Chipotle’s former co-CEO, Monty Moran, Discusses Leadership, Life and the Minimum Wage MBA

Monty Moran was kicking ass as the CEO of a law firm in Denver when close friend and Chipotle founder, Steve Ells, implored him to implement the wildly unique and successful company culture he had cultivated at his law firm into the then-startup burrito business.

Monty turned Steve down for a few years, until he finally made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. It was Steve’s insight into Monty’s natural leader mentality that helped him make the switch. He took a leap of faith and a rather large pay-cut and threw himself into growing a company that helped others to be at their very best, instead of trying to simply be the best himself.

Monty went on to run the company as co-CEO for over a decade before retiring to fly planes, advise on a number of companies, and writing his recent memoir, ‘Love is Free, Guac is Extra.’ We had a chance to catch up with him about what it means to truly lead, the importance of an innovative company culture, and how to overcome your ego for the greater good of the brand.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me about the inception of Chipotle and how you came to help run the company.

Monty Moran: I did not start Chipotle. That was started by Steve Ells. I knew him at the time he founded it, and we stayed in touch. When he was starting Chipotle, I was working at a law firm in Los Angeles.

Right before he founded Chipotle, I went to a dinner party in his house. It was me, my dad, himself and a couple of other people. 

So you might say, I ate the first burrito. That evening he made the burritos that he was going to make at Chipotle. We were his guinea pigs. They were incredible. They were so delicious, really. We all said, “Holy cow, this concept is gonna do great!”

When I moved back to Colorado a few years later, still working as a lawyer, Steve started asking me to do some legal work for the company. That legal work turned into more and more legal work, and then it turned into more and more work that did not look very legal. I kept telling him, “Hey, you do not need a lawyer to do this.” I helped him hire other people who could help, like hiring someone to do the liquor licensing in-house.

The company would give me more and more to do and I keep pushing it off and hiring other people, and then eventually, Steve asked me to come run the company. I said “No,” for four or five years but he kept making better and more tempting offers.

I was a little afraid because, at that time, McDonald’s owned most of the stock. Eventually, I said, “Yes,” but then I double-stepped and said, “No.” In the long run, I saw that McDonald’s was going to send Chipotle public and so at that time, I came on board as president and CEO, in 2005.

Jenna Bostock:  By then, you were very successful as the CEO and head of litigation at a Denver law firm – was it hard to make the switch?

Monty Moran: The truth is I had to take an enormous pay cut to go to Chipotle. Going to Chipotle, I was making less than a third of what I was making in my law firm. That does not count the fact that they gave me a whole bunch of stock options at a very low price because the company was not worth much back then.

Really what made me go is that Steve challenged me. He would say, “You should come to Chipotle, you know, you’d do great.” I’d tell him, “I don’t know, I’m a lawyer.”

Finally, he told me, “You are not a lawyer. Monty, you are a great leader. A lawyer is what you are doing, but a leader is what you are. If you come to Chipotle you will be able to lead a lot more people and leverage your leadership in a much more powerful way.”

That was a smart thing for him to say to me. That kind of went into my brain and I could not get it out.

Jenna Bostock: How would you define leadership and what your personal leadership philosophy was that you brought to the company?

Monty Moran: I had created a certain kind of culture at my law firm and Steve loved it. He came in, and said “Man, this place feels awesome, and people are working hard and they got a great attitude. What did you do? You know, how did you do this?”

The way law firms usually work is that you have a partner, and a partner brings in clients, and then he has the associate attorneys do the work, and then he makes sure that the associate attorneys do not talk to the client much because he wants to maintain contact and control over the client.

Partners typically do not want associates to steal their clients. In my firm, I decided that I was going to do just the opposite because I got way, way, way too busy. I started developing a lot of clients. I got busier and busier and busier, and that was great because that meant that I was becoming successful. Then I became a partner in the firm, and I had so many clients.

I started giving work to junior associates. Then I had clients complaining to me, “Hey, I saw on your bill, Monty, that you are not even doing much work anymore. You have these other people doing it. What gives? Like, are you putting me off on junior associates?”

It felt good to hear that, egotistically. “You know, Monty, I do not want you to give my work away. Shit, man, I want you to do my work.” But that was my ego talking.

I had to overcome my ego and make it so that the junior associates did better work for the clients at a lower billable rate so that the clients actually liked them better than they liked me. That meant I had to train the hell out of the associates, I had to give them tons of oversight, I had to make sure they were excellent. I had to give them a vision of delivering incredibly high standards to the client. I also had to create a personal relationship between the client and those associates.

I would bring the client in and I would say, “Hey, so and so client, this is Jenna. She is one of our junior associates here and she is excellent. She is going to work directly with you. She bills at a much lower rate than me and is phenomenally good. I am always here if you want me. I think you guys are gonna really enjoy working together.”

Then the client would get to know you, you get to know the client, the client would fall in love with a great attorney because I trained you really well.

Simultaneously, you felt great, Jenna, because you all of a sudden you’d think, “Man, I am working directly with a client. I am not just some associate that is never getting the satisfaction of knowing the person I am serving.”

All of a sudden, you start to kick ass, the client is feeling happy, and then the clients tell me, “Oh, my God, Monty. I am so grateful that you introduced me to Jenna. She is awesome.” And then my ego might go, “Oh, gee, I remember the days they thought I was awesome…” but I would just swallow that.

Over time what I realized is it is a much greater, more powerful, more positive thing to help others to be at their best than to simply be the best myself.

This is why I did not want to leave to go to Chipotle. I was a young guy making over a million dollars a year. I had clients who loved me and loved our firm. We were growing like gangbusters. I was giving big bonuses. It was just wonderful. The culture that I was able to create at the law firm was so healthy and so wonderful that when people came in, they said, “Holy shit, this place is awesome. These people seem so nice. They are working so hard, but they are happy.”

When I eventually went to Chipotle, I did exactly the same thing. I created a culture of top performers empowered to achieve high standards. It was based on having the very best managers in each restaurant that we could have.

Jenna Bostock: What then made you decide to officially retire a few years ago?

Monty Moran: I retired June 9th of 2017. I had been there like twelve and a half years, and it had been an incredible run. I loved it, I was having a blast.

Towards the end, after the E. Coli crisis, we had the food safety crisis. Some of our people got sick, our stock went lower, and then there started to be a lot more scrutiny on the co-CEO structure between Steve and I.

I am very careful to talk about this. I have respect for Steve Ells. He brought me into the company, I appreciated that. He let me run it for twelve years. Steve started to question some things. He was talking to people in the company in a way where it was creating a little bit of politics, and I did not like politics. When I came to the company there were politics and I got rid of them. Company politics are cancerous. It started to feel a little political, it started to feel not as supportive.

I had reached this point where I could retire because we had something called the ‘rule of seventy’, where you take your age, plus your years of service at Chipotle and if that added up to seventy, then you could retire.

On the way out the door I gave him a hug, and he said, “Hey, I love you, Mont.” I said, “I love you too Steve,” and I left.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me what you did after retirement. You started flying planes and wrote a book about your experience running Chipotle, ‘Love is Free, Guac is Extra’?:

Monty Moran: I had always wanted to be a pilot. I got my private pilot’s license. And then, right away, I jumped in and got instrument rating, which is more difficult than becoming a pilot but that is the thing that lets you fly up extremely high altitudes and in rain and clouds. I bought a couple of airplanes and I fly all over the country.

It is so cool. Every time I fly, I am pinching myself. Then I wrote this book, ‘Love Is Free. Guac Is Extra’, which was really fun to write.  It focuses on the company culture I built at Chipotle and shares some of my leadership lessons. I wrote it one hundred percent myself. No ghostwriting. I did not know that so many people do not write their own books, but I wrote every word.

Jenna Bostock: A lot of our readers are aspirational entrepreneurs who have not quite made it yet. What is some advice that you would leave them with?

Monty Moran: If you are starting a business, focus on what can you do for other people to be of tremendous value to them. The biggest thing that entrepreneurs focus on is making money. That is a huge mistake.

Then they focus on building their company quickly so that they can be rich. That is another huge mistake. Any focus that people have on making money is a mistake.

That is not to say making money is not fun, or good, or great or exciting. It is all of those things. The thing that causes you to make money, or at least a lot of it, is when you can produce a lot of value and provide a service or a product to somebody that really helps people or it helps the problem.

When you are really good at it, you are really passionate about it, when you really want to do something, nothing seems like work.

You work around the clock, and it just seems like you are having a blast. Then, because you are positive and you are having fun, and you are doing what you love and you are providing value, you start to attract a lot of other people who want to do it with you, and do it for you, or do it next to you.

They will join even for small amounts of money because they get infected by your vision. They do not really care about the money, they just want to be part of it. In time, it will become successful and you will make a lot of money, but it will become successful because you were doing something that you have passion for.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me about the minimum wage MBA you talk about in your book:

Monty Moran: All the little jobs I had, being an editor, working at Dairy Queen, working as a waiter, being a car part salesman, being a mechanic, those were the jobs I had that taught me so much. I had this weird thing in my brain where I never ever thought that there was a dead-end job.

I gave everything I had to every job I had. I felt so honored that somebody was paying me to work anywhere. I felt lucky and I wanted to prove to them that they had made the best decision of their life hiring me. I did not ever try to get ahead it by getting to the next job, I just tried to do what job I had super well. By doing that, people gave me bigger and bigger jobs and more and more responsibility and asked me to do more and more stuff until I had a position of significant leadership. I got there by assuming there was no such thing as a dead-end job.

I do not believe in getting ahead. There is no way to get ahead in life. I hate the idea of trading in or devaluing the moment. Let us say we are working in McDonald’s and saying, “I am in this goddamn dead job, I hate it. I want to make a lot of money. I wish I was a ‘this’, I wish I was a ‘that’.”

That is when people really wreck their life and become very unsuccessful. The way to become successful is to embrace the moment, enjoy what you are doing, do it with passion and if there are other things you want to do, then go ahead, go do them.

Do not ever think that what you are doing now has no value because then it does not. And if it does not, then everyone will see, “Oh, that dude does not add any value.”

If you get too far ahead, you are dead. None of us are getting out of this alive. Getting ahead in life is a cosmically idiotic concept. It is such bullshit. It is just life and the only life we have is right now, right this moment. The future is just a fantasy. It may come, it may not. We may be part of it, we may not. We may be healthy, we may be sick. We do not know.

But what we have is right now.