John Meister is the senior vice president and CIO of Panera Bread, a chain of bakery-cafe fast casual restaurants with more than 2,000 locations across the United States and Canada. Over the past decade at Panera, Meister has been instrumental in driving Panera\u2019s customer digital experience initiatives and building an innovative IT culture that continues to stay ahead of fast changes in the marketplace. Under his leadership, Panera\u2019s websites and apps have won numerous awards, including #1 Most Innovative Company in Food by Fast Company and Industry Best in Tech by Restaurant Business.\n\nWhen we spoke for a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Meister shared some of the secret sauce of his leadership, including how he navigates complexity and his passion for delivering on the experience promise, both externally for customers and internally for IT associates and team members. Afterwards, we spent some more time talking about his winning formula and what\u2019s next for his team. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.\n\nDan Roberts: IT leaders are always looking ahead to the next big thing. What\u2019s next for you in setting Panera up for continued success? What are you and your team excited about looking ahead?\n\nJohn Meister: For Panera, everything begins with the guest experience. Recently, we\u2019ve done some great things in our rewards program around choosing your next reward. We\u2019ve traditionally guessed at what it is you\u2019re going to be ecstatic around \u2014 our \u2018surprise and delight.\u2019 But the reality is, we don\u2019t always guess right \u2014 you may want to try something new. So, we\u2019re adding options. Here\u2019s a popular item if you\u2019re in the mood to try something new, or here\u2019s something that people like you typically choose, or you can do your regular order.\n\nWe\u2019re also thinking a lot about personalization \u2014 creating all these micro-moments that can make ordering a little bit better. If we know, for example, that a guest always takes the onions off their order, then if they forget, we know to ask about it.\n\nWe\u2019re also excited about digital drive-thrus and finding ways to improve the guest experience, whether it\u2019s conversational AI ordering or picking up the digital order in the drive-thru. For years we contemplated doing a digital order pickup in the drive-thru, but thought, we can\u2019t train the consumer to do it. Now, everyone\u2019s gone there with COVID. So we return to those moments and think much more deeply about the interaction. We\u2019re seeing very high customer satisfaction scores in those interactions. To summarize, I do think there is room to innovate in our main ordering wheelhouse. From an innovation standpoint, we\u2019re still excited about conversational AI. We\u2019re still excited about automation. Whether it\u2019s accounting tasks, IT tasks, taking orders, or prepping food in the kitchen, there are a lot of exciting things on the automation horizon.\n\nRoberts: There\u2019s another complexity you have to contend with in your business, and that\u2019s the fact that your industry experiences 100% turnover annually in the caf\u00e9s. How are you addressing and impacting that?\n\nWe watch restaurant GM turnover and associate turnover closely, and our operations partners and HR partners have done such an amazing job over the last 12 to 18 months. It blows my mind how much they\u2019ve improved Panera. Our attrition is among the best in the industry, and we\u2019re rated the number one restaurant to work at by Black Box \u2014 that\u2019s amazing. Still, you must think about quickly onboarding new team members. How do you segment people that are inspired by more hours? Or learning different roles? Or career growth? How do you think about inspiring team members, and how do you speak to them from that mindset? How do you teach a GM to treat the cafe associates like family? We look deeply at these aspects.\n\nAt the same time, we must make things easy \u2014 so easy that even I can go into a cafe and make sandwiches for an hour without a lot of training ahead of time. That\u2019s hard to do because I\u2019m not very good at making sandwiches. We constantly think about onboarding and our ease of use as intensely as we think about the guest experience.\n\nRoberts: I joke that data is a four-letter word in many companies. How are you thinking about data and using it to address the logistics of the business?\n\nStep one is hiring people smarter than you in any given subject. We have people much smarter than me when it comes to restaurant data. The first part of leveraging data is really understanding what we want to do with it \u2014 what is the KPI or the business metric we want to change? Maybe it\u2019s attrition. Maybe it\u2019s store profits. Maybe it\u2019s location analysis for choosing new real estate locations. Then we look at the business situation and come up with a hypothesis around x. Now let\u2019s get the data behind the hypothesis and see if the hypothesis makes a difference. Then, as you approach those learning moments, turn it into a dashboard, so it\u2019s something that can live and breathe across the enterprise. If we look at store profitability, is it labor? Is it food cost? Is it overhead? Is it paper goods? Let\u2019s put all the usual suspects onto a page so that the GM can understand it very quickly. If something starts to veer off our normal, the GM should be able to find it quickly and easily.\n\nSo, you go from thinking about a hypothesis, proving it, creating a dashboard, and then the next thing you know, you\u2019ve got a million pieces of data screaming for attention, and you\u2019re overwhelmed. Then you decide to make the data proactive. If something veers off course, send a proactive alert. Make the data much more interactive: It looks like there\u2019s something going on with x, do we need to pay attention to it \u2014 yes or no? Even if it\u2019s a no, let\u2019s take that back and learn from it. Was there something else that we can look at over the long haul? Or, we have ten no\u2019s and we don\u2019t understand why. Let\u2019s call some restaurant GMs to educate us. In the end, we come away smarter, and we discover new things we can do with our tools, and our end goal is to always make life better for the GMs.\n\nRoberts: We talked a lot about the culture you\u2019re building and how you help your folks think about their value and show up differently. For example, you have your people out in the caf\u00e9s and connecting with that broader purpose. Can you talk a bit more about that and how that impacts customers and associates?\n\nI loved working at MasterCard \u2014 top of the technology game, amazing talent \u2014 but it was very hard to see what you did every day translate to the real world. Here, it\u2019s just the opposite. I can finish coding something and test it today, put it in the cafe for a prototype or proof of concept, and then go into the cafe and watch our associates or customers use it. If I coded something to help us make sandwiches better, I can go make sandwiches myself or watch others make sandwiches. You get to experience it and live it.\n\nEvery new support center associate must go work in the bakery-cafe for a few days \u2014 it\u2019s part of our onboarding process. That\u2019s phenomenal, because you come away with ideas to improve our business with technology to make life easier for our employees and our customers. In the moment of working in the cafe, you might dread it because you are nervous, but then you get immersed and love it. You\u2019re going to spend the next five years wishing you could do it again. And then when you finally get that opportunity, you\u2019re so happy to have all these new insights. You want to do something that makes a difference. We really try and walk the walk.\n\nRoberts: As leaders we are always being watched. People read how we handle ourselves in situations, especially the more challenging ones. How do you think about that in terms of how you show up and take ownership in the hard times?\n\nI always say, mood is contagious. You must not take yourself seriously. Laugh at yourself a little bit. At the same time, think about the big picture, understand how your role resulted in this situation and remind people how we got here. It\u2019s so easy to beat yourself up when things aren\u2019t going well. Remind yourself of the big picture, why I\u2019m here, what\u2019s the difference I\u2019m trying to make.\n\nAnd look for ways to refresh and inspire others. There\u2019s times I have to remind everyone, we\u2019re here selling soups and salads and sandwiches, and we\u2019re making a difference in people\u2019s lives. Go out and look at some of those customer stories about how we helped the mom or dad who had cancer or made this other person\u2019s dream come true. Those stories melt your heart and remind you why you\u2019re here. But always try and have as much fun as you can. Because mood is contagious.\n\nRoberts: Speaking of showing up, could I get you to share the \u2018toasted bagel\u2019 story, which speaks to the commitment your leadership team has to continuous improvement? I also see it as the story of a CIO who is seen as a business leader first.\n\nThis was in around 2014 or so. Every morning, the CEO would use our new mobile app to order breakfast and get it on the way to drop his son off at school. He\u2019d stop at the light and send his son in to pick up the order. If his son could come back with the order before the light turned green, I had a good day. If he had to pull into the parking lot, I had long morning.\n\nThe CEO always ordered the same thing: a Green Passion smoothie and a toasted plain white bagel. It\u2019s an order that we can\u2019t leave on the shelf for too long, so there was no way for me to beg the GM to make my life easier. I would go about a week without hearing from the CEO and think, we\u2019ve finally got this experience down. It\u2019s 25 seconds from the time you get out of the car to get your food and get back in the car. I would time myself over and over. But it had to be that way every time. The CEO would change cafes and sure enough, I\u2019d hear something again. Eventually, I went about three weeks without hearing from him and I thought, maybe this is it.\n\nThen I started to get these text messages: \u2018This is the toasted bagel I got this morning at this location. Then I went to a different location, and this is the toasted bagel there, and I went to a third location, and this is the toasted bagel there.\u2019 In the pictures, one bagel was dark, one was light, and one was barely toasted. One had toast marks on it, one didn\u2019t. The inconsistency was terrible.\n\nThat\u2019s when I knew I\u2019d arrived as a business leader, because I\u2019d owned this experience so much that now he wanted me to fix our toasting. I laughed, because I thought, I can go out and buy $100,000 AI-enabled toasters with cameras in them, but that\u2019s not what the CEO is going to want. I went to Boston for my standing Friday meeting with him, and he had a poster with bagels from about 30 cafes, organized from light to dark. What are we going to do?\n\nI went back to the Operations Services team, who are much smarter than I am, and asked for help. They suggested looking at the factory settings on these toasters. Let\u2019s get a color guide out to the cafes. If a toasted bagel matches this color, turn it down a notch, if it matches that color, let\u2019s turn it up two notches, etc. We needed to go out and adjust the toasters and get back to the basics on the equipment. That\u2019s when I knew the technology was no longer our challenge \u2014 and that our little Rapid Pick-Up\u00ae channel had arrived.\n\nFor more from Meister\u2019s leadership playbook, tune into the Tech Whisperers podcast.