On leading with a heart and the mind: Niren Chaudhary, President and CEO, Panera Bread Co.
It's been over a year since the movie “The Sky is Pink” was released – a story that followed the life of Aisha Chaudhary and her family. 18-year old Aisha died in the year 2015 after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. The movie also features her parents prominently – Aditi Chaudhary played by Priyanka Chopra and Niren Chaudhary played by Farkhan Akhtar.
In a conversation with Anil Sachdev, the Founder and Chairman of SOIL Institute of Management, Niren Chaudhary, who is now the CEO of US-based Panera Bread Co, spoke about his own career, finding purpose, the lessons he’d learned as a business leader and how his company is navigating the COVID 19 pandemic.
Here are edited excerpts:
On leading with a heart and the mind
“We are a product of our experience,” Niren said. “After having lost two of my daughters, life has taught me to be compassionate and grateful for what we have.” And it’s those experiences that are intertwined with my thoughts and behaviors. Having a sense of clarity always involves going back to who you are, and your values,”
“When I feel overwhelmed, I always focus on the circle of influence and the circle of control. Often, we get lost in the circle of concern. I remind myself not to worry about the things that I have no influence or control over.”
“I believe it’s possible to do tough things with compassion, heart and respect. It’s what gives you the emotional strength to keep going.”
On lessons from Aisha
Niren spoke about how he battled doubts, worries and anxieties when his daughter Aisha suffered from terminal illness. Throughout that time, he said his wife, Aditi – was fiercely determined to make the most of the time they had. He noted four qualities that his daughter taught him:
- Resilience – “What I learned from Aisha is resilience and fighting the good fight. I can’t help what’s happening to me, but I can help how I can react to what's happening to me.”
- Courage – “Focus on what you can do. In one of her epiphanies, she writes – pick the highest mountain to climb on, and dullest days to shine on.”
- Gratitude – “When she couldn’t walk, and had difficulty breathing, she still looked at the bright side – the fact that she could hear her mother’s laugh or spend time with her pets”
- Giving – “Aisha knew that true joy lies in giving. If you can’t change your own life, there’s always someone else’s”
On Panera’s Bread Co. journey of navigating COVID 19
“The pandemic is one of the complex challenges, because there is no playbook. The health crisis has become an economic and a humanitarian crisis,” Niren said.
While there is fear, anxiety, unhappiness on one side, there’s also gratitude, family and community that one is thankful for.
Niren spoke about how the company had to take tough decisions – including furlough employees, salary cuts, and job cuts to navigate the disruption caused by the business. Here are some of the steps that the company introduced – both within and outside the company.
- One free family meal once a week for all employees
- A temporary association with Walmart and CVS to employ associates of the company.
- For customers, as safety and convenience became a priority – a new business was set up in ten days to reduce the friction in getting grocery items home delivered.
- The Company also set up a geo-sensing technology to help their customers pick up their order easily.
- From a communities standpoint – the focus was on addressing hunger and those who are most impacted by the pandemic.
On what the future holds
As the economic situation continues to worsen, Niren believes that there’s going to be an unprecedented recession leading to massive unemployment. And the business world needs to pivot to what customers want:
- Safety is going to be far more important
- Off-premise convenience which is driven by e-commerce and digital platforms.
- Wellness and sustainability will be critical for brands as customers are already choosing products that are good for the environment.
- Inclusion and diversity will also play a critical role as it’s increasingly scrutinized
Niren encouraged the participants in the webinar series to have a fierce curiosity to learn and the audacity to dream. And while there is a crisis, there’s a natural instinct to hide under the bunker and wait for the storm to pass, Niren spoke about using the crisis as an opportunity and think about building wind mills instead.