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Blue Rock in Conversation: Franchise Development with Lynette McKee

One of the hallmarks of the franchise world is the fact that everyone has a different journey to get there. For Lynette McKee, that journey took her from the smell of erasers and chalk as an elementary school teacher to the smell of donuts, sandwiches, and more. Her career spans decades of franchise development and leadership positions at brands including Denny’s, Burger King, Dunkin’, and her current role as SVP of Franchising for Potbelly Sandwich Works, LLC. Now, she’s an in-demand guest speaker and a respected expert on all aspects of the franchise industry.


McKee didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to do a 180 with her career, but her path certainly was surprising, even to her. Through a series of unexpected events, she found herself shifting gears from teaching to commercial real estate. Then, one day, she got the offer that would change her life: an opportunity with a food franchise conglomerate. Her first assignment focused on moving Denny’s HQ out of California and into its new location in South Carolina. She threw herself into learning everything about this new-to-her industry, and it’s that same dedication and passion that has served her well as she’s risen through the ranks of franchise leadership across multiple companies.


We sat down with McKee for an in-depth conversation on franchise leadership, the opportunities and challenges in franchising today, and the evolutions she’s seen in her decades in the industry.


Lessons in Leadership

As the franchise landscape becomes more complex, so too do the tips and strategies surrounding leadership in the industry. McKee, on the other hand, starts from a deceptively simple place: the classic “Golden Rule.”


“I try to treat my team the way I would want to be treated. Everybody has experiences over their career where they say, ‘Gee, if I just had control of this, I would do X.’ And I think that’s the way I’ve always tried to live with guiding teams,” she says.


To that end, McKee calls herself “very process oriented. I like the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted. I like the outlines; I like the process forms.” These processes, she explains, are not about control, but about giving teams the tools they need to understand what’s expected of them and to perform their jobs to their fullest potential.


“If you guide people in the right way, then it makes it easier for them to perform whatever job they have. I just want them to wake up every day and enjoy coming to work. Because if they don’t, then they’re not going to succeed and the brand doesn’t perform at the level that you would expect.”


This commitment to transparency and clarity connects to another key factor McKee brings up: the importance of communication. In fact, she says, it’s better to “over-communicate” than to not communicate enough with your teams.


“Communicate up and communicate sideways and communicate to your team! When people are in the know, they can perform better at whatever their goals and objectives are,” she says. She gives the example of her current work at Potbelly, where they provide weekly reports to ensure that different departments all know what’s going on, rather than being siloed away from potentially important information. This level of communication starts at the top and, she says, helps everyone perform better.


Today’s Franchise Landscape: Challenges and Opportunities

Across all niches, franchising today is undoubtedly in a period of growth. According to recent research, the franchise sector is projected to grow significantly in 2024, with the International Franchise Association projecting a 1.9% growth in number of units this year. Similarly, the IFA projects a 3% growth in franchise employment and a 4.3% growth in franchise GDP during 2024.


This expansion presents franchise leaders with plenty of exciting opportunities, but, as with any time of growth, there are challenges to be considered as well.


McKee notes a few major factors that are presenting challenges to today’s franchise leaders. Some, like inflation, rising costs, and the availability of real estate, have been discussed time and time again, both in franchise-specific forums and in everyday conversations. Others are a little murkier, like what McKee calls “the noise” – and those can be even more challenging to address.


“The noise is the things that people hear; some are true, some are not, but it alters their decision-making process. It could be things like businesses going out of business, businesses closing, businesses closing in certain regions, worry about interest rates going up, worry about the availability of funding. Some of the things are true, but until you really drill down and understand what’s there, sometimes it’s not as bad as you think it is,” McKee explains. “I’ve been in the business long enough that I have lived through several cycles. We come out of every single cycle, so we will come out of this cycle as well. It may take us a little bit of time, but I reflect it back and call it noise.”


Advice for Future Leaders

After more than three decades in the business, McKee has seen a lot of changes and a lot of trends come and go. During our conversation, she reflects in particular on the changing perceptions of women – and women leaders – in the business world.


“Back when I started, there were very few of us women. In fact, when I started at Denny’s, everybody thought I was an attorney because I wore a suit to work every day. Women didn’t wear suits to work, so everybody just automatically assumed that’s what my role was,” she recalls. “It’s about getting people acclimated to the fact that women typically know how to juggle a lot of things. Not that men don’t, but you think about in the world of women, whether it’s juggling the home and the children and the work environment and the social aspect and any clubs or memberships you’re a part of; you have to focus every day and manage your schedule. And honestly, in this world, in franchising or any other role, women do an extremely, extremely good job of that. I have some very, very talented women on my team and I can depend on them to be able to drive the business in the way that we expect.”


She also recalls how her own willingness to speak up has garnered results throughout the years. “If there’s something I think I can do, I’ll speak up, and I think that’s really helped me over my career. My advice to the younger me would be, make sure you speak up when it’s something you know you can do. And sometimes even if you’re not totally convinced you can do it, but you have a feeling, speak up anyway, because if the opportunity comes your way, you’ll figure out how to make it work.”


She advises women today, especially younger women, to “think about their careers, what they want to do, five years from now or ten years from now,” rather than just “letting” opportunities happen to them. On the flip side, she encourages franchise leaders to seek out motivated women to be part of their development teams.


“Take the time to source. They are out there. Give them an opportunity and also give them a clear direction and clear expectations of the role,” she says. “Women, once you tell them exactly what you need, will figure out a way to make it happen.”


For McKee, franchising might have been a world she never expected to be part of, but it’s one that she now sings the praises of, over and over again.


“The franchise world itself is a fun environment to be in. I have franchisees that I have known for many, many years and we still stay in touch. And sometimes I get a joke from somebody that was a franchisee of mine 20 years ago,” she reveals. “Franchising really becomes like an extended family, and once you get into this side of the business, you really don’t want to leave. I think some people don’t really realize, if they’ve never kind of been inside the network, how tightly aligned everybody is and how much we really enjoy the franchise industry.”


For would-be franchise development leaders, stories like McKee’s remind us of just how much franchising can change lives – and build the kinds of connections that last a career, or even a lifetime.


About the Author


Nancy Estep-Critchett is a founding Partner of Blue Rock Search, with oversight of the Franchise Practice. She has 30 years of successful working experience as a business advisor and executive recruiter in the franchising space. Nancy has built solid relationships which have spanned decades with industry professionals and internationally recognized brands.


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