On Leadership: A Conversation with Tom Walter, Chief Culture Officer at Tasty Catering

In December 2017, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Tom Walter, Chief Culture Office (CCO) at the award-winning business, Tasty Catering, in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

I contacted Tom to ask him if he’d be willing to talk with me about leadership, culture, and creating high-performance organizations, because this is the focus of my work. I was intrigued by his company’s success, and wanted to learn more.

Tom agreed to meet, and during our conversation, it quickly became clear to me that I was talking to not only an extraordinary leader, but human being, as well.

Tom was extremely generous with his time, and patience, while I asked him over 20 questions. His answers were authentic and from the heart. He was real, sincere, candid, and openly shared his business successes, as well as failures.

In this never-before-published interview, I am sharing Tom’s words of leadership wisdom that he shared with me that day.

Mull on his words, and take them to heart: there are golden nuggets of wisdom garnered from over forty years of practicing leadership.

More About Tom Walter

Tom has been an owner/operator in the food and beverage service industry for over forty years. During summer, which is Tasty Catering’s peak time of the year, employment expands to over 200 full- and part-time employees.

Aside from being CCO of Tasty Catering, he is also the author of the book, It's My Company Too: How Entangled Companies Move Beyond Employee Engagement for Remarkable Results, and is a nationally recognized speaker on entrepreneurship, leadership and business culture.

Tasty Catering has won numerous awards for excellence in culture and catering, including “Best Place to Work,” and “Caterer of the Year.” Business awards include “Top Small Workplaces,” “Psychologically Healthy Workplace,” and “Coolest Places to Work,” among many others.

You can learn more about Tom Walter and Tasty Catering at https://thomasjwalter.com/ and https://www.tastycatering.com/.

Our Conversation on Leadership

Bonita Richter: How did mentors influence your life?

Tom Walter: I started in business back in 1971. I did things based on my experience, and it was a gigantic mistake. I struggled. What I accomplished in five years, I could have accomplished in five months if I had mentors. But in 1971 there wasn't such a thing as a mentor. Who do you turn to for advice?

My current mentors have provided me a path to follow for what I want to attain. I choose a mentor for qualities I want to learn and stick to them like glue to learn. I have a mentor for integrity who is a well-known project manager. I learn about culture from two other mentors.

Bonita Richter: To learn how to build these qualities in yourself for your personal development.

Tom Walter: Right.

Bonita Richter: What's one core message you have received from your mentors?

Tom Walter: One message that's helped me the most is to be ethical. The other is to be authentic. I'm deeply steeped in academia. I'm in the Academy of Management under the entrepreneurship and business management divisions. At the academy conferences, there are about 10,000 academics present. I am a practitioner, not an academic. But I am on the same level as these academics.

The thought leader for leadership, from all over the world in academia, is Bruce Avolio, at the University of Washington. I met Bruce through our mutual contacts at the University of Nebraska. I lecture there every semester. Bruce told me if I want to hook people from every generation, it is by being authentic. It’s by living our values. It's not by being a servant leader. He told me to live your values every single day, when you're at the grocery store, at church. Whatever you do, be what your values are.

Bonita Richter: What are the biggest challenges facing leaders today?

Tom Walter: The biggest challenge facing leaders today is rapidly changing marketplace knowledge. Knowledge differs from wisdom. Your dad had wisdom. I have wisdom. You came into your dad’s company, and you brought a different knowledge: the technology, the idiosyncrasies of a marketplace you were learning. When your dad started, there weren't credit cards. It was using checks and 2/10, net 30 terms. All that’s changed.

The changes I'm having trouble with are rapidly changing marketplace knowledge. I've turned that over to people that are 35 years younger than me, and advisers on what the marketplace says. Odd, isn't it? A 70-year-old man listening to somebody half my age, and they steer where the company's going.

