Some final thoughts on last week’s People Report Best Practices Conference:
The meeting has emerged as one of the industry’s major conferences, and this year’s gathering proved the annual event is no longer merely an HR confab. The number of c-suite residents in attendance dashed that impression once and for all. The focus was on human capital, but the scope of attendees underscored the importance of that resource for all levels of a forward-thinking organization.
Steve Jobs was very much with the conference in spirit, cited by speaker after speaker as an example of an individual who pursued his own way, flouting conventional wisdom at every step. With so many attendees pecking away at their iPads, iPhones and Mac Books, we needed no reminder of that philosophy’s success.
To a surprising degree, the Occupy Wall Street movement and its worldwide spin-offs also drew attention, in conversations between attendees as well as from on-stage speakers. Although the comments were often critical, there was an unexpected level of sympathy with the protestors’ core objection that essential social values have been corrupted by greed.
That dynamic was one more hammer blow to the old certainty that any gathering of chain-restaurant officials will be more solidly Republican and conservative than a bankers’ convention. The diversity of thinking on social issues was evident in the Twittersphere, where posters using the hashtag #prbpc showed a diversity of opinions on matters like economic stimulus programs. I moderated a panel on politics where Craig Miller, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat from Florida, said he’d rebuke the unemployed to “get off their asses and get a job.” That drew a storm of 140-character objections, and a direct counterargument from a keynote speaker.
The balance in perspectives was underscored by a session at the conference on “connected capitalism,” or aligning business with the interests of communities. The panelists emphasized that conscience needn’t be incompatible with the profit motive. "An unconnected business is not a sustainable business. Period," declared Kat Cole, the president of Cinnabon.
Best new phrase I heard: “One-percenter,” the label used at my dinner table by futurist David Houle to designate a person of outstanding wealth.
A new industry star emerged in the person of John Bettin, the CEO of The Palm steakhouse group and chairman of this year’s PRBPC. I’ve pinned enough conference name badges on my lapels in bygone years to risk Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, yet I’d never had the pleasure of hearing Bettin, who provided a very engaging account of how he’s turning around his upscale charge. He repeatedly flashed a humor and warmth that were very much appreciated by all.
One of the more noteworthy observations from PRBPC co-host Wally Doolin: The imperative of any restaurant chain CEO today has to be to drive sales. He suggested the constant rallying cry of recent years—cut costs with abandon—is waning in its effectiveness as a profit driver.
The overriding takeaway from the conference had to be the essential role that culture plays in employee recruitment, retention, performance, and a restaurant business’ overall success.