This special issue of CATALYST features an in-depth discussion about Conscious Leadership and Core Values with Dan Costello, CEO of Home Run Inn Pizza.
For the uninitiated, Home Run Inn Pizza has been serving up some of the best-tasting thin-crust pizza since 1947. What started as a neighborhood tavern that quenched the thirsts of southside Chicagoans, quickly became known for their piping hot pies. After nearly three-quarters of a century, Home Run Inn is still treating families to their famous recipes. It is no longer just a neighborhood joint but a hugely successful chain of 9 locations throughout Chicagoland. And that's not even half the story. Their famous frozen pizza is now available in grocery stores in more than 40 states!
So, New York, you can have your big foldable slices. Here in Chicago, we like our pizza cut in squares and served with a frosty cold one! Mangia!
The northeast corner of West 31st Street and South Kildare Avenue in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood is, to many Chicagoans and their families, the spot where their love affair began with authentic Chicago pizza. That’s the home of the original Home Run Inn. Mary and Vincent Grittani opened a small tavern there in 1923. Located across the street from what is now Piotrowski Park, the tavern got its name when a baseball from the park crashed through one of the bar's windows.
When their son-in-law, Nick Perrino, returned to Chicago from World War II he joined the family business and began experimenting with pizza recipes. By 1947, they were serving pizza to bar patrons to attract the drinking crowd. When customers started buying more of what was coming out of the oven than what was behind the bar, the family decided to focus on the pies. After fully embracing its pizza destiny, Home Run Inn expanded from the original bar seating 10 to a full-service restaurant seating 50.
In the 74 years since they first began serving families their now world-famous tavern-style pizza cut into squares, the business has grown more than the family could have imagined.
Home Run Inn now operates nine restaurants in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, a shop in busy terminal B at Midway airport, and a 60,000-square-foot USDA certified manufacturing facility specifically designed to support the company’s rapidly growing frozen pizza business.
Home Run Inn frozen pizza is available in grocery stores in more than 40 states and generates more than 70% of the company’s revenue.
In 2020, the company announced a partnership to become the official pizza of the Chicago Cubs with two pizza stands on the main concourse in Wrigley Field. Home Run Inn ranks among the top 10 national pizza brands and is consistently rated as Chicago’s number one pizza.
In 2018, the company’s CEO, Joe Perrino, Nick's son, and Mary Grittani's grandson, unexpectedly passed away. Joe had guided the company’s expansive growth since being named CEO at the age of 37 in 1990. Joe’s nephew, Dan Costello, then president of the company’s restaurant division, was named CEO.
Since then, Dan, his fellow family members, and their management teams have guided the company to even greater growth. At the height of the pandemic, their factory was producing nearly 100,000 frozen pizzas a day. Throughout this time of significant change, rapid growth, and unexpected shifts in their business, the company leaned on its core values of Family, Pride, Grit, and Courage.
LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP
The Chicago Chapter of Conscious Capitalism sat down with CEO Dan Costello to discuss the importance of conscious leadership and how Home Run Inn’s core values are central to the company’s long-term success.
Mark Vance, Marketing Chair, Conscious Capitalism Chicago
Why is working on yourself as a leader and being a conscious leader so important?
Dan Costello, CEO, Home Run Inn Pizza
I equate the idea of consciousness with creating healthy choices. Being able to thoughtfully choose paths. When you're not aware of the things that are going on around you, with yourself, personally, or what's driving your habits, then you greatly limit your choices.
We are all driven by our habits and our habits make us reactionary. When you take the time to learn and understand what drives you, your fears, and your desires, you give yourself options to make better decisions instead of being controlled by those very things.
What I've learned the hard way is that when you're not aware of those things, then when you're challenged and stressed, you wind up being controlled by those very habits. For me, that might look like procrastination or avoiding difficult conversations or, telling myself a story that everything will be fine but not really doing anything fundamentally different to change and impact it.
The idea of conscious leadership is becoming more aware of those patterns and those habits. That then allows me to make a thoughtful choice about where I want to go personally, the direction I need to set for the business or the direction I need to set for the executive team.
Once I became better at understanding myself, I could also see these patterns with people that I'm working with on my executive team and even the habits of the business.
These habits would create patterns and many of them would not be productive. We call them cul de sac problems. They are circular and they keep repeating themselves.
