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Thank you to the 1,400 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 questions!
I hope reading

7 Questions with Rachael Kelly

helps you in your leadership.



Jonno White

7 Questions with Rachael Kelly

Name: Rachael Kelly

Current title: Chief Human Resources Officer

Current organisation: Smokey Bones

Rachael is the Chief Human Resources Officer for Smokey Bones LLC responsible for end-to-end human capital management, facilitating an employee-engaged culture, and serving as a trusted member of the executive team who guides the organization to achieve its strategic plan. Rachael has developed a keen understanding and expertise of both operations and human capital management, having worked in large, franchised corporations such as Pizza Hut and Sonic, start-ups, and medium sized organizations in private equity. Beginning her career as an hourly employee, Rachael brings a unique vision, pragmatic approach, and focus on execution. This unique vision and approach have served well in her first year at Smokey Bones. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, while experiencing significant revenue decline, Rachael leads her team through … significant compensation and staff reductions, creation and implementation of COVID-19 employee and customer safety practices, overnight transformation of organization design, structure, operating system, and human capital strategy. This enabled the launch of multiple virtual brands, and an execution of a bootstrap recovery of the business with no government assistance. Under Rachael’s leadership, Smokey Bones also expanded health benefits to all employees, dramatically reduced turnover, and was certified as a Great Place To Work. Rachael splits her time between Smokey Bones based in Aventura, FL, and Dallas, TX where she raises her two young boys.

7 Questions with Rachael Kelly


1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?

The main challenge we face in today's environment is operational focus and goal setting. Keeping the team laser focused on what is mission critical, while demonstrating agility to a rapidly changing business environment, evolving the organizations operations model, and maintaining core controls and processes are essential in developing a strategy that is executable and measurable. I am very proud of how our team has accomplished this and our continued work in this area. It takes executive team alignment, self-discipline, and a complete one team culture.

2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?

My career has not been your typical path to success. I began my career as a pizza cook, living in an unheated apartment, with a blanket, my cat, and a chair. At the time, I firmly believed that I would not amount to much in life, nor that I had much value as an individual. There was a moment early on, where I can remember looking at the situation around me, all the reasons I was in the situation, and made a very important personal decision. I did not want to just live and get by, I wanted to achieve more! Once I made that decision, everything changed. Fortunately for me, I was working in a company that always had room for people who worked hard, had high standards, and a fiery passion to succeed! That company also needed people in leadership positions, which provided energy towards people development. The opportunities were there, and I went after them with ferocity. The behaviors that helped me grow from a pizza cook to a restaurant leader, business leader, and human resources leader, are the same. Commitment, passion, a dogged persistence, and an insatiable appetite for learning. At Smokey Bones we like to say, "we get our Master’s degree in the smoker". Experience, learning from failures, constantly studying the world and people, and learning from other leaders made all the difference in the world. And that is how I was able to move through various operational leadership roles, into brand operations and HR leadership roles, consult other business owners, learn the craft and function of Human Resources, and how to lead a team.

It was not until I learned how to believe in myself enough to take greater risks that I became an executive. I learned as much as I could as a Senior Leader at Pizza Hut and Sonic that I took on the responsibility of being the CPO with a startup opportunity, and things moved rapidly after that. I grew so much working in that environment. I studied and learned how to reassure and grow excitement with investors, how to partner with CEO's, and learning what really does, and does not, make a brand successful. Then ventured into the private equity space which is where I eventually came to be with Smokey Bones. Each step I have taken, could not have happened without the one before. I did not fully appreciate in those moments, how much those lessons would propel me further.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Well, that somewhat depends on where I am at and what I am doing (and if I have the kiddos). COVID really enabled us to examine how we work and live best. Most days, I start with thinking time. The mental focus and discipline to keep teams and things on track is critical. And for an HR leader, having the right perspective to help other business leaders bring out their best thinking, is crucial. So, I usually give myself about an hour to review business reports, review my teams work streams and think about key priorities for the day and week, and think about what key problems I am working to solve. The rest of my day is a variety of team huddles and 1:1's with peers and other leaders I am personally coaching throughout the organization. I have a couple of rules around meetings that I try to adhere to. 45 minutes instead of an hour, at least 15 minutes in between meetings, and no more than 65% of the day booked in meetings. “Executive Time” is a very important part of my schedule. It is invaluable for me to have time each day blocked off to think. No emails, limited phone use, just me and a white board. These moments have led to some of the best ideas we have used at Smokey Bones during COVID. COVID working from home has reinforced the importance of clear boundaries and self-limits as well. So, I work to reinforce those boundaries and build in self-care time outside of office hours. I have found that to be crucial in maintaining energy and drive for both me, as well as the team around us.

