Imagine you’re one of 75,000 people working in a huge company, and the CEO wants to talk to you, one-on-one, to get to know and understand you. That’s what Monty Moran did 20,000 times as he built the extraordinary culture that took Chipotle Mexican Grill from a regional burrito chain to a Fortune 500 superstar. In Love Is Free, Guac Is Extra, Monty shows how he used curiosity, vulnerability, love, and a unique understanding of the true meaning of empowerment to build a distinctive and wildly effective culture. I recently caught up with Monty to learn what inspired him to write the book, his favorite lessons, and how those ideas shaped his work.

What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?

For years, my co-workers at Chipotle had urged me to write a book on leadership, to memorialize my leadership philosophy, and explain how I lead our restaurateur culture there. I never found I had the time, though. But the day I announced my retirement, I received hundreds of emails from our team members, thanking me for my leadership, and the culture I built.

Published with permission from the author.

One, in particular, said, in part, “Add me to the long list of people whose lives you’ve changed for the better, and thank you for everything you’ve done for this company and for me. I have no doubts that whatever you do next will be something great. My only hope is that you write a book about it, so that I can replace all of the other ones on my shelf with yours.”

There were two other points in that email that stuck with me. From the email:

“First, you’ve shown me that it is truly possible to create a culture where people are valued above the bottom line of the company. I see it happening in startups because ideals are easy to uphold there. But, there are only a couple of companies with billions of dollars in sales and tens of thousands of employees that can pull this off. So thank you, for proving that it is not a matter of size, just a matter of priority for employees to truly come first.

“Second, you’ve shown me what it can look like when a culture comes alive. The Restaurateur program was perfect, and in the wake of this past year it will surely be blamed as a culprit in our downturn. But I’ve seen it work perfectly in restaurants and even support staff teams across the country. Their businesses ran perfectly, the employee culture was amazing and the guest experience was fantastic. It has now given me new purpose to recreate this as many times as I can no matter where life takes me. As you’ve said multiple times, Restaurateur isn’t just true at Chipotle. These are concepts that apply in all forms of life. This has given me renewed purpose beyond the walls of Chipotle, and a purpose that will carry on with me forever.”

After emails like that, I realized perhaps writing a book would allow me to help many others, far beyond the reach of Chipotle, by sharing some ideas that were very helpful to building a culture of top performers, empowered to achieve high standards.

What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?

It’s hard to narrow this down to just one thing. Some of my favorites are:

  • Hiring for character not experience.
  • Reward people based on their effectiveness in making the people around them better.
  • Build a culture that appeals only to top performers, and repels low performers.
  • Focus only on the top priorities
  • The power of one on one meetings
  • Building a team of top performers, empowered to achieve high standards.
  • Teach that all satisfaction comes from helping others.
  • Make HR everyone’s job
  • Make decisions quickly. Don’t wait for complete information.

If I had to pick my favorite, it would be: “Reward people based on their effectiveness in making the people around them better.” That’s a big part of what makes Chipotle so special.

Published with permission from the author.

What’s a story of how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?

Most organizations value the individual contributions made by their employees, and fail to identify how employees affect those around them. This leads people to want to be better than the person next to them, rather than to work to make the person next to them better. This, then, becomes a dysfunctional culture. But this is completely normal. It’s the way it’s usually done.

At Chipotle, I announced that we were going to reward people based on their ability to make the people around them better, and by so doing, completely changed the motivation of our teams. Now, instead of trying to get ahead by being better than others, or by “climbing over others on their way to the top” as is the norm, people at Chipotle began to elevate and empower those around them. They began to measure themselves based on their effectiveness in making those around themselves better. What encouraged this to happen was that we started basing every hiring decision, promotion, and raise based on how effectively a person made others better.

Instead of looking at a leader’s individual talent, we looked at how talented they made their teams. Soon, everyone was beaming about how they’d been able to promote many people to manager positions. You’d often hear leaders boast that their direct reports were “a way better leader than me!” By engendering this kind of attitude, our culture became a family, in the healthiest sense of the word. People took great pride in mentoring, leading, teaching, and caring for those around them. Our people loved each other, and began to find greater satisfaction from their work at Chipotle than in any other part of their life.

They learned, firsthand, that the greatest satisfaction in life comes from helping others. Meanwhile, as a result of our extremely healthy culture, our restaurants flourished, and our sales, profits, and margins soared. It was a home run spiritually, and financially. Chipotle became the healthiest and most envied restaurant culture in the industry and beyond.