Every one of these problems would have a different cadence. Some might repeat weekly, quarterly, or annually, or semiannually, or maybe every couple of years. It depends on what the issue is.
Being a student of conscious leadership helped me identify some of these patterns and habits - circular problems. I would think, who wants to live their life like this? Who wants to run their business like this with the same problems reoccurring over and over?
With some great coaching and tools, I can now see the patterns developing, and I have a better chance of breaking them in a positive way because I've become more aware of my own habits. I recognize I have to do something differently to impact it. Ignoring it simply does not get the job done.
That's where you have to have the will to lead, the will to make a thoughtful choice which is sometimes a lot harder than it seems.
Another key takeaway from all these studies is that conscious leadership helps me consider all stakeholders when making decisions. I’ve really come to understand that decisions impact many people and stakeholders and that can’t be taken lightly.
I’m constantly thinking about how can I create win-win-win scenarios? It’s not to be confused with making everyone happy, but I find myself focusing on crafting a future vision that everyone can at least understand and hopefully support.
When you first took over the business following the death of your uncle, was there any conflict avoidance or was it a situation where you told yourselves we all know something has to change? Is that dynamic different for family-owned businesses?
I don't know if it's related to being in a family business or not. I would say, we had a heavy dose of artificial harmony, where even our family members weren't sure or confident about how to clear issues between themselves. We were more passive-aggressive. We had habits that would lead many of us to avoid tough conversations. We would leave people and issues alone, don't touch it, don't step into it. It's not worth it. Let that person be.
I think members of my generation of the family would agree that was probably our primary default. We would avoid things.
Going through some of the educational programs we went through, we started being able to understand how to bring tools into our workplace to help us have those productive conversations.
We now do team assessments to understand how we're doing with that. Our results suggest that we have gotten a lot better at having productive conflict which is critical to building trust.
People are much more confident and comfortable having an issue clear and giving feedback, both positive and constructive.
The key was giving everyone tools to help them work through the conversations. We have a “Story in my Head” dialogue that helps us separate facts versus perceptions.
We also use situation, behavior, impact models to provide both positive and negative feedback. Teaching these models is being intentional about what is important.
For us, that’s educating people on how to have healthy conflict, so individuals and teams have a trust foundation. It’s fundamental to team health and great execution.
When you are the executive leader of a family business, and when a large portion of your executive team are family members who cannot or do not know how to engage in healthy debate, that can spill over into the rest of the executive team. If your entire executive team can’t handle clearing issues, then your middle management teams won’t be able to do it either. That’s not a recipe for success so we attacked it aggressively.
We've been working on this capability for the last year and a half, two years. We are teaching and training these concepts every month. The main focus is creating the conditions for teams to collaborate and thrive.
When I took over, I didn’t understand the impact of not being able to do this well but now I know. Trust, alignment, commitment, and results all improve when you give your teams the right tools and you as the leader model how to use them. When you walk your talk, your team responds.
I noticed that you cannot spell "Grittani" without "Grit," Which is one of your core values. Tell me about Grit and how that manifests itself. How do you promote Grit as a core value?
That's a good one. You would think Grit is just working hard, right? We wanted to build on that, and we added that it’s working hard and having a desire to continuously improve. Working hard in and of itself is great but what if you’re not getting better? We decided Grit needed to connect to the desire to be better which isn’t always easy to do.
Let’s say a company has been in business for 20 years. The real question is, does this organization have 20 years of experience or does it have one year of experience 20 times?
Are you simply repeating the same ideas and processes every year without truly evaluating if you can make them better and continually improve them? I think that is what happens when you don't have a continuous improvement and learning mindset.
We were like that for many years, and I was a part of that underperforming mindset. As my awareness of this grew through education and learning, I realized how hard it was to sustain learning and improving. We really needed to embrace the value of Grit to move through the hard work of getting better. It’s easy to be complacent, but that’s not where you want to be in any part of your life.
Today, we are actively working to operationalize Grit. We started with executive leadership and how to improve individual effectiveness. Then we worked on communication skills, how to handle difficult conversations, and finally how to determine the root cause of a problem.