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

The lessons that many industry leaders have shared because of the COVID crisis resonate with me. The importance of resiliency, and crisis leadership during these times is very clear. But for me, the main lesson that emerges from this crisis is how incredibly important the culture of the executive team is in determining the brand success. Each leader brings forward their functional expertise with strength and creativity; while, trusting, and valuing the ideas and decisions of others on the team., This trust among the executive team helped to build a corporate culture that is exemplified from the top down. A company’s “Employee brand” is only successful if every employee internalizes that. It is impossible for an organization to inspire vision and core values in its lowest ranking employee if the leaders at the top do not set the example. This focus on our culture is possibly the greatest contributor to the business success. It is that dynamic energy that has infused the rest of the brand. It enables authentic connection and communication at all levels. It fostered our transformation to an agile learning organization. It opened the doors to incredible field and RSC relationships and full system management team collaboration and teamwork. It brought forward our foundation of humancentric leadership in every aspect of our business. The connection we have built throughout all levels of the organization has unleashed a culture that has been a multiplier to every pillar of the business. it is the reason that we have been able to not only survive under dire circumstances, by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and gutting it through as a village, but has enabled us to achieve extraordinary sales in the COVID environment, improve the guest experience, industry best levels of turnover and achieving certification as a Great Place to Work.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I read this book for the first time in my early twenties, when I was enjoying the ocean and beach for the first time in my life. I could not put it down. It is the story of a man who survived Nazi concentration camps during WWII, the theories he developed through that experience, and then ultimately how he applied that in his career in neurology and psychiatry. That book affected me as a human being, and everything about our own humanity impacts our leadership. It reminded me about how we all fundamentally need and want purpose and meaning in our lives, in our work, in our relationships. That when we can clearly envision and believe in our true purpose and what gives us meaning, human beings can endure anything, including the most horrific of circumstances. It is the catalyst to my passion for teaching and advocating for the importance of Human Centric Leadership. Human beings have incredible capacity for achievement. We have an incredible ability to survive adversities. We have the capacity to re-invent ourselves and the world around us. We have proven this in history time and time again. In business, it is our job as leaders to help people stay connected to what truly matters and to guide them through what is hard in a healthy and humanistic way. It is amazing what happens when those pieces align, and what can be accomplished together as a result.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?

Building leadership capacity happens through a focused and structured approach to organizational effectiveness, and a compelling and competitive employee value proposition to attract and retain leadership talent. While companies are well served to continuously strengthen and improve that infrastructure, there is and always will be gaps, causing capacity to strain, and especially during times of crisis or staff reductions. This is the focus of most HR leaders. I have found that while this focus yields good results, it misses an element that is essential in rapidly building leadership capacity, and that is the power of being an agile, learning organization by design and intention. One that is less about hierarchy, titles, and silos, and more about continuous collaboration, person to person learning (notice I do not say peer as learning can happen from and to all levels of the organization), creativity and drive for results. Do not get me wrong. An end-to-end human capital strategy needs to be in place, with continuous strengthening of leadership development infrastructure. My message is that the multiplier to what you already have in place and are building within the organization, is an agile, learning organization. It generates a strong sense of empowerment that unleashes tremendous discretionary effort that ripples. The capacity of the organization rises dramatically and often far overcomes the gaps that do exist. This also enables the organization to strategically invest in revenue drivers and enablers more effectively, thus accelerating progress.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?

Right after the pandemic hit hard, we were operating at 90% of our restaurants open, significantly down in sales, had enacted significant compensation reductions across the organization, and had enacted very strict COVID procedures to protect our teams and our guests. We had no idea how long it would be, or if it would get worse. It was hard. Very hard. We focused a large portion of our decision making on supporting our employees through the various challenges they might be facing as result of the pandemic. Just a small list of the support resources we identified and researched for our employees: mental health services, emergency bill relief, unemployment processing, very flexible scheduling, healthcare premium abatement, childcare resources, providing food at wholesale cost, temporary job opportunities, discounts on thousands of products and services, pay as you go options for everyday life items, Bellevue University scholarships for ALL employees AND their direct family members. We started (and continue to hold) live video town hall meetings every week with all management team members to communicate what was going on, reiterate our plan, where we were in executing that plan, and answer questions. At one point we were conducting group meditation sessions, providing trauma psychology lessons, training on trauma coping, de-escalation, how to hold a safe space for other people while they are experiencing fight/flight response, and how we all experience the morale curve in moments of great change. It was a very intense and difficult period.

We had also started an internal group chat app between all members of the executive team, all restaurant managers, and all multi-unit and HR leaders in the organization. We started other internal chat channels with what we call our internal brand ambassadors (mostly frontline employees and some restaurant leaders). This is an app where we cannot edit what people post, and every member sees everything that is posted. I can cancel the entire channel if something goes haywire, but I cannot edit anything. It was somewhat of an experiment on authenticity and transparency which is part of our core value of integrity. Early on I led the charge with our COO on how to moderate the channel, respond to people, leverage the communications, etc. Weaved the opportunity to communicate and connect so directly with our field leaders. It reminded me of working shifts in a restaurant and the conversations between teams back in the day. Well one Saturday night around midnight, early in the pandemic, one of our managers got on the channel and was very upset. She was feeling the pressure of several weeks at reduced pay. She was angry and wanted to know when it would end (we did not know when it would end at that time). She was feeling the pain of going through chemo. She was afraid of getting sick. She was also afraid of losing the house that was home to her and her grandson whom she took care of. I was awake and chatting with some people on the IM channels when I saw her post come through. I could feel her pain. And I knew that as much as I wanted to, I could not take away all her pain and all her fears, or even solve those problems. We were fighting to survive so that we all had something to grow on the other side of this, for all of us. But regardless of what or why, this human being in our family was in very serious pain and was reaching out for help. One of the things being a parent teaches you, is that at a certain developmental stage, your kids show their rawest emotions to you as their parent. Not because they do not respect you, but because they trust you to love them no matter what, and they feel safe to show you what is going on and demonstrate that they need help. To me, that is what this moment was. That moment ended up being a turning point in our organizational culture. It was a moment where leaders could have piled on and focused on the difficult decisions that we had made, shown their anger and pain over what was happening in our country and in our business, and added fuel to that fire. And frankly, I understood that sentiment. But that is not what happened. Within moments, an outpouring of support started coming in. Messages of hope, messages of inspiration, an anonymous donation, contact numbers, ideas, resources, all sorts of things. The team saw her pain, collectively held a safe space for her, and then surrounded her and lifted her up with support, and she was quickly in a positive place. It also happened in an incredibly visible and vulnerable way. After it was all said and done, we complimented the team, the individual, and appreciated the conversation. To us it was an example of a high performing team, that keeps it real, and lifts each other up. And we leveraged that example, as well as some others, to collaboratively codify our new organizational values founded on a core principle of humancentric leadership and write our brand “Humanifesto”.

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