Apr 26, 2023

Selling More Than Pizza

Editors Note: Last month, a close client, friend and colleague — Kevin Yaley, head of school at Francis Parker in San Diego — was honored by receiving the CASE District VII CEO Leadership Award. The following is the speech that he offered upon his acceptance. We requested Kevin’s permission to publish this speech to honor his extraordinary achievement and share some timely wisdom from his remarks. Congrats, Kevin and thanks for your wisdom.

Last week, I was honored to receive the CASE District VII CEO Award. In reflecting on this award which recognizes, among other things, leadership, I thought about the many people throughout my life and career that have taught me—or, better yet—shown me what true leadership is.

And so, if you would indulge me, I wanted to share with you one of my earliest and most lasting lessons on leadership that I learned working my first job at a pizza joint.

I grew up in a small town outside Yosemite called Mariposa, and when I was 15 years old I got a job at the local pizza joint called the Pizza Factory. My boss was Ron Willey (pictured with me here). Ron was, and is, true salt of the earth; hard-working, blue-collar, and as generous a spirit as you will ever find. Along with the owner of another Pizza Factory in our neighboring town of Oakhurst, Ron set off to grow his little pizza place into a national franchise.

Growing up, I figured that the secret to Ron’s success was simply the pizza. Now, don’t get me wrong, the pizza is amazing. And without good pizza, no place stands a chance of reaching the success Ron did. But looking back today, I realize that as good as the pizza was it was not the reason for the success of the Pizza Factory. Instead, Ron was the reason. Specifically, the success was the result of Ron’s leadership. From the beginning, Ron had a deep and profound understanding of what he was selling. You see, Ron was not selling pizza. Rather, he was selling—or, more appropriately—investing in and building, community.

In the final analysis, Ron’s measure of success was not whether someone came to eat at the Pizza Factory. Instead, Ron’s measure of success was whether they came back to the Pizza Factory again, and again, and again. Ron understood that if he relied solely on the pizza, the chance of people coming back was 50/50 at best. It is not like there aren’t other places to enjoy pizza.

To that end, Ron invested his time, his energy, and his sweat equity into building community. Sure, he was, at the same time, investing in sauce and cheese and pepperoni, but he was also investing in the community. Ron understood that while people may come back just for the pizza, they are more likely to return to a place that first welcomed them in. He understood that people are more likely to return to the place that reflects the community in the pictures and stories that hang on the walls, and where the CEO is throwing pizza dough and working the oven right alongside high school kids like me. Ron understood that to build community his pizza place needed to be a place where when you arrive the workers make you feel like they have been waiting all day, all week, all year for you; a place where when a family leaves, they leave with a full belly, a few extra pieces of pizza, and a little slice of the community that the Pizza Factory is. And, as they walk out the door already they are thinking about when they will return again, and again, and again.

As a school leader, I now understand what Ron was showing me about leadership. In schools, our pizza is the education we afford our students. And our “pizza” has to be good, really good. And while we all try to distinguish our pizza from the place down the street—different sizes and styles, some unique toppings, and added flair—at the end of the day, it is all pizza. And, if a school thinks that our only job is to simply sell pizza, we are missing the mark and, potentially, losing our families as there are plenty of other places for them to get their pizza. Instead, we should follow the lead of Ron Willey knowing that our success will not be simply because of our pizza. Rather, for our students, our families, and our alumni, it is all about the experience of the community where we eat our pizza. And that our ultimate goal is this: When our students leave our schools, we want them to leave with a full belly and a full mind, and, most especially, with an extra large slice of our school community that will bring them back to us again, and again, and again.



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