Once we learned how to ask the right questions and enough questions, the next step in operationalizing Grit was instilling a concept of committed action by identifying the next steps available to us to create real change. Committed action, for us, takes Grit. It seems simple but it’s not. It is hard work to identify WHAT needs to be done, WHO needs to do it, and WHEN it needs to be done. We learned that being very explicit about these steps is tedious but if we skip them, we aren’t doing the hard work and we aren’t living up to our value of Grit.
We have to do the tedious work to create the accountability systems we need. When we have a group of people who want to be in alignment with their values and they understand how the correct work gets done and it gets done well.
I had the opportunity to join the Stagen Leadership Institute and the founder, Rand Stagen said something that has stuck with me to this day. He said, 'the truth will set you free, but not before it pisses you off.’ I thought that was fantastic and it's true.
Sometimes when you get feedback on a KPI or something you've been doing, and it's not the result you want, it hurts, it can be frustrating. You must be gritty enough to learn through it. You have to be gritty enough to say, ‘Something's not working. I have already put in six months of work on this, but I have to keep going because I'm not there yet.’
That's how we think about Grit. As a manufacturer, it's classic root cause analysis. It’s getting to the answers to the “Five Whys.” What we're able to tell our people now is, when we say Grit, it doesn't mean working hard, we expect people to work hard. Every business has to do that to be successful. For us, Grit means that you have to dig in with a learner’s mindset. When we have education classes, you have to be willing to go.
You have to be willing to take a look at the things you've been doing. Sure, you may have done it this way for 15 years, great. Maybe that's the right way. But what we're going to ask you to do is to be gritty enough to poke holes in it, to challenge it. To see if that is the best way to do something, whether it's how you do forecasting, how you do budgets, how you run meetings, how you do scheduling, how you communicate. All these things can be improved upon as long as you have the Grit to engage in the continuous improvement process.
There is an intentional nature to this kind of continuous improvement and getting through it better on the other side.
It is intentional. I think that's the whole idea for me. It’s a conscious form of leadership. That's a choice. If you're choosing things, you're being intentional about things. We've reviewed our values many times. We may be on our 10th iteration. You start with one thing, and they get more intentional.
We're introducing our values to the company and some people will say, 'oh, why the change?' It’s not that we're changing. We're just getting more intentional. We’re getting more defined. We're getting more operational with them so we can help people understand them. Our definition of Grit used to be eight sentences long. I couldn’t even remember it. How is anybody else going to remember it?
Someday I would love for somebody to come in and pick anybody in our company and ask them to tell them the four values of the company- it doesn’t matter what level the organization. You could grab somebody off the floor at one of our restaurants and my vision is that they would respond with Family, Pride, Grit, and Courage.
More importantly, though is that they could describe exactly what they have to do in their roles to be in alignment with those values. That is the end goal! How do we do that? We have been more intentional about communicating these values and integrating them into all our systems, processes, and roles.
When we interview people, during phone screens, we introduce our values. It's not even day one, it's the phone screen to see if you are a potential match to come to Home Run Inn. We introduce values right there. I'm hopeful because I think we're getting better at it. We're getting more intentional about how to use our core values.
What have you learned over this past 12 to 15 months, not only about your business but about your effectiveness as a leader?
I learned how resilient our business is. When I think about February 2020, as the pandemic was starting to loom, I remember how uncertain we felt about things. When the lockdown started in March, it was scary. While the frozen business is a bigger part of our business, we were shutting down restaurants and we were worried about what’s going to happen to our people.
We were also becoming very concerned about how to give confidence to our teams that they could come to work safely. That was very concerning.
Could we convey a level of comfort to our manufacturing team when we needed them the most?
The result of those anxieties was gaining a greater appreciation of the importance of communication. I think one of the best ways to describe that is if you're talking to your people, or not talking to your people, you're communicating either way. If you're not putting out messages you are communicating in a sense. You're allowing for stories to be out there in your workforce. You’re basically telling them you don’t care enough to tell them what’s going on.
I think everybody sees everything differently. We have all these folks in our company, and they all have different worldviews, and they all have different lenses, how they see things. If I'm not speaking to them as the leader and telling them what's going on, this is what we know, this is what we don't know, this is what we're confident in, this is what we're unsure about, I’m not doing my job. If I don't do that, they're going to do it for themselves. That is maybe one of the biggest lessons I learned.
When you send a communication, it is like an archer pulling back an arrow and trying to hit a target. How often does our arrow miss the target? I learned how to be more intentional around that, and how to think about it. What's the target I want to hit? Who's my audience? What do I think their worldview is? What's important to them? My manufacturing team may be looking for more safety, security, and stability information. My sales team might be looking more for "rah, rah, let's go!" kind of information.
It takes Grit to learn that because it’s hard. I have to say the same message in two different ways. It's not easy but it’s necessary as a leader to take the extra time and effort to craft the right message for your people.
If I only want to say something once and how it’s meaningful to me, that's the easy way out for a leader. You have to think about how it lands on different people in your organization. I learned how important that was. I have to take the time to craft messages for people in a way that’s meaningful to them not just to me or my exec team.
Because I couldn't forecast what everybody wanted to know, I needed to poll someone from the restaurants, someone from manufacturing, someone from the office teams, and ask ‘What do people need to know? What do you guys think I should be talking about?’ I would then craft a weekly message.
I think that was an important thing to do. When we surveyed people about what they thought was going well throughout the pandemic or their confidence in leadership, those scores were coming back high, because they said, ‘we know what's going on.’
Also important is understanding the right time to use email, and the right time to jump in, visibly. Whether that means going to the shop floor at 5:30 in the morning, before people started, or jumping into a Zoom meeting for restaurant teams across the company. It is important to be present so people can hear it. Reading an email is one thing, but hearing it is different.
One of the most important things I learned about myself as a leader during this time was that one of my past habits was a lack of confidence and that I would rationalize not communicating directly by asking myself, ‘Who wants to hear from me?’ Thankfully, I learned how to navigate that personal challenge and that as a leader I can’t make that challenge an issue for the people who need me to do my job well.
I got through the confidence crunch by relying on the concept of ‘go where the pain is.’ If it feels scary or if it’s something I don’t want to do, maybe that’s the place I should go.
Maybe I should be showing up at 5:30 in the morning to speak with the manufacturing team even though they don't speak English.
The easy thing might be to just give the message to somebody who speaks Spanish and tell them to tell everybody. That's the easy thing. The hard thing is actually to show up, ask for a translator, be patient, ask people to ask questions in Spanish, listen to them, ask the translator to repeat it back to me, and craft a good response for them. It’s communication and being present.
I also learned not to let my lack of confidence with anything prevent me from stepping in and leaning in. I like the idea of going where the pain is, going where the anxiety is. Not doing so would produce that artificial harmony I mentioned earlier. I learned that when I did do it, I discovered that it wasn't so bad. I can do that. I built my own confidence and it forced me to grow as a person and as a leader.
Earlier you mentioned your association with the Stagen Leadership Institute. Rand Stagen is a member of the Conscious Capitalism, Inc. (CCI) board of directors. CCI's Senior Leader Network provides leaders an opportunity to share best practices, support each other through challenges, and learn new ways to grow their business. How important is a peer network as you continue your conscious leadership journey?
Very important. I have a network through Stagen and YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization.) I have an executive coach as well. I view members of all these networks as my personal Board of Directors.
I feel like they are people I can rely on. Most importantly these are people who will tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear. That’s invaluable as a leader or any person who wants to be better and improve.
Of course, I can rely a lot on people in my organization, but there are certain things that I need to talk about with somebody who is dealing with the same thing at my level or has dealt with it and has a broader lens regarding potential ramifications from decisions.
Being part of something with people who have these great diverse perspectives on the world, while sharing this great alignment around conscious leadership or personal improvement gives me a measuring stick or a benchmark. It's like, wow, look at what they're doing. I may think I'm doing so great, but I can look at how they're impacting things, and it helps me set the bar, it helps me set the pace. I think that that kind of community is going to be healthy for anybody.
Otherwise, how do you know what is possible?
Conscious Capitalism – Chicago Stories
As the first national chapter of Conscious Capitalism, the Chicago chapter has striven to tell the stories of Conscious Leaders in our community. Chicago Stories is a celebration of people throughout the Chicagoland area who understand that business, done well, can elevate humanity.
You are invited to join our community of business leaders who know that Chicago is and always will be the City of Big Shoulders AND Open Arms. Visit us at www.consciouscapitalismchicago.org to see how you can get involved.
Maybe we can tell your Chicago Story!