A kitchen scene of yelling, flying pots, and even fist fights isn’t immediately associated with a pleasant work environment. But any workplace can shift from cutthroat to collaborative, where employees feel committed and satisfied with their job — a transformation that can only be successful with leaders committed to changing the culture.
In our recent webinar, Galley Solutions’ Jason Gunn and guest Anthony Lambatos from Footers Catering explored the transformative effects of heart-led leadership. They highlighted how this approach not only cultivates a thriving company culture, but is also pivotal in creating a happier and more successful workforce.
Want to watch the entire webinar? You can see it here: Heart-Led Leadership.
Meet Anthony Lambatos
Anthony Lambatos grew up working for his father in the catering and restaurant industry. His dad founded Footers Catering in 1981 in Denver, Colorado, with a dream to bring restaurant-quality food and service to catered events.
When Anthony and his wife, April, purchased the business in 2010, they wanted to escape the traditionally accepted toxic kitchen environment that’s characterized by competitiveness and colorful language. As the duo reflected on their journey to transform Footers Catering, they identified four key elements that helped create a more positive work environment:
“We realized these were things that weren't [unique] to our specific place, time, or people. We could help other companies do these things, and so our four convictions are lead, love, MIBE, and vibe.”
As a testament to their success, Footers Catering has recently been recognized as one of the best places to work in Denver by the Denver Post, Denver Business Journal, and Colorado Biz Magazine.
In 2019, Anthony and April founded Footers’s sister company, MIBE, which stands for Make It Better Every Day. MIBE focuses on promoting a commitment to heart-led leadership and valuing people for more than their job.
Key Webinar Takeaways
Jason and Anthony talked about how heart-led leadership can foster a positive company culture and help employees find satisfaction in their work and the people they do it with.
We encourage you to watch the webinar to hear the entire conversation, but we summarized the highlights below if you want a high-level overview.
1. Foster a workplace culture centered around people, purpose, and core values.
Modern workplace culture often fixates on flashy amenities, using employee perks and benefits to support the culture. However, Anthony says that workplace culture goes far deeper.
As companies grow, they often stop looking at employees as people and start viewing them as dollar signs. Anthony encourages organizations to flip this and value people for more than just their job. Doing this can transform how employees feel about their work and who they do it for.
“People doing jobs that they're great at, doing it for a company where they understand their role and the purpose, and doing it with people they really care about is at the core of what great culture is all about and what companies should be aspiring to focus on.”
Culture is built by selecting team members whose personal core values complement the company's values. Anthony emphasizes the importance of forming a team of individuals with diverse skills and innate roles like "Challenger" or "Peacemaker," being mindful of how they interact.
“This is not about hiring all the same type of people — it's about hiring people that are all committed to a similar goal. You can have a very diverse work group and still have people that love, trust, and respect one another.”
Similarly, the team members who stay on the team play a critical role in shaping culture. The longer toxic employees are allowed to stay — even if they’re high-performing team members — the more culture erodes.
Ultimately, Anthony believes it’s up to company leaders to foster a positive work environment and decide what workplace culture they want to promote.
“Every organization has a culture, and whether it's a culture that is by default of just what you let go or whether it's a culture by design, is a choice among the leaders within that organization.”
According to recent Gallup data, fostering close relationships in the workplace is crucial to improving employee accountability and connection. They even say that leaders should encourage these friendships and make them an integral part of the work culture.
Footers Catering has found that having close friends at work who genuinely get along and enjoy working together has far more benefits than consequences. Anthony notes that employees are more willing to help each other and hold each other accountable for their mistakes.
2. Use your company’s core values to gauge if there’s a culture mismatch.
Core values are a company’s non-negotiable employee expectations; they help outline company standards and mission. These values can also reinforce good and bad workplace behavior.
If an employee complains about a peer's behavior, Anthony encourages leaders to first give the benefit of the doubt that the employee is unaware they’re causing problems. He then emphasizes addressing these poor behaviors by relating them to the company’s core values, rather than attacking the person’s character:
“When you attack the behaviors and not the person, it changes the conversation. So, instead of talking about ‘You're this’ or ‘You're that,’ you can relate this [bad behavior] to, ‘When you come in 15 minutes late for your shift, that causes a problem, and it's not in line with our value of respect. It doesn't respect the rest of the team.’”
Leaders should focus on whether an employee’s behavior violates the company’s core values. If struggling with determining if the behavior doesn’t align with these values, organizations can look at what their best team members do and which behaviors exude core values.
Leaders must be clear about the behavior changes needed to stay on the team if someone's behavior doesn't match the values.
“People can’t necessarily change who they are, but they can change their behaviors and how they respond when you give them that opportunity. Then, the ball is in their court to align with the values or resort to how they've always been.”
And it's not always about doing something wrong — sometimes, your leadership team might just want more from an employee.
For example, Anthony recalls getting a complaint about someone who wasn’t being a team player and only doing the bare minimum. One of Footers’s core values is Awesomeness — employees willing to go above and beyond to create those moments of “awesomeness.” It was clear to the Footers leadership team that the employee's behavior conflicted with Footers’s core values, rather than being a trivial complaint from someone who doesn't like another person.
Anthony stresses the importance of keeping your organizational core values top of mind. This means consistently going over things like:
- What does this core value mean?
- What are the behaviors that are in line with that core value?
- What are the behaviors that are out of line?
3. A positive work environment starts with your leadership team.
For a long time, leadership was considered the ultimate source of truth within an organization, often leading to imposter syndrome and unrealistic standards for leaders. Anthony argues that the best leaders are honest about not knowing everything:
“The best leaders are the most authentic ones that are very willing to outline, ‘Here's what I know, here's what I don't know,’ and they're willing to ask the group questions without the fear of looking [less knowledgeable].”
When this transparency begins at the top, it encourages similar behavior throughout the team and fosters a more collaborative environment, instead of creating a cut-throat work environment. Employees won't need to constantly prove themselves and undermine others to achieve their goals.
Transparency and honesty are paramount to decision-making, too, especially when your leadership team might not have made the best decision.
“You have to have confidence in the decision you're making, but I think you also need to have the confidence to say when it wasn't the right decision.”
Anthony believes transparency about mistakes enhances a leader's credibility, rather than eroding it. He encourages leaders to be honest about the rationale behind the original decision, unforeseen challenges that came up, lessons learned, and reasons for making adjustments:
“A lot of leaders miss this because they just make a new decision, and they don't talk about the ‘why.’ So it leaves people wondering what happened and why they didn’t stick with the original plan.”
Leaders can strengthen employee trust by creating an environment where every team member feels empowered to provide constructive feedback.
By instilling this confidence in employees, they can proactively uphold the workplace culture and address concerns with their superiors when behavior violates the company’s core values. An employee's willingness to voice their concerns highlights organizational transparency and respect.
4. Building and nurturing a strong workplace culture requires dedication.
Before Anthony and his wife, April, bought Footers Catering, the kitchen environment was very toxic. Their employees felt easily replaceable and competitive.
“You don't have to be a jerk to get results and to build a great company. You can lead a little bit differently — lead with your heart — and create an incredible environment where people thrive, and then suddenly, the business thrives.”
Anthony admits that changing the company philosophy and workplace culture wasn’t easy and came with pushback. Changing company culture, he says, is like getting everyone to help push a boulder up a hill.
At first, a small group is excited about the change and starts trying to move the boulder in the right direction. A few uncertain people stand in the middle doing nothing. Finally, the rest of the group has a rope around the boulder and is pulling it backward.
The first group might give up eventually because there is too much resistance — or the reverse happens when you get consensus in the middle and part ways with the people holding you back.
Anthony stresses the importance of having the leadership team actively supporting this culture change and being wholeheartedly invested in these efforts:
“What are the owners and senior executive team doing during this? Everybody is watching them, and if they start helping push that boulder, suddenly it's very clear what’s important to the organization.”
Anthony says many of their staff didn’t make the transition, but those who stayed were 100% committed to this new path. Fast forward 15 years, Footers has four times the revenue it started with and is now in a 40,000-square-foot facility with an attached event venue.
Footers aimed to expand and create more opportunities for their team without solely focusing on revenue growth. They prioritized building a sustainable foundation by creating a workplace where everyone enjoys coming to work and avoiding burnout.
Once Footers identified the right cultural fit, turnover decreased significantly. Nurturing their culture also brought additional benefits — people not only stayed long-term, but others returned to help out when they could.
Anthony encourages organizations to shift their focus from “we’ve arrived” to constantly thinking about what’s next. He says this growth mindset is fundamental to nurturing a strong company culture:
“Culture is something you have to work on every single month, week, and day. If you're not thinking about being intentional about something related to culture, then it'll be ‘culture by default,’ and take whatever direction the wind blows it.”
Footers’s sister company, MIBE, now continues to educate other companies about how to lead with heart and build engaging and rewarding company cultures.
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