Aramark's CEO: It's important to stay in touch

Almost to a person, chief executives worry about being out of touch, with customers, with employees.  And, they are nearly unanimous that failing to take measures to stay in touch is one of the biggest and most common mistakes a CEO can make. Eric Foss, chief executive of Aramark Corp., was no different. "I think sometimes CEOs can insulate themselves and become out of touch with the marketplace and the constituents that matter," he told me in our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

"For good CEOs, it's important every day," he said. "In my role of my CEO, there are a variety of things that I do, and in any given week, I've got an obligation to shareholders, an obligation to my employees, I've got an obligation to think about innovation and think about what we're doing from a marketing and branding standpoint. While I get to do a lot of different things, it's very important that part of my calendar, a big part of my calendar, is blocked, to stay close to the marketplace, listening to clients and consumers and understanding what their needs wants and desires are and to make sure I understand ultimately what that front line associate needs at Aramark."

Foss said he started his stint at Aramark, by going on a 100-day listening tour.

I asked him whether he ever actually connects by joining workers as they complete their tasks. "Oh, absolutely," he said.

Question: When did you last do it and what did you learn from doing it?

Answer: I was out last -- a couple weeks ago, at one of our university clients. What's important again is when you are out there, making sure you are with our chefs, and with our front line people.

Q: But do you actually ever do anything?

A: Yes. I've done a lot of things.

Q: You said the last time was a couple of weeks ago. Where were you and what did you actually do?     

A: One of things, is that we have a route system. So out on the truck with our associate riding around. Just me and the associate, riding the route, and serving our customers and figuring out what they need, what do they need from training, what do they need from technology standpoint. 

Q: What did you learn?

A: I learn something new each and every day.

Q: I'm asking you specifically, what did you learn that day? What town were you in?

A: I was in Omaha. 

Q: And you were on a truck delivering uniforms with an associate. What did you learn that day?

A: Let me focus on the things I learned from spending with our front line associate. I get to learn what is it that they need most. 

Q: What did your driver need most?

A: One of the things that is helping our driver is how we're beginning to set monthly priorities and one of things we're in the midst of a journey on is making sure we're utilizing the technology, [including] our hand-held technology that helps that front line salesman today. But there are other things we need to do to enable future success to make that hand-held even more.

Q: Can you be more specific? It's rare that a CEO gets to spend the time you did. I don't know how long you spent on that truck. How long did you spend on the truck?

A: About seven hours.

Q: So what did you specifically learn?

A: What I learned is that we need to spend more resources to make sure the technology that is being provided at the front line is actually helping and becoming an even bigger enabler. 

Q: Did the driver have any specific issues?

A: It's about the speed at which it works. It's about the functionality of how it works. One of the things we [also] encountered, the truck wasn't loaded as ordered and that created a back-up in the morning. So the importance what happens from a supply chain standpoint, everything from what happens in the plant, to what happens in the warehouse, to what ultimately happens when that front line sales person shows up to run their route for the day.