Otto Pizza: Where Working Together Is Key to Success

In March, I had the privilege of meeting Alan Mulally, the former President and CEO of Ford Motor Company and arguably one of the greatest leaders of all time.

When Mulally took over Ford in September 2006, the company was broken. The stock price had fallen precipitously and, that October, Ford posted a $5.8 billion quarterly loss. It was widely expected that Ford would file for bankruptcy. However, by the time Mulally retired in July 2014, Ford had achieved one of the greatest business turnarounds in history and came to symbolize the revival of American manufacturing.

Part of the strength of Mulally’s leadership was his personal accountability as a leader. His overarching philosophy is summarized in his 11 core principles of leadership:

  • Put people first.
  • Make sure everyone is included.
  • Have a compelling vision, a comprehensive strategy, and relentless implementation.
  • Set clear performance goals.
  • Establish one plan.
  • Rely on facts and data.
  • Ensure that everyone knows the plan, the status, and the areas that need special attention.
  • Propose a plan and maintain a positive, “find-a-way” attitude.
  • Respect, listen, help, and appreciate each other.
  • Display emotional resilience—trust the process.
  • Have fun—enjoy the journey and each other.

I have consistently found myself thinking about Mulally’s principles when dining at one of my favorite local restaurants recently: Otto Pizza in Chester, Connecticut.

Otto is a neighborhood eatery serving wood-fired pizzas, unpretentious salads, and excellent Italian wines. But it’s also much more than that. Otto is an outstanding example of how an organization based on values and working together can support high performance, employee engagement and business success.

Over the past few months, I’ve sat at the bar at Otto several times and watched the employees work. As I have sipped Italian red wine and enjoyed a fennel salad and a piece (or two) of margherita pizza, I have observed the finesse of the operation. I have watched staffers cheerfully rolling and weighing the pizza dough, making homemade sauce with love and carefully preparing and cooking each pizza. I have also seen the ways in which the unique and collective contributions of the team lead to the end result – a positive (and delicious) experience for the customer and an overall feeling of a job well done for everyone who works there.

It’s clear that the Otto team wants to serve all customers high-quality, locally sourced food with speed, artistry, and enthusiasm. When I’ve sat and watched their team in action, it’s been clear to me that they are really the embodiment of Mulally’s edicts. Their motto could quite easily be “people first,” as his is. In fact, the team functions like a close family. I have even seen team several team members dining in the restaurant on their days off.

Manager Conor Johnson is a kind of father figure, greeting guests with familiarity and ease while remaining calm even in pressure-filled situations. In addition to working full-time as Otto’s manager, Conor is a college student majoring in mathematics. Under him, each team member assumes their particular role; they are each responsible and accountable for their own piece of the process, but they are also quite versatile. The kitchen team, for example, has a comprehensive strategy for making pizza dough, ensuring that it is weighed properly and rolled out evenly before being topped with the right ingredients, placed carefully in the wood-burning oven, baked to perfection, and served piping hot. Each member of the staff keeps a keen watch on the food and the surroundings; they are all facile with more than one role in the kitchen, so they can rapidly pivot to assess and address areas that need attention. The team relentlessly performs, especially when the restaurant is very busy at peak hours. They respect, listen, help, and appreciate each other. They show passion and creativity in their work. Each pizza is a work of art, with love and care behind it.

I’m a big fan of Alan Mulally’s, and I deeply respect his views on organizational leadership and culture. But you don’t have to look to the CEO of a large company to see examples of great leadership and a highly effective workplace culture. Pay attention. Inspiring leaders and workplace cultures with great character can be found in unusual places, like Otto Pizza.