A top CEO says one of her biggest professional successes 'would not exist' if she hadn't been fired earlier in her career

Cheryl Bachelder popeyes ceoCourtesy of Cheryl Bachelder‘This success story would not exist without KFC,’ said Cheryl Bachelder, pictured.

“A really ugly day.”

That’s how Cheryl Bachelder describes the day in 2003 when a Louisville newspaper published an unflattering photograph of her, along with the headline “Cheryl Bachelder Replaced.”

Specifically, she’d been replaced as president of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, where she’d served for about two years. Her kids saw the news in school.

The anecdote about Bachelder appears in “Earning It,” a new book by Joann Lublin, who is management news editor at The Wall Street Journal. Lublin interviewed dozens of high-powered women about the personal and professional obstacles they faced on the path to success — and Bachelder’s stands out as both cringeworthy and inspiring.

Today, Bachelder is the CEO of fast-food restaurant chain Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. Bachelder told Lublin that the experience at KFC made her a stronger leader for two reasons. One, she learned to prioritise short-term results along with long-term strategy. And two, she learned to treat people with dignity when she let them go.

When Bachelder took over KFC, the company was already troubled. “I thought the brand could be revitalized,” she told Lublin. Bachelder was soon after diagnosed with breast cancer and worked throughout her treatment — but afterward, she told Lublin that “everything I touched turned to mud.”

Lublin writes that, during Bachelder’s tenure, KFC was plagued by negative press coverage around the lawsuits linking obesity to fast food and the new advertisements and products grew unpopular.

Bachelder said she focused on long-term fixes — but admits that was where she went wrong. Senior executives at Yum Brands, KFC’s parent company, demanded short-term results. And Bachelder didn’t make it clear enough to management that she was focusing on long-term strategy.

At some point, Bachelder decided things weren’t working out, and it was time for her to resign. Walking to the office of Yum Brands’ CEO, she ran into him in the hallway — he’d been coming to tell her the same thing.

In an interview with Business Insider, Lublin said the failure “totally shaped and changed [Bachelder’s] leadership style. When she then ran Popeyes, she came in with a much different understanding of the need for a publicly held company to perform well every quarter.”

At Popeye’s, Bachelder’s efforts — including reducing costs, speeding up service, and adding new menu items — prompted a 190% gain in the share price by March 2014. Popeye’s currently holds a $1.3 billion market capitalisation.

As Bachelder told Lublin: “This success story would not exist without KFC.”

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