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Former Dunkin’ CEO Nigel Travis: ‘Challenge Everything’

As CEO of Dunkin’ Brands from 2009 to 2018 (and now its executive chairman) Nigel Travis oversaw a dramatic revitalization of the well-known brand. He shares some of his strategies regarding the challenge culture with Chief Executive.
Nigel Travis, CEO of Dunkin Donuts from 2009 to 2018
Nigel Travis, CEO of Dunkin’ Brands from 2009 to 2018

As CEO of Dunkin’ Brands from 2009 to 2018 (and now its executive chairman) Nigel Travis oversaw a dramatic revitalization of the well-known brand, following a career leading a slew of high-profile companies like Papa Johns, Burger King and Blockbuster. In a new book, The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback, Travis outlines his approach to driving workforce engagement. Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with Chief Executive.


The challenge culture is actually a very simple concept. Essentially it’s encouraging people in organizations to challenge from all angles or, more specifically, to encourage pushback—in a very civil way. The benefit of all this is to get greater buy-in and hopefully better solutions and, at the same time, create a culture that people like working in.


The worst thing to do is to say we’re going to install a challenge culture. It’s not like you’re putting in ERP. It’s something that needs to take time to evolve, and you probably shouldn’t label it. It’s very gradual and it encourages people to question, it encourages people to challenge.

There are some overt things you do from day one. When I first got to Dunkin’, I didn’t want people just to accept what the boss said. I want people to think about issues. [I said to] the marketing people, “I want you to think about the finance issues and make a contribution.” Everyone should think like a general manager.

I’ve taken this right down the organization by demonstration. I was asked by HR to do a session with all our interns. The first thing you need to say right up front is, “This is not a Q&A of Nigel. The aim is for everyone to have a dialogue.” It encouraged them to talk about any subject they want to talk about. In fact, I will probably ask them more questions. Like, “What’s it like working at Dunkin? How is this different from other companies? Where do you think we can improve?” Then we have a discussion.

The other key thing is when people contribute you reinforce that behavior is by documenting what they say. Yesterday I wrote up 10 lines of what came out of that meeting and sent it to the leadership team. It doesn’t mean we do [everything that was suggested], but, again, it’s a challenge to what we do day-to-day. By listening to other people you should challenge yourself, but it’s all about improvement. It is not about destruction in any way.

If you do this, you’ll get better solutions, and, from an individual point of view, you will progress with your career far faster than if you just come up with your own ideas.


Some questions to consider as you think about your culture and whether it encourages questioning, dialogue and challenge:

For your company: Do people fear they will be fired if they challenge the status quo or question ideas or plans too forcefully or too often? What defines a culture that is not what you want yours to be? What qualitative skills are most important to your culture and business? How do you foster and encourage them? Have you defined and distributed the ground rules for civil dialogue? Do you have channels that provide opportunities for workers to pose questions and challenge their bosses?  What role does HR play in your organization? Does it help create the challenge culture?

For your management team: Does your core team consist of people who will challenge and question each other? Do they have a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds?

For yourself: Do you practice listening skills?  Do you take notes during conversations?  Do you have an emotional consigliere?  A sparring partner?  Do you, and members of your team, personally model the challenge culture?

Read more: What Really Matters: A Conversation With Patrick Lencioni


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