Leading Through Crisis: Ken Otto

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Ken Otto, CEO, Redberry Restaurants

You’re not there to be right,” says Ken Otto. “You’re there for the team to get to right.”
Strong advice from the Redberry CEO, who took on the role in 2019 following a stint overseeing some of Canada’s largest restaurant brands as president of Recipe Unlimited’s Family-Dining division. Otto says his biggest leadership mistake was “thinking I knew it all — I didn’t have a clue.”

The hospitality veteran, known for his energy, vision and ability to build bridges between stakeholders, says being a leader in today’s climate is already wrought with challenges, but when COVID-19 threw the foodservice industry into chaos, he had to
re-examine his leadership style.

“[It focused on] communication and team check-ins. As the team worked remotely and not face to face, substantially more energy [had to be] invested in communicating our action plan more often, as well as connecting with teammates and making sure there was alignment on near- and medium-term tasks,” he explains. “Equally, if not more important, is checking in with the team to make sure they’re doing okay. This is harder to do on a video call, versus together, but it’s so important these days.”

Beyond the obvious financial issues brought on by the pandemic, Otto says his biggest challenge as a leader has been keeping his team engaged in, and working towards, the long-term vision and goals of the organization while dealing with near-term uncertainty and new sources and levels of stress.

“The new normal will be different, but in many cases, an organization’s DNA remains the same and a leader needs to understand the difference and help shine a light on how the company’s values and long-term mission must remain its North Star.”

He emphasises that, moving forward, there will undoubtedly be differences in how Redberry executes its core proposition and many of those changes will be operational and technical in nature.

“However, the core promise, vision, mission, DNA of great companies have not changed. In fact, many of these things have been amplified. Restaurants have to be cleaner and the service team has to deliver even faster service or greater levels of hospitality (behind a mask),” he says, adding leaders need to focus on these things, as well as aspirational longer-term goals, to keep the team motivated.

As CEO of one of the largest quick-service restaurant franchisees in North America, Otto is tasked with making decisions that impact the entire company. But he says the most-important decision he makes is “choosing and developing other leaders. People make it happen, so you need the right people.”

A point of pride for Otto is maintaining a company culture that allows people to grow, “letting them do their job [without] micromanaging — letting them make the decisions. Nothing is more empowering to high performers than actually getting to make decisions and have an impact on the team.”

“Ken has quickly become an inspiring leader at Redberry,” says Sharron Fry, the company’s director of Marketing. “He’s passionate about the vision of our company and our team. He leads by example, showing us he values communication, transparency and accountability, while being positive and appreciative. He’s created a ‘One Team, One Dream’ supportive culture, which builds trust and respect and fuels our passion for success.”

While Otto doesn’t believe the definition of a good leader has changed over his career, if he could do one thing differently, he says he would be more open to new ideas and points of view.

“The same leadership qualities that work today have be passed on from other great people,” says Otto, who counts Wayne Holm, Mark Pacinda, Jim Treliving and George Melville among his own mentors. “Maybe styles change, or communication systems change, but the foundation remains the same.”

His advice to those with an eye on a leadership role? “Read. Network. Spend time with people not like yourself. Most importantly, listen to as many people as possible.”

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