Domino’s hitting the streets with their new product to re-engage with their harshest detractors to win them back.

The company also released a short-film, which provided the history of the pizza chain as well as showing the painstaking reactions from employees while hearing and reading these complaints.

As President Patrick Doyle noted in the short film, “You can either use negative comments to get you down or you can use them to excite you and energize your process and make it a better pizza. We did the latter.”

Early returns from the campaign indicated it was an incredible success, with a 14.3 percent increase in same-store Q1 sales from 2009 to 2010, with similar gains realized in Q3 (11.2 percent improvement when compared to Q3 in 2009).

This trend has continued, with the stock price climbing almost 20 percent over the past 4 years. The entire transformation is not yet complete, as Doyle is committed to providing complete transparency to Domino’s customers by 2017 by allowing them to see the entire pizza-making process.

What can we learn from Domino’s?

1) Do not be afraid to completely start over–Domino’s acknowledged their problem rested in a 50 year old approach to making pizza and set out to change it. Despite the history of the company being built on this recipe, they committed to change. When the environment speaks, even when we may not like the message, we need to listen.

2) Use the harshest criticism to inspire next-level greatness–Domino’s could have easily dismissed this feedback or decided not to reach out to these individuals once they re-launched their product. Rather than take this approach, Domino’s included these individuals as part of their campaign with the primary aim of bring these customers back into the fold.

3) Vulnerability is a painful, yet powerful experience. It is not easy listening to scathing feedback. However, being open and accepting allows us to build even stronger relationships with the people around us, even when we may feel the opposite. Showing our vulnerability and empathizing with the customer experience goes a long way to building a better brand and stakeholder relationships.

Despite our widespread desire for transparency and authenticity, it is very often perceived as a risky endeavor. Domino’s has shown that embracing this fear and being open to learning can benefit ourselves as well as the people around us. The next time you are facing tough feedback, remember the storied franchise that faced these messages head-on. Eating some humble pie and using this experience to maximize our potential opens us up to all of the possibilities that life has to offer. By engaging our detractors with an open mind and a willingness to listen, we can turn our harshest critics into our staunchest supporters.

Craig Dowden holds a Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in business.

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