What I Learned About Fast HR From Turning Down a Top HR Position

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Mar 16, 2015

Have you tried Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches (err, subs)?

My family loves Jimmy Johns! Way too much of my annual income goes to this company!

Here’s a little known fact: I was once offered the head HR position at Jimmy Johns.

When I was offered the top HR job at Jimmy Johns

Back in 2007 I was working for Applebee’s and we were bought out by IHOP (International House of Pancakes), which was much smaller but it was a recession and Applebee’s stock was down and the IHOP folks were sitting on a pile of cash. The rest is just good old American capitalism.

The uncertainty of a takeover had me open to new opportunities, and a head hunter called me about Jimmy Johns. I was familiar with them, plus it was the top HR spot.

The founder of Jimmy Johns was no longer in the picture, and he had groomed a young man — James North — to take over the company (read his story in the link; it’s fascinating). The “kid” was like 28-29 when I went to interview. He was running around the place, full of energy, looking to change the world one freaking fast sub at a time.

The total interview lasted about 30 minutes. He threw me the keys to his Cadillac Escalade and told me to go find a house. Yes — he was offering me the Head of HR position after 30 minutes and now I had to go find a house. I had five hours before my flight left, and I drove around Champaign, Illinois thinking it wasn’t East Lansing.

James scared me, because he wasn’t like the big company operations leaders I had at Applebee’s. So, I turned the position down, to the chagrin of my sons.

Do you have the courage to make the big leap?

Fast forward to two weeks ago. By social media chance, I was connected with the head of HR for Jimmy Johns, Amber Rhoton. Well, I had to share my story! I mean, what HR Pro gets keys to a Cadillac thrown to them and is told to go find a house? It’s a brilliant story, and part of her organization. She loved it, and confirmed James is still running the show, and that the company is exponentially larger and more successful than it was when I interviewed with them back in 2007.

Amber had the guts I didn’t have. We (my ragtag group of brothers and sisters in the HR thought leadership space) tell HR people to have courage all the time. I didn’t.

I thought I did, but when push came to shove to prove it, I went back to the nice, cushy, well-developed HR department at the largest casual dining company in the world. James had the vision I couldn’t see, with operations so tightly managed that you can barely pay for your food when some kid is there telling you that your sub is ready.

Building something from scratch and taking it to the next level is not easy, and it’s not safe. A position like that might not be for you. It takes a level of courage many people don’t have.

It’s much easier to keep something on top than to work to get it on top (people on top don’t believe this, but it’s true). Being No. 1 has built-in advantages you don’t get chasing No. 1.

Learning from the journey

I envy HR pros like Amber, and operators like James at Jimmy Johns. Those are the people you want to learn from.

The knowledge level is higher for those who made the journey versus those who arrived at something already on top. We listen too much to those on top that did nothing but show up to an organization that was on top.

I like the grinders. In fact, I like HR so fast, that you’ll freak!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

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