Bonita Richter: We’ve got to love the younger generations, their enthusiasm, and their natural ability with technology because they grew up with it. In my business, I'm hiring a marketing agency, and the guy is 30 years old. He has ideas about things I would never have thought about on my own and has energy and enthusiasm for what he does.

Bonita Richter: What is one mistake you witness leaders making more often than others?

Tom Walter: Leaders compromise their principles. They do things they innately don't want to do. But they do them because of the short-term goal to make money. When I see that happening, I know it dooms that company for failure.

I've had two major losses in my life: two business losses that were significant … well into seven figures. I paid every debtor an agreed upon sum. I didn't file bankruptcy. But I was so tempted to change my principles. My wife, my best mentor of all, said, "Don't do that. You'll regret it the rest of your life. A failure, you can live with. You can't live with not paying taxes, cheating on taxes, cheating on people."

So that's what I see. That's the one major mistake I'm witnessing. I tell leaders, “Don't do this. You're not a thief. You're not that kind of person.”

Bonita Richter: What is the one behavior or trait you've seen derail more leaders' careers?

Tom Walter: A lack of integrity!

Bonita Richter: Poor leadership.

Tom Walter: Yes. Then they end up only doing business with thieves. They’re a thief. They do business with thieves. If you're a person with integrity, people will find you, and they'll seek you out because you have integrity. This is one of our major competitive advantages at Tasty Catering, our values.

We asked our employees, what is our marketplace differentiator? They came back with three answers. Number one, by far, was our culture. Number two was our human capital. Number three was our marketing. We're recognized internally and externally for being a values-driven organization.

Bonita Richter: Were there any brutal facts you had to confront?

Tom Walter: Yes. Confronting the cold, brutal facts, I found out that what I thought would make money no longer would make money. The business was not an independent hot dog stand in a grove competing against others … it was Portillo's and Bueno Beef competing against me.

I was as big as Portillo's for a time. We both had three units. Their growth accelerated. I had to decide that the marketplace had changed, technology changed, and I had to get out. It was my son who told me that when he was 23, 24 years-old. He told me, “You can't do this anymore.” My cold, brutal fact was I had to listen to my son.

Bonita Richter: Someone younger than you.

Tom Walter: My son is very wealthy. He is now 35. He owns three motorcycle dealerships. He’s a partner of mine in about six different companies. He's a brilliant entrepreneur. At an early age, 19-20 years old, he was telling me that my future was not there, it was somewhere else.

Bonita Richter: Do you have a dream manager in your organization, someone who discusses with employees their vision for their personal life, and their career path at Tasty Catering? I saw you have the book, The Dream Manager, on your bookshelf. It is a wonderful book!

Tom Walter: I am Chief Culture Officer here and help people develop their personal visions. But, I delegate to our senior leaders to continue helping people with their visions. That they have to spend time with employees to get to know them, I'll walk up to the supervisors and ask, "What is the personal vision for Olivia’s [name changed] family? What does she want to accomplish in the next three years?" And if they don't know the answer they have an issue with me. In fact, if they don't know their children and their children's names and approximate ages, they have a problem.

Bonita Richter: Human capital. How do you and Tasty Catering managers remove disruptors to quiet the amygdala to increase discretionary thinking?

Fear is a big thing that stops a lot of people. It can mess with your mind. In my experience in business coaching, there was a lot of fear-based issues I used to discuss with my clients.

How do you deal with fear in an environment such as Tasty Catering?

Tom Walter: Fear is pervasive, fear is addictive, and fear is contagious. We have formal disruptor meetings every month. Every team talks about disruptors during their team meetings. What's on the agenda? The person most passionate about that topic goes to the meeting. The next meeting we're having is the third Monday in January. We will talk about the good, bad, and ugly from the holiday season.

We have at least one disruptor meeting every year where we talk about major disruptors. We talk about minor disruptors every so often between team leads. Here's a disruptor example. Jill [name changed], the lady sitting here with her back to us. She used to sit over by this door (pointing to a door leading out to the plant). We'll go through the door shortly. Every time that door opened and shut, her back was to it, and she got disturbed.

During a disruptor meeting, she represented the corporate sales team. She was a salesperson then, and said, "That damn door opened and shut 104 times yesterday. It's driving me nuts." And I thought if that door is disturbing her and she counted 104 times, how much does she sell?

So that afternoon, my brother put tape on the door latch, and he put a new closer on it. Then we changed around the office cubes like they are now.

Here's what happened to her sales. This was the sales chart (drawing a line chart). Here were her sales. When the door got fixed, that's where her sales went (40% increase). That was proof about the value of disruptors. The door was fixed, and her mind was not being hijacked by the amygdala.

We also don't allow people to raise their voices because it creates amygdala hijack. We have discovered what helps people stay here is we remove the disruptors.

Here’s another example. There was a problem with the lighting. I was speaking a lot in October. I was in Colorado, Boston, New York, St. Louis. I was all over the place to get it out of the way in October. When I came back, there were problems. I smelled it when I walked in the office. I could smell the tension and fear. I could feel it. The people were complaining about the lights. Now, this is the lowest level lighting that's acceptable (points to the lighting fixture in the small office). When you came in here, it was bright.

Bonita Richter: Yes, that's disruptive. Bright lights don’t feel good.

Tom Walter: I don't like bright lights. But two girls want bright lights. There was contention going on in the office. It was a disruptor. As you can see, the two girls have bright lights over their cubes. Do you want bright lights? Good. For your unit, you get a bright light. But not for the entire office. That's why we have task lighting.

We aggressively go after disruptors. I talk to people. My job as Chief Culture Officer is, you got a problem, come and see me!

Bonita Richter: This is interesting because until now, I have not considered amygdala disruptors, in this way, in my work. It makes perfect sense, and points to the psychology of being a good leader of people.

Tom Walter: Well, there are two major factors that cause disruption. The first one is called gossip. That is a major disruptor in any company. There are two things that lead to gossip. One is the need to know about finances. Did you know that Bonita?

Bonita Richter: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Money is always a concern with employees.

Tom Walter: Bonita is making $5 million a year, and we're getting paid nothing. I will show you in the next room… everybody knows how much money we make. Everybody knows every week. We play the Great Game of Business®.

Second, it's about knowing what everybody else is doing, what the other teams are doing. We're working our ass off in sales. But is production wasting our labor? We have an in-house newsletter that every team populates by Friday afternoon at 5:00 pm. There's a scribe on every team, and they write what their team did that week.

We have an editor who, over the weekend, she polishes it up. She doesn't do any editing. She doesn't censor unless it's foul language or something inappropriate. Then it's sent out Sunday. By Monday morning, everybody knows what happened last week.

Every team, every company here. We own the building next door. It's got a creative agency, a gift company, a consulting company, are all next door. We have a commercial bakery in this building. Everyone knows what everybody else did. That removes the disruption, and the need to know. Now what's left are personal disruptors, things that are bothering you.

Bonita Richter: Like personal life issues? Things going on at home?

Tom Walter: We have a psychologist that everybody here can see. Right now, we have three people actively talking to psychologists for personal issues. By giving them an industrial psychologist to talk to, I can see the change in their attitudes.

Bonita Richter: We had an employee assistance program at our company, which was progressive back in the 90’s. We had psychologists in the program. Counseling was 100% confidential. We didn't know who was going. We would get a bill at the end of the month.

Tom Walter: The only one that knows who is going is me. They know that they can trust me. Even my brothers don't know. He says, what did the psychologist charge us $4,000 for the last quarter? I say, “I know. It's okay.”

Bonita Richter: It’s worth every penny invested.

Tom Walter: Then we also have as part of the employee assistance program our two-week capital process. We processed four loans this week for our employees who wanted to upgrade their cars. So, over $10,000 went out yesterday. My two brothers, and our CFO, who's my son, approved the loans.

Lack of money is a disruptor. And if they [employees] borrow money more than twice in one year, Bonita, they sit in a private budget meeting with my wife, who's a certified financial planner, and has a master’s in finance. She used to teach high school budgeting. She did private financial planning. She knows finance. She sits with a family and for three months. She tracks their finances. They have to bring in their checking accounts, credit card statements. She helps to get them on target.

Bonita Richter: The "economic engine"… and each functional area of the business … I read in your book, It's My Company Too! How Entangled Companies Move Beyond Employee Engagement for Remarkable Results, that you measure profit per guest. Does each area have its own "profit per X" metric?

Tom Walter: Yes, I'll show you that when we go for a walk. The teams set their goals, and they set their rewards. And they achieve them because it's their goals, their rewards.

Bonita Richter: What do you like to ask other leaders when you get the chance?

Tom Walter: Three questions, three answers. What's your personal vision? What's the biggest pain in the last 12 months? What's your biggest gain in the previous 12 months?

Bonita Richter: I like those questions.

Tom Walter: And when you get through with that, they trust you, because they get intimate with you. You can't love someone you're not intimate with. You can't trust someone you're not intimate with. You can't trust someone who's not vulnerable. By telling you what their biggest pain is, they've been vulnerable. Their biggest gain, they trust you. And what their personal vision is, everybody wants to talk about who they are. So that makes the other leaders trust me, respect me, and then we have an emotional connection.

Bonita Richter: What's a typical day like for you?

Tom Walter: 60% people [focused]. I come in every morning. I walk through the building. I start all the way in the back with the dishwashers, the guys in the warehouse, and talk to every employee. I look at their non-verbal cues. And I know what each person’s non-verbal cues are.

When we walk back there, you will look at guys that have black tops on their hats. They're temps. What that means is we treat them with extra love because they don't know who we are.

They won't make eye contact with me, and they work really fast when I'm coming walking through their area. The people that have been here for a while, they just say, "Hi Tom," or they ignore me. There's no accelerated movement. There's nothing. If I see a non-verbal cue that somebody is doing something that is not typical, then I make sure I circle back and say, "Hey, Olivia [name changed]. Hey, Gina [name changed]. What's up? How are your kids? What's going on?"

Right now, I'm looking for fatigue. I'm looking for a stressed face. I'm looking for slammed eyes. If I see it, then I’ll say to the chef, “We're having a problem here with Don [name changed] today.”

Bonita Richter: You're not only seeing, looking for things, but you're responding to them. You're addressing, not ignoring, and hoping it takes care of itself.

Tom Walter: It won't. It's like a disease. It'll only get worse. Look here. Quick. (Walks me to a magnetic chart of an atom outside the office.)

Bonita Richter: The outer ring is low energy? The inner ring high energy?

Tom Walter: Yes. This morning I walk in, and there's a magnet on the outer circle in the low energy space. When I see that I do something. I go talk to the person to find out what’s going on if I or anyone else can help.

60% of my time is spent focused on people. 20% of my time is focused on business, like today, meeting with you. 20% is my speaking, writing, and doing personal things.

Bonita Richter: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?

Tom Walter: I'm obsessive compulsive. I have attention deficit disorder. I get into doing something I love. So, I make sure every day I do something that I love.

Then I have a fear of failure. We have over 470 mouths to feed every single day. If I'm not on top of things, they won't eat.

Bonita Richter: That keeps you going.

Tom Walter: That’s how I keep myself going: the responsibility. I genuinely believe that my job is to help get my people to heaven. I love everybody that works here. This is my family. If I don't take care of them, they're not going to be able to take care of their families. Then we're going to have dissension, and we're going to have problems.

Bonita Richter: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

Tom Walter: I'd ask for more credit [capital] lines fast.

Established mentors say focus on employee engagement. Crowd-source wisdom and knowledge. Be a leader, not a manager. I never knew the difference between all these things. It's so much different being a leader than being a manager. Management is a job. Leadership is a way of life. Leaders care about their people.

The number one job of a leader is to create more leaders and to transfer power from me to those that are led. By creating power within other people, if I would have done that at once, I would have achieved success faster.

Bonita Richter: That's part of the journey. What's the most important business or other discovery you've made in the past year?

Tom Walter: How vulnerable I am. I'm vulnerable, and that's frightening. I'm old. I don't know how to do stuff anymore. I don't know how to program my new phone. I don't know how to put a vacuum together. When a new vacuum came in, I had trouble reading the directions.

I realized that, as we get older, young people have a kind of knowledge that they can find the answers to things. Old people have crystallized knowledge. Young people have waterfall knowledge. It continues to grow.

I have to surround myself with young people. I’m vulnerable, and I don't like that. It's frightening. And now my younger people, I tell them, "I need your help because I don't know how to do this stuff. I need your help to think about things that I need to be thinking about."

Bonita Richter: That's part of developing other people, handing over the reins to them and giving them more responsibility so they can grow.

Tom Walter: Everybody has to be important. You've must make sure people are important to you and feel important. After lunch, today, one of the girls in the plant gave me a bowl filled with cookies. She said, "We thought you needed cookies. You look tired."

Bonita Richter: You needed a sugar jolt!

Tom Walter: Yesterday was my birthday, and they made me a flan. On top of that, they made me my favorite cookie: a butter cookie with raspberry jam in the center. I love these people.

Bonita Richter: It shows.

Bonita Richter: What is the biggest advancement in your industry over the past five years?

Tom Walter: Technology. Food is food. But technology is a differentiator.

Bonita Richter: Yes, it's something you have to embrace and bring into the company. In the Crain's article about you that I read today, it was linking technology and food delivery services with catering companies, restaurants.

Tom Walter: And they're all failing. A big, well-known local chain was failing with their food delivery. They're failing with their online order. They're all failing.

Here's the thing. If you order food online to be delivered, sometimes, it’s delivered by a third party, a mobile food-ordering service. What’s going to stop that guy from opening up a bag and pulling out some fries and eating them? And what happens if he’s unsanitary? That's what causes food-borne illness.

Who's got the insurance covered? The mobile food-delivery service companies don’t. How about that restaurant? All of our people are all licensed, they’re sanitarians.

Bonita Richter: What are three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?

Tom Walter: Food-borne illness, personal health, and succession.

I'm 70 years old. Yesterday, it dumbfounded the employees when they found out I was 70. They thought I was 55. I work out every day. I lift weights. I do a lot of exercises. I play hearts to memorize how many cards are out on the table. I'll play a video game when I'm bored because it keeps me mentally sharp. I have to be fit to be a leader. My people follow me because I have vitality and vigor.

Bonita Richter: What are three events that helped to shape your life?

Tom Walter: Leaving home at 19 years old. I walked out of my house. I was one of 11 kids, the second oldest. I couldn't stand living in a three-bedroom home of 14 people. My older sister fled to a convent. So, I left and was on my own. I've been on my own since I was 19 years old. I've been making decisions since I was 19.

Business losses. When I lost a lot of money that shaped my life, it made me understand what was important.

My wife and children. My wife brought sanity into my life.

Bonita Richter: How many years have you been married?

Tom Walter: She's been my girl for 52 years. She was 14 years old when I asked her to be my girlfriend. We’ve been married 44 years. There's been nobody else in my life that comes close to her.

Bonita Richter: I'm sure there's a beautiful love story there.

Tom Walter: She still wears her high school jeans. She's 5' 4", 110 pounds, works out like a maniac. Every morning she greets me at 6:00 and says, "Hi, would you like some coffee, Honey?" Every day! I ask her, "Don't you ever get sad? Don't you ever get pissed off about something?" She's brilliant, has advanced degrees, and she's never told a lie in her life. Never speaks ill about people.

Bonita Richter: That's another story.

Tom Walter: My kids, oh my gosh. Both my kids are entrepreneurs. They're successful. Both brilliant, talented college athletes. My daughter played professional soccer. They changed my life forever because I had to become a leader to them.

My dad told me when I got married, "Your job in this world is to get your wife to heaven, and when you have children, to get your children to heaven." And I take that into Tasty Catering. My wife belongs in heaven.

Bonita Richter: She's an angel on earth.

Tom Walter: She is.

Bonita Richter: That's what I always thought of my father. He was an angel on earth.

Tom Walter: The employees around here call her Mother Roberta.

Bonita Richter: What's one of the toughest decisions you've ever made and how did it impact your life?

Tom Walter: Terminated the employment of my fourth brother, who was a partner, for doing unethical things. I had to fire him. I threw him out of the building. It created personal strife with all of my siblings.

He died at a young age, 50 years old, with cancer. I was with him right at the end, throughout this whole pain. I apologized to him. He said, "Tom, you did everything you were supposed to do." But it hurt me to throw a brother out. Then it hurt me to watch him die.

Bonita Richter: It's an emotional scar.

Tom Walter: Yes, but you know what? It hurt me. But it doesn't bother me. It hurt me because I felt disappointed. But it was him or the company.

Bonita Richter: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn and how did it contribute to greater success?

Tom Walter: I failed in my early 30’s. I hired people that had great skills, but they were thieves. This taught me I had to screen for skills but hire better.

Bonita Richter: You hire for culture.

Tom Walter: Yes.

Bonita Richter: Screen for skill, hire for culture.

Tom Walter: And we fire. We write people up.

Bonita Richter: Fire for not fitting into the culture, living the core values.

Tom Walter: When we write people up it's for which core value did you violate? Then after three times, you're gone. And we let them know. It's not me against them. You failed. You agreed to follow our values. We ask them, “Do you agree that you violated it?” They always say, “Yes I did.”

It’s not personal. They're not going to get a gun and shoot me. They will go shoot themselves because they violated the values.

Bonita Richter: They let everybody down.

What is the psychic income you get from leading your business? How does it nourish your soul?

Tom Walter: I love these people. The biggest fear I have about leaving here, and the reason I want to take care of myself, is I love these people.

After that lunch yesterday, we have a girl who works with us, she’s new, and she's been shy. A young guy that works here tells her, "You see this man," as he pointed to me. "This man, he's in charge of people here. And if you have any problems, you go see this guy because he takes care of people problems."

She came up to me and asked me for a full-time job. I found out she has a master’s degree from Webster University. So, I sent a friend I know there an email and wrote, "Hire her. She's a good person. She's making cookies because she can’t find a job!" We’ll see …

Here’s another story. Last Friday, I was sitting with my daughter, having lunch with the people. I see one of our guys, VJ [name changed] put his food down, and turn around and look. He sees a long line of people waiting to eat. He looks at the tables, and I realized there weren't enough of them to seat everybody.

So, I'm getting ready to get up and get a table. I see him walk out of the warehouse and I said to my daughter and Sam [name changed], "If he comes back with a table I'm giving him $20. Sam, you got $20?" He said, "No, I don't!" So, I got $20 from Enrico [name changed]. VJ comes over with the table and sets the chairs up. I walk up to him, and I shook his hand with the $20 tucked in my hand. I said to him, "That was awesome." He didn't even look at me and said, "Thanks, boss."

Bonita Richter: That's the way to give a proper tip!

Tom Walter: Yes, you're a Chicago guy. You don't look.

Bonita Richter: He's good.

Tom Walter: Then he said, "Everybody here treats me like family. So, I treat everybody else like family." Courtesy is contagious. Do you have time for a quick walk?

Bonita Richter: I do.

Tom Walter: Alright.

Tom leads me out the door to meet the people, and tour the Tasty Catering plant.


* indicates required