When the strips sold out that day, a customer had to wait while employees cooked up a fresh batch. Gardner, working the lunch shift, apologized for the delay and offered the man a free side item so he wouldn't go hungry. She and her team members "were just so attentive to me," the customer recalls.
It was no ordinary customer experience—and the man, it turned out, was no ordinary customer. As senior VP of public affairs at Yum Brands Inc. (formerly Tricon Global Restaurants), KFC's parent company, Jonathan Blum was in a position to recognize employees going the extra mile. Blum hurried back to nearby Yum headquarters, grabbed one of his signature awards—a seat belt on a plaque, symbolizing the "roller coaster" nature of the restaurant business—and returned to the KFC to fete Gardner. "In front of all her peers, I said, 'You didn't know that I work at Yum. I want you to know how proud I am of you.' " Today, a photo of a beaming Gardner hangs in Blum's office.
In Yum parlance, they call it "catching people doing things right"—taking time to notice and publicly reward employees who exceed expectations. "People innately want to be recognized for their hard work," says Yum chairman and CEO David Novak. It's something Novak learned in 1993 as chief operating officer of Pepsi-Cola North America. At a meeting with salespeople in St. Louis, Novak found that everyone kept mentioning a merchandising star named Bob.
"This guy starts crying," Novak recalls. "He says, 'I've been in this company 42 years, and I didn't know anybody thought this way about me.' I thought, if I ever run a company, I'm going to make sure people are recognized." Novak became president of KFC and of Pizza Hut, where he recognized stellar employees with floppy chickens and cheese heads. And when Tricon spun off from PepsiCo in 1997, Novak made recognition one of the new company's core principles.
Today at Yum headquarters, you can't turn a corner without bumping into an award of some sort. There are index-card-sized write-ups that workers post when they see a colleague Walking the Talk. There's the employee Roving Recognition Band, whose members, outfitted with tubas and tambourines, descend on workers' offices. There are Wow stickers, pins, and—most coveted of all—the idiosyncratic prizes, such as Blum's seat belt, that company leaders give out individually and display in Yum's halls.
That jalapeno pepper plush toy? That's for "fire in the belly." The miniature fan? It's for "individuals who take leadership in the face of crisis," cleaning up after something unsavory has hit the fan. The stethoscope is for leading with heart, and the chef's hat for cooking up great results. (Employees typically get cash, too, since you can't eat a chef's hat.) Gimmicky? Sure. But employees seem delighted. In July, Novak personally presented Valerie Steward, a general manager at a Detroit KFC, with the Walking the Talk award (a giant set of chattering teeth), Yum's most coveted. "I didn't look at it as corny," Novak says. "When you give everybody plaques, what separates one from the other? This is more individualized, so you see it as a big deal."
Yum thinks the results are a big deal, too. Turnover among its 840,000 employees is down to 115% from 181% three years ago. Profit margins are up, too, from 11.5% in 1997 to a projected 14.5% in 2003. It's common sense, Novak says. "If you can get your people smiling and feeling good about themselves, that's fundamental to customer satisfaction." Employees are more likely to stay put longer—and customers come back for seconds.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.