What leaders can learn from the janitor who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos

This isn’t the plot of Goodwill Hunting, it’s the real origin story of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Here are 3 lessons on innovation from one of Frito Lay’s best-selling snacks.

In the late 1980s, Richard Montañez gave the pitch of his life. A group of Frito Lay executives had flown in to listen to his idea for a new snack that would capture the Latino market: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Except Montañez wasn’t a “VP of Product” or “Head of Global Markets” — he was a janitor.

Here’s how he got there — and what leaders can learn about innovation from Frito Lays’ most unsuspecting entrepreneurs.

A first-generation Mexican immigrant, Montañez grew up in the ’60s, picking grapes with his parents and 10 siblings in a tiny California farming town east of Los Angeles. He struggled to understand the teachers at his English school, and dropped out of school in the 4th grade to work, without learning how to read or write.

Then, at 18, Montañez took a fateful job as a janitor at a nearby Frito-Lay plant — recruiting his wife “to help him