Five Lessons From Former Papa John’s CEO Steve Ritchie on Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Climbing the corporate ladder is usually thought of as an outdated idiom these days. At its core, this notion is baked into the common understanding of how we all might realize the American dream: work hard and get to the top. Unfortunately, “work hard” and “climb the ladder” aren’t the clearest steps for how you can make a difference in your professional life. For that kind of advice, you need an example – someone like Steve Ritchie, former president and CEO of Papa John’s. From a 15 year old flipping burgers in Louisville, Kentucky, to the top seat at one of the most well-known brands in the U.S., Ritchie’s experience provides five lessons to help make climbing the corporate ladder a reality. 

1. Gain Hands-On Experience

Ritchie didn’t just walk into a corporate position; he started his career working over a grill and discovered his passion for the fast-paced, hard work of the restaurant industry. By the age of 18, Ritchie found himself owning and operating his own pizzeria franchise in Louisville, Kentucky. Shortly after joining the Papa John’s team, he started his journey up the corporate ladder. It was these early experiences in hard work and running a business by learning from the ground up that became the foundation he needed to succeed in running Papa John’s on a much larger scale. Without understanding the core of the operations, it would have been challenging to put the company’s goals into action.

2. Find Your Leadership Style

Ritchie’s associates and employees have described him as “soft spoken and cool tempered.” There’s no one way to be a leader; it’s not always about demanding respect or telling people what to do. Ritchie found the style that worked for him, and it led to his success as a manager. Vaughn Frey, president of the Papa John’s Franchise Association, once said that Ritchie put forth “the right initiatives to reinvigorate growth and [recognized] the importance of working together to move forward successfully.”

This is not the style for everyone, but the one that fits Ritchie best. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of how they can grow with a company needs first to understand how they can best serve their team by becoming a respected leader.

3. Join a Company That You Believe In

Papa John’s was built in 1984 with a lofty goal: to revolutionize the pizza industry. The company believed that consumers would be willing to pay a little more for a pizza made with fresher, higher quality ingredients. Ritchie was inspired by this vision and found it a powerful goal to be a part of. As he once told the Courier-Journal, he “fell in love with the brand.”

Without that kind of passion, few can throw themselves into working long hours, building relationships, and inspiring a culture of passion and hard work. Ritchie’s success is built on that genuine passion, which fueled his climb up the corporate ladder.

4. Take Every Opportunity for Advancement

In 1996, Ritchie was an assistant manager. He quickly moved up, becoming a general manager and then training other general managers. Soon, he was the area supervisor. From there, Ritchie kept reaching, interviewing, and learning. His roles rocketed him forward as he continued to build his reputation, climbing upwards to become director of operations, operating partner, vice president of global operations support, senior vice president of corporate operations and global OST, senior vice president of North American operations, and senior vice president of North American and Latin American operations. Eventually, Ritchie took on the position of senior vice president of global operations and global OST, and finally, he got the big job at Papa John’s when he became president and CEO. 

It was not enough to believe that he could thrive at Papa John’s; Ritchie also took every opportunity that came his way, as should anyone hoping to advance their career. He took his time, learned each role from the inside out, and interviewed for every leadership position that became available. Once there, Steve Ritchie never settled; instead, he mastered that new role and prepared himself to move on to the next one.

5. Aim for the C-Suite

Executive-level management is the goal of many people in business, and no matter what your current position, keep your eye on those C-suite positions. Before Ritchie became the president and CEO of Papa John’s, he worked his way into the C-suite by becoming the chief operating officer (COO) of the company. In that role, he synthesized his many years of experience and leveraged all that he had learned to benefit the company with as much impact as possible. Those early experiences and ambition built the base that he needed to earn the top operations job. The rest, of course, is history.