Aylwin Lewis, Chairman, CEO & President, Potbelly Sandwich Works, LLC

I actually have to think about being a leader, and I have to work at it. One experience that stands out to me is the trauma I felt, and still feel, when I have to let someone go. Those hard decisions do not come easy for me, and I had to gain the strength to be able to make tough decisions.

August 2015

What experiences prepared you to be the CEO of Potbelly?

My leadership path began at home. I had great parents who instilled strong values in me. They valued hard work, good energy, and integrity, and they taught me not to take shortcuts. In high school, I became the captain of my football team and found the courage to show my teammates that they could follow me. Later, I would read books about great leaders by authors such as Tom Peters and Warren Bennis. I also got my MBA and I had a great professor named Fred Mahoney who shared with me his leadership model and helped me to understand how to best lead people.

What was your first leadership experience?

My first leadership position was working at Jack in the Box, where I found that I really liked leading others. I started reading the management books that were assigned to me back in college, and I realized that, as a leader, I had a lot of influence and power – as well as responsibility. I started asking people about their thoughts about leadership, and I learned that people want to be treated as a real person – someone who is respected and who is asked what they think.

How do you describe yourself as a leader?

I actually have to think about being a leader, and I have to work at it. One experience that stands out to me is the trauma I felt, and still feel, when I have to let someone go. Those hard decisions do not come easy for me, and I had to gain the strength to be able to make tough decisions. I’ve learned throughout my career that in order to be a great leader you have to be consistent because, as a leader, I know that my actions are always watched. If you’re not consistent, you lose trust. I do this by talking to people in the shops and letting them know what I expect.

I’m also someone who relies on a team of capable people. Back when I was a district manager at Jack in the Box, I tried to do it all and quickly learned that this wasn’t possible. Now, I rely on people to help me, and in teaching and coaching those people, I’m actually able to determine my own success as a leader.

How do you define your leadership style?

In defining my leadership style, I would say I’m participatory, casual but professional and always striving to define impact versus impression. I abide by the Potbelly values and am consistently working to elevate the company and the people that make up Potbelly.  I believe in “servant leadership.”

One of the main points I focus on is remaining grateful and asking myself whether or not I continue to earn the right to be the CEO of Potbelly.  This keeps me honest, accessible and centered around being a successful leader.

How has mentorship impacted your life?

I’ve had four great mentors throughout my career, and their guidance has had a dramatic impact on my career.

Bob Nugent, former President and CEO of Jack in the Box, and Kyle Craig, former President of KFC USA, both showed me how to succeed at the top of an organization while still being human. David C. Novak, Executive Chairman of YUM! Brands, taught me the value of culture in an organization. David’s best advice to me was to bring my “whole self to work” every day. Meaning, be the same person at work as you are at home.

Finally, I also learned a great deal from Andy Pearson, former PepsiCo CEO and Founding Chairman, who after many years as a leader, still demonstrated to his organization that he was open to growing and changing things about himself.

What are some of your most effective habits?

I get to work early and get things off my plate so that I can meet with more people during the day. Also, I partner with a set of internal and external mentees over the course of every year. Both myself and the mentee have to put in equal time, but I really believe in doing this because I feel like it’s a great way to help people be successful in their careers. I also get to learn a lot about my organization that I might not learn if I didn’t have that special relationship.

What qualities do you believe every great leader should have?

I believe every great leader needs to think about how he or she will lead and needs to set a leadership intention. In other words, ask yourself: How am I going to make the tough choices needed to be a great leader?

In terms of specific values, I think a great leader must have courage, must be curious, and must be a good learner. I think she should also work to simplify things, and she must be optimistic. I firmly believe that life’s too short to over-complicate things. People need to remember that most leaders have the required talent to do the work, but the most effective leaders must also must love to lead.. They must want to be there.

What are your biggest challenges as a leader?

One of the largest challenges I have faced in my journey as a leader has been being a minority man in America.  Simply put, this has always had a large impact on my career, but also taught me a tremendous amount along the way.

What advice do you have for young leaders?

Align your values with the values of the company. Work for, and with, good people and ask for mentors.  You will be surprised how excited people are and how many people will say yes!

Something I pride myself on is earning the right to be a leader through your performance.  People will respect what you do a lot more than what you say.  You also have to be brave as a leader.  No one can define your dreams as well as yourself, so don’t allow them to.

Where do you go next in your path as a leader?

My mantra is simple: I’m in a race against my best self. I ask myself, what is the best I can do — and that’s what I aim for. I’m typically always a year behind where I think I should be, so I’m still working hard, even as a current CEO.

In terms of my company, Potbelly is a great brand with many opportunities. We have a strong business foundation and values, great customer service, and we’re a great and motivating employer. I don’t take for granted the leadership role I’m in, and I work every day to make this company better and better.


Interview By Rachel Ann Kuchar & Lauren Althaus

Fast Facts

Chicago, Illinois
Number of Employees
Number of years in current role
7 years
Previous experience
• CEO Sears Holdings, 2005 – 2008 (3 years)
• CEO, Kmart 2004-2005
• COO Yum! Brands, 1991 – 2004 (13 years)
First job
• After college: Assistant Manager at Jack in the Box
• During college: Carpet Washer at Turco Persian Rug Company
Leaders you most admire
• Abraham Lincoln
• Jack Welch
• Lawrence Bossidy

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