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Moving up the "Rungs of Learning" With Chris Carr, COO at Sweetgreen

Meet Chris Carr! I had the pleasure of working with Chris at Starbucks where our 1:1s managed to be filled with both teaching, learning AND plenty of laughter.

Chris never hesitated spending time getting to know me, asking me thought provoking questions and engaging with a genuine curiosity.

I distinctly remember a business trip to Florida with him to see our new Lean initiative in action when he was responsible for Starbucks' U.S. business. He had an appropriate level of skepticism going into it but remained open to learning and eventually became a champion when he could see the impact the work was having on partners (employees) and customers.

Like many executives, Chris' career has been filled with a mix of lateral moves, functional rotations and project assignments that have built breadth in addition to depth as a leader. His positivity and open mindness to trying new things enabled him to take on roles he loved and those that he found challenging but worthy of being pushed outside his comfort zone.

In his words, "every position was a step on the career staircase" in his growth as a leader. He has no regrets about any of it.

As the COO of restaurant chain Sweetgreen, his learning hasn't stopped. His top focus these days is all about getting even better at creating "chemistry" with his direct reports individually and as a team. He believes this is a key to unlocking performance and taking it to the next level together.

Enjoy this first "Rungs of Learning" leadership profile and Chris' story!

Describe your career progression at a high level.

It really started when I was with an organization known for developing global General Managers, Exxon Mobil. I was there for eighteen years and had fourteen different roles during that time. At Exxon, their whole development approach was to build in a variety experiences that would prepare you to be a multidimensional leader and manage a business. I worked pretty much everywhere including field operations, finance, strategy and sales.

When I left Exxon for Starbucks, I had a similar experience of changing roles often to develop a breadth of experience.

Both of these companies really taught me the value of being stretched horizontally in anticipation of a vertical promotion and the importance of having learning agility and curiosity.

What was a key learning experience or transition in your career that helped you move up the ladder? What was it that made it so effective?

There are several that I can think of but the first one that stands out to me the most is when I moved from an individual contributor to a supervisor. All of a sudden, I was managing my peers and it was a big change. Fortunately, right as I was being promoted, Exxon was offering a training class to help me with that transition. It was basically a one day orientation around principles of leadership. I realized that I didn't have to figure it all out on my own and that there are resources available to help accelerate my development and understanding.

A couple of other impactful transitions were moving from a field leadership position to a corporate strategy position at Exxon and the industry change when I moved to Starbucks from Exxon. There was some continuity but also definitely a different realm of experience and skill set that had to be acquired to move into a completely different industry and be effective.

Which role in your career has taken you the most out of your comfort zone?

One I remember clearly from Exxon was moving into a corporate strategy role from a field operations role. When I was in operations, I knew how to solve problems in my business and had direct control of the effort to get there.

With operations, there's a sort of blueprint and fairly predictable routines on how to solve problems but in strategy there is no blueprint and a lot more gray space. As a strategist, I learned to architect what the solution would be that other people can utilize to address the gap. The difference between executing at the operational level versus planning, developing and scaling at the strategic level is a different muscle. It's more about influencing change through others.

Another time I was taken out of my comfort zone was when I was at Starbucks and moved from operations to supply chain. It was the first time in a long time in my career when I wasn't the subject matter expert. That tested how uncomfortable I was with the stuff I didn't know. I had to learn a different language and there was mental pressure I put on myself to have credibility.

It really forced me to become more focused on truly being a servant leader in terms of seeking to understand, helping people develop and understanding what it means to be a high performing team. It helped me figure out how to focus on those nuance areas that take a team from good to great and allocate my time differently to help the overall performance of the team.

Who's a memorable mentor that helped deepen your understanding of what great leadership looks like?

There was a guy named Ted that I worked with at Exxon that had a huge impact on me (unfortunately, he has since passed but I still keep in touch with his family).

I was always curious on how Ted could stay connected with and relevant to a multitude of generations of leaders. I noticed his community involvement and how heavily involved he was with the local high school. He mentored students and even sponsored them as they matriculated on to college.

He also focused on establishing personal relationships and loved to write handwritten notes to people. He'd even print out a hard copy of the P&L and write a handwritten note on it to build a connection. That always had a big impact on his leadership team. It created a sense of appreciation while also coaching and development those that worked for him.

Ted was invested in me as a whole person, not just my job at work. I tell people now that if they are looking for a mentor, to look for someone they can have a personal relationship with, not just a transactional one.

What job or role did you really dislike? Would you do it again?

I'd have to say that I didn't like the global business analysis and planning role at Exxon. But, yes, I'd do it again. Back in the day, if I would have seen a job description for another role like this, I would have pushed it away. But it stretched me in a good way.

Share one thing that you are prioritizing your learning on right now.

I'm so focused on how to create high performing teams and there's something about the chemistry of how we work together and how I work with them. Outside of the workplace, the relationships that are most productive have chemistry and there's something we can learn from that.

I'm also digging into team potential not just individual potential because I think that can elevate performance. Tactically, one thing I did this year is I started changing from one on ones to two on ones so we can have a more dynamic, richer conversation. It's not unlike an approach to a sports team where most of the coaching comes in the team environment. I don't have any data on this yet but I predict it will have a big payoff.

Any parting thoughts on how to become a better leader?

How you allocate your time says a lot. What level of intentionality you are investing for the betterment of the team to create an environment where the chemistry can be best in class is up to you.

When Chris isn't ensuring great customer experiences and great food at Sweetgreen, you will find him serving on the corporate boards of REI and Hilton Hotels, and on the Board of Trustees for Howard University and the University of San Diego.

Chris loves to #optoutside and believes that "a life outdoors is a life well lived." He stays active through a multitude of outdoors activities, such as cycling, kayaking and other water sports and loves to travel internationally (the Maldives are at the top of his list once it's safe to travel again).

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