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Being Heard Drives Chipotle's Culture, HR Strategy

Two people sitting on chairs on stage at a conference.

​LAS VEGAS — Imagine if a company's CEO and chief people officer were to invite the entire staff to participate in weekly 60-minute calls just to chat—and be listened to.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Chief Diversity and Inclusion People Officer Marissa AndradaChipotle Mexican Grill CEO Brian Niccol and Chief Diversity and Inclusion People Officer Marissa Andrada do just that. They invite all employees to participate in Chip Chats, where workers can express how they are feeling, share the one thing they want the executive team to know and present ideas on how to make a better world.

That connection and engagement during the more than three years Niccol has been on board has helped him turn a company with a $6 billion market cap into one that exceeds $50 billion, while at the same time growing his workforce to more than 100,000 employees.

Niccol and Andrada shared that strategy and others while presenting at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021 opening general session on Sept. 9. The event, which took place in person and virtually, was moderated by Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and a partner at the RBL Group.

To the awe of the crowd, Andrada said when she was hired in 2018, Chipotle Mexican Grill didn't even have an HR department. Niccol asked her to come in and begin a cultural transformation.

Niccol personally reached out to hire Andrada, contacting her directly by phone. He soon realized that she was "a person who is really great at having that conversation with someone to learn what's on their mind."

Said Andrada: "From that first conversation, [Niccol] showed himself to me as he truly is, and that was impressive."

Andrada noted that the pandemic showed her humans "really are at the center of everything, and as a person working in HR, you have that at your fingertips."

One of the first comments Niccol made to Andrada after hiring her was, "Speak real to me. Don't speak in HR."

Chipotle Mexican Grill CEO Brian NiccolNiccol said executives will perform much better if they can relate to their team on a personal and professional level, "especially when you are facing such a difficult time as the past 18 months. Having that kind of relationship makes all the difference in the world when it comes to solving issues together."

He added that, as an executive, "you need to be able to tell people that you don't always have the answer, but that you're going to figure it out that day by working with your employees."

Hence the Chip Chats, where the entire management team learned more intimately what their employees were facing each day. "Sometimes we'd have calls in the morning, and by the afternoon we'd have another one because at that point we had figured it out," Niccol said.

Furthermore, Niccol continued, he's not one to look at the present situation as "the new normal" because "every day is something different, something new. It's fluid. You might think things are one way one day, but the next day everything changes."

He said company decisions are guided by the company's values. "Those values make up our culture, which shows up in what we do for our customers," he explained.

The company's website proclaims that "food has the power to change the world" and that Chipotle was "born of the radical belief that there is a connection between how food is raised and prepared, and how it tastes. Real is better. Better for You, Better for People, Better for Our Planet. It may be the hard way to do things, but it's the right way."

Andrada added, "Food is real, and so are we. … We want people who are crazy about culinary, and a company is only as good as its people."

Andrada's and Niccol's comments about company culture rang true with conference attendees. "Chipotle is an innovative company and is really customer- and associate-focused," said Lori Doss, SHRM-SCP, HR director of BrightSpace Senior Living in Chattanooga, Tenn. "That they have one-on-ones with their direct reports so often and through their regular Webex events is amazing."

Veronica Thurman, SHRM-CP, total rewards specialist at Trinidad Benham Corp. in Denver, said, "As an HR person, the culture you have is the top thing to present yourself as. You have to put your people first, and not all companies do that."

Sharon Mumford, SHRM-SCP, senior HR manager at Trinidad Benham Corp., added, "I appreciate that they recognize the importance of being transparent every day, and they really listen to what their staff is thinking. They demonstrated why it's so important to work with people who you truly like."

Deana Reese, SHRM-CP, senior human resources specialist for U.S. Courts Western District of Texas, El Paso, said, "It was great to hear them talk about the process that we've all just gone through. They put it out there really well."

Said Rich Miller, HR manager for Piedmont Airlines in Philadelphia: "It's always all about the people. It was good that they talked about social unrest and dealing with the pandemic, and how we have to stay connected, even when our staffs have had to work at home."

SHRM Board Chair Welcomes, Thanks the Crowd

Melissa Anderson, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Albemarle CorporationChair of the SHRM Board of Directors Melissa Anderson, SHRM-CP, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Albemarle Corp., introduced Ulrich, Niccol and Andrada and shared some poignant thoughts about and appreciation for the HR industry as it battled through the pandemic.

"We've been through so much, including all of the Zoom calls and everything else," said Anderson, who said her highlight of remote work came one day when her CFO, who was about to give a company presentation, had to yell outside to someone using a leaf blower.

Anderson greeted the live and virtual crowd by saying, "Today, we celebrate that we're here together! We have made it to this moment in time after the surreal events of the past 18 months. And while the future of this pandemic is still uncertain, our profession has a lot to be proud of."

She said HR professionals "have proven that they can handle whatever comes our way, and, by doing so, we've opened incredible opportunities to advance our work and capabilities. We have put talent front and center.

"Seeing employers prioritizing the health and well-being of their employees above profits is something we can all feel good about. It was truly remarkable the way our profession rose to help leaders design and implement protocols for employees so they could carry out their duties safely while balancing some of the most challenging personal circumstances."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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