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“When you show that you’re authentic, people will follow you. People will trust you,” Potbelly Sandwich Works CEO Aylwin Lewis told Executive MBA students during a talk Feb. 13.

Aylwin Lewis

Serving up values and authenticity

Potbelly Sandwich Works CEO Aylwin Lewis tells students to ‘bring your whole self to work’

By Ed Finkel

2/18/2009 - Concerned that a career in business might leave him feeling “dirty and grubby,” Aylwin Lewis wrote down his values at the outset and has endeavored to work for companies that share those ideals ever since.

“It’s very difficult to have one set of values for you and your family, and a different set at the workplace,” said Lewis, now president and CEO of Potbelly Sandwich Works. Finding a match, he said, “allows you to bring your whole self to work.”

Lewis delivered his remarks to about 150 Kellogg Executive MBA students Feb. 13 at the James L. Allen Center. He is among a number of noteworthy executives visiting the EMBA program this winter and spring through the 2009 EMBA Luncheon Speaker Series.

Lewis told the EMBA students that while working his way up, he relied on his penchant for documentation to make sure he and his superiors literally were on the same page. “’How can I help you be successful?’” Lewis said he asked each boss. “‘In six months, what’s success? In a year, what’s success?’”

He then wrote down what the supervisor said and sent it back in memo form, saying, “ ‘Here’s what you told me.’ With that framework, you have a foundation.”

Lewis, who joined Potbelly last June five months after exiting Sears Holding Corp. advised the EMBA students and others to be vulnerable and real, and to take tough, risky assignments. “When you show that you’re authentic, people will follow you. People will trust you,” he said. “Be in that part of the business that makes money; having a P&L changes your attitude about things.

“You can’t be afraid to fail,” Lewis added. “If you’re playing it safe, nothing’s going to happen. You’ve got to take risks — appropriate risks — to be successful.”

Lewis said modest-sized specialty restaurants like his need a value proposition that customers can see, as well as executives committed to teamwork and hard work. As the firm moves toward a franchised model, he expects to follow McDonald’s lead in requiring sweat from potential franchisees upfront. The hamburger chain requires would-be franchise owners to work on weekends for three months at minimum wage, flipping burgers and cleaning toilets.

“By the time we sign on the bottom line, we’re going to know each other,” he said. “Are you willing to work while everyone’s playing?”

Lewis said that willingness has propelled his own career upward. “Hopefully, you have this thirst for knowledge that will last a lifetime,” he said. “You don’t have to be the smartest person. You have to work hard.”