Little Caesars’ CIO on achieving ‘Mission Impossible’

With a talent for developing people and inspiring innovation from her teams, Anita Klopfenstein has built a powerhouse IT organization since joining Little Caesars in 2017 as its CIO. One of the secrets behind her success as a leader is her love of learning. After majoring in both computer science and radio, television and film, she went on to earn an MBA. Over the course of her career, she’s remained curious — not just about technology and business, but about leadership, cultures, and communities. She explains that continually expanding her knowledge and trying new things makes her better able to see problems and opportunities differently.

When we spoke for the Tech Whisperers podcast, we unpacked her leadership philosophies and career journey, including how she’s transformed IT at Little Caesars and within the pizza industry by taking on the role of “Chief Obstacle Remover.” Afterwards, we spent more time exploring the culture, values, and innovation that make Little Caesars an amazing place to work. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: Little Caesars has a rich history of innovation and a spirt of fun that really go back to the company’s founders, Mike and Marian Ilitch. Can you talk about how the values shape that culture today?

It’s so great to be with such an iconic brand. Whenever I’m wearing or carrying something with the logo on it, people feel compelled to say ‘Pizza! Pizza!’ or come up and talk to me because they just love this brand so much. It goes back to Mike and Marian creating that passion and inspiring and motivating people to put their entire heart into the brand.

People who have been here 30-plus years will tell you, the culture they created for Little Caesars and their energy and love of people inspired colleagues to do their very best. And they love these two people so much. They still talk about ‘Mr. and Mrs. I’ and their passion for their families. Mrs. I’s first question is never about the business or what do you do here. It is about your family and are you having fun.

How do you instill those values into a young, ever-changing workforce?

We have many ways that we try to keep that culture moving. We have service awards. We literally have a full Thanksgiving dinner for our colleagues. We have a holiday party where we take over the Little Caesars arena. We have a big company picnic where we go to a Detroit Tigers game. [Ed. note: Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers are all part of Ilitch Companies.] Every department has some sort of an event. My organization has an annual town hall around Halloween, and my entire leadership team, including myself, dress up in costumes. We have our own IT service awards. I always have an opening day potluck. It’s just trying to develop that camaraderie with the group.

Every new colleague also goes through a culture class by David Scrivano, our CEO. It tells them the story of Little Caesars and Mike and Marian and why our guiding principles are so valuable. We all go through that periodically to refresh it in our minds. We have a beautiful new building and on the second and third floors is a historical walkthrough of our company. As you’re walking through those, you can see and feel that culture represented. All of that helps get everybody charged up.

The harder part is getting that culture across when we’re working remotely. So we still remind folks of our culture and play some of the videos for them periodically. We look for ways to get folks to come back in the building, whether it be a food court or a cappuccino man coming in. It’s about trying to get folks to come in and have that close engagement with one another.

Little Caesars’ first value is ‘Serve Others.’ What does that mean in practice, and how do you reinforce it?

We live by our values. In fact, our service awards are all geared around rewarding and recognizing people who do these very well. ‘Serve Others’ reflects our commitment to making our customers lives easier every chance we get. This could be the customer buying the pizza in the store, but it could also be supporting a store franchisee or supporting a colleague if they’re having a problem, because, especially in IT, our direct customers are our franchisees and our colleagues.

So, for example, one of our project coordinators worked through the night to ensure that a store opened up on time and properly. It wasn’t his problem. It was because of someone else’s lack of planning. But he had that strong desire to serve this franchisee to make sure that their first experience with opening up a Little Caesars store was positive, so they could sell those pizzas that next day.

The second value is ‘Own Your Work.’ What does that look like at Little Caesars?

This is a big one to me. We set high standards, and we embrace accountability. Do a great job, admit when you fail, and have passion for your work. This is what I love about our IT team, because sometimes they set such high standards for themselves that I’ll say, this is good enough. We can roll it out now. Let’s put all those other things that you want to do in a ‘to-do’ list and we’ll work them out, but let’s go.

For me embracing accountability is key. I have always felt it is better to fall on your sword and admit you made a mistake and let’s figure out where we go from here. This is what that particular value also embraces.

The third one, ‘Invent Something,’ seems steeped in the company’s culture. Can you talk about how that permeates what you do?

Inventing is very core to Little Caesars. As you mentioned on the podcast, we were the first ones to come up with the conveyor oven to send the pizzas through and bake them that way. From the first conveyor all the way to our pizza portal that we use for digital ordering, you can tell that we just love to invent things. In fact, we have a group we call Area 51, which means I really can’t talk about it, but they get all the fun work of coming up with a lot of cool new ideas.

It’s really about taking the initiative and being adventurous and open-minded. In IT, we had an employee demonstrate this value when they wanted to go invent a self-service option for our customers in the store. On his own, over the weekend, he developed an app to allow customers to come in, scan a product, pay and say, ‘Look, I paid for three things, and I can go.’ We’re actually gearing up to test it in a store.

The fourth value is ‘Never Give Up,’ which is so powerful. Could you expand on number five, ‘Be an All-Star’?

If you think about the all-stars on a team, they inspire, they motivate, they mentor, and they make an impact. We also strive to be a force for good and fun. I call this our rally cry. An all-star is that person who, when you are fourth and goal, says, come on team, we can do this. Here’s how we can get it done. They motivate the team. When that project looks impossible, they help everyone succeed and get things done just by creating a fun work environment. Words matter, but so does how you treat your people during a project, and an all-star person is kind of that big cheerleader of the group.

When you’re taking people on big journeys, how do you communicate the vision for the initiative and get people excited about it?

It’s really the ‘Mission Impossible’ story plot. You define the mission: Here’s what we need to do. Define the why: Why are we doing this? What is the business purpose? What is the problem we’re solving? Define the enemy: What are the risks? What are the unknowns? What are some things we’re going to do to help mitigate them?

You define the teams and the roles: You’ve got your Tom Cruise guy who has all the fun gadgets. You’ve got the ones on the comms. You define that so everyone knows their part to play. Then it’s what ammunition do you have: What support are you getting from your senior leadership? What are the resources, the budgets? What are the tools? What else do we need?

You also need to have a well-thought-out plan: We’re going to learn more as we go, but here’s how things are going to progress. Here’s where we’re going with this. And then, as the leader, ensure you’re the one taking the bullets while rallying them around the cause.

That’s exactly what we did with our CV in the Cloud project. Everybody was already drained. They’d been trying to roll out this core product that was using unsupported software, and they felt defeated, and they were tired, and it was, let’s go build new. As we talked more, everyone said yeah, we can do it. We’ll have to go outside and get experts in this, but by planning that out, they felt better about it. It wasn’t me coming in saying, ‘We’re going to go do this; let’s figure it out.’ It was me coming in and being excited, telling them how they’re going to help solve this problem and they’re going to help pull this off and that they’re critical roles. That rallied them around it, and here we are now, rolling it out worldwide.

What’s your advice to IT people managers in today’s world, where we want people to be all-stars, but there’s also this environment of ‘quiet quitting’ and uncertainty and maybe the manager doesn’t want to rock the boat?

I believe every person truly wants to do the best job possible. And I believe that if you as a leader can find the hidden talent of that person, inspire them, recognize them, and support them, then they’re going to do the best that they can. They’re going to want to ensure that they’re successful because you have so much trust in them.

People also need to feel that what they’re doing matters: Don’t just hand me a project. Don’t hand me a task. Help me understand. Why am I doing it? How will it impact the business? If you can do that for a team, they are going to move mountains for you. But if they do and you don’t value and appreciate them, you’re going to get quiet quitters. So find out what motivates your team and how you can have fun. You don’t have to have money to have fun. I will bring in cornhole and we will have cornhole tournaments. I’ve let them throw cream pies at me if they hit a goal. Look for ways the team can come together.

With the Great Resignation, we were starting to have people leave, and our first inclination was, we’ve got to hold on to everybody. I would rather have five solid, motivated, warrior all-stars than twenty quiet quitters. If people want to leave, I need to learn from that: Is there something we can do better? Is there something about how we’re running our teams? Are there places I need to dig into to make sure folks are getting treated the way we want them to be treated? But I also don’t want to chase after people.

So what I would tell IT managers is, rock the boat, and if you fall out of the boat, it’s not the boat you’re supposed to be in. And then go find another boat.

For more from ORBIE Award-winning CIO Anita Klopfenstein, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership