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How a Bluegrass Band Made This Pizza CEO a Better Leader

Tom Krouse, CEO of Donatos Pizza

What do you think of when you hear the phrase, "Sweet Caroline?" I'll bet your mind immediately went to, "bum, bum, bum," right? But why is that? 

With repetition and simplicity, songwriters can connect with their audience in a unique way.

I have been writing and playing music since I was a kid. Today, I play in a band during my free time (partially because I love it, and partially because my golf game is horrible). By studying the power of music and the art of songwriting, I have come to understand the elements that allow a song or a performer to connect with an audience.  

I spend my working hours as president and CEO of Donatos Pizza, a 160-store fast casual pizza company. As such, I have spent years studying and learning how to connect with employees, customers and shareholders, as well as how to ensure that vision and mission are expressed in a way that is not only inspiring, but easily understood.

So, what's the answer? I turn to music for that.

Connect with your people

In both business and music, audience is everything. To make sure your communication – or your song – is up to par, you have to understand the people you're trying to resonate with. Are you communicating to C-Suite leadership or 16-year-olds on the front line? Playing in a honky-tonk or a family festival? If you use the same approach for all, you'll miss your audience.

Take the music out of country line dancing and the Hokey Pokey, and you've basically got the same dance. Tone and language are everything when tailoring your message.

Knowing your audience is also important when dealing both with customers and your internal team. This is an ongoing conversation at Donatos, where we're constantly working to improve our "people first" approach. After nearly 55 years in business, we know that the key to a successful business is an engaged workforce. Our associates aren't a means to an end; they are our end goal, and we make a conscious effort to recognize and appreciate the people that make Donatos what it is.

Keep it simple and consistent

Your message must always be simple, consistent and compelling. Think about those song lyrics I mentioned earlier. They're easy to remember because they're simple and repeated frequently throughout the songs. In fact, researchers from the University of Southern California analyzed songs from the past five decades and found that any time you repeat the chorus in a song, you have a 14.5 percent higher chance of making it No.1 on the charts. Repetition drives familiarization; familiarization breeds identification; and soon, you're humming right along with Taylor Swift about the players who are play, play, play, play, playing.

Conciseness and consistency are just as critical in business, where they translate to everything – from how we email and conduct meetings to how we identify and share our company's mission statement.

We take this very seriously at Donatos, case in point being our own Mission, which is to promote goodwill through product and service, and principles and people. The core of what we're trying to communicate is that, even though it's just pizza, we can have an impact on our people and our community.

But ask a 16-year-old part time employee to repeat their employer's mission statement and you'd probably get a different variation every time. So, we simplified the idea. The mission is what we call our promise: to serve the best pizza and make your day a little better – so simple and memorable that you could sing it.

Take it to the bridge

In songwriting, you begin with an overarching idea that you want to convey, whether that's a love story, breakup, tragedy, etc. This key theme is carried throughout the different structures of the song until the story is complete. A standard structure might go something like intro, verse, second verse, chorus, another verse, chorus two times, break, bridge, another verse, concluding with the chorus three times.

For an organization, a similar structure falls into place where the verse is your key initiative and the chorus is your mission or overarching values that you repeat over and over. The bridge is a particularly interesting element, though. In a song, the bridge involves a key change or different instrumentation that takes you to another place, creating purposeful dissonance that surprises and delights, before circling back once again.

When you're running an organization, the bridge cannot be overlooked because it keeps your workforce interested in their work; it's the excitement that breaks up the mundane. The bridge can come through in company culture as well as the things you celebrate and recognize within the organization – whether it's an impromptu kick ball game or a bi-annual chili cook-off that everyone gets really into. You may already have a bridge established in your company, and kudos for that; but as a manager, it's up to you to make sure your workforce continues to, in the words of James Brown, "take it to the bridge!"

During my time leading Donatos Pizza, I've been fortunate enough to be able to infuse the creativity I use during my time in my band into the way Donatos operates on a national scale, and we've created our own rhythm of business that works best for our people.

About the author: Tom Krouse is the president and CEO of Donatos Pizza. He has over three decades of restaurant industry experience, countless civic contributions and an award-winning career in marketing and management. He is also lead singer and guitarist for Grassinine.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Sammi Caramela.

Image Credit: Tom Krouse