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McDonald’s head John Betts four tips for success

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

John Betts has been the top dog at McDonald's Canada since 2008 and is responsible for much of the restaurant chain's recent gains in the coffee and breakfast market. Here, the recent recipient of the Canadian Public Relations Society's CEO of excellence award shares some of the secrets to his success.

Re-evaluate the rules

When a company has been around for a long time like McDonald's, it's important to evaluate the policies every now and again to make sure you're keeping up with the times. Until recently, McDonald's Canada didn't allow earrings on men, nose rings, nail polish or tattoos. I am always talking to employees about how we could do better and during one of these discussions the subject of appearance came up. I realized that the 30-year-old policy didn't make a lot of sense. I have a 17-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son, so I know how important it is for the current generation of young people to express their individuality. I did some research – went to other retail businesses and saw that their employees were allowed to have these things [piercings, tattoos, nail polish]. It took a year. I actually had to persuade a lot of the managers that this was important and a good idea. It's a change that I'm very proud of because it was about meeting our employees needs.

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Having fun is good for business

It is so important to like what you do. It's something to consider as you are growing in your career. Liking your work makes you motivated, it makes you work harder and it can carry you when other things aren't going well. Enjoying my career has been part of what has made me successful and I try to create a positive environment so that everybody who I work with can feel that same sense of positivity. Back in my early years I started something called window races, which was basically a contest to see who could serve the most customers. Today we do something called 'The Voice of McDonald's,' which is basically our company's version of Canadian Idol. I want the people who work for me to be happy at work. A good attitude is going to lead to better business results.

Listening is more than letting people talk

I think the best career advice I have is to really listen to the people who work for you. Not just give them the time to talk, but actively listen. I would say the biggest mistakes I made earlier in my career happened because I thought I had all the answers. Somebody would be talking to me and I would be waiting to jump in and tell them the 'right' answer, rather than reflecting on what I was hearing. I try never to do that now. I think one of the things I do best is create an open and safe environment for communication. I want people to know they can be straight with me – tell me that one of our promotions isn't working or how something could improve. I have an e-mail account called 'Straight to John' where employees can write to me directly. I don't want to be the kind of manager who is sitting in his corner office and inaccessible.

How to change a blah reputation

When I started at McDonald's Canada in 2008 nobody would come to us for coffee. It had either no reputation or a blah reputation. Coffee is so important to this culture and I knew we needed to play in that space. It wasn't the coffee that was the problem. We tested the brew and it is the same as it always was. The problem was that people just didn't think of us. I knew we needed to do something dramatic, so we decided to offer free coffee for two weeks, no strings attached. The response was huge. And of course it's not just about the coffee. We had millions of people who came in, got to see the new restaurants, use the free wifi. Our morning business has grown exponentially since that campaign.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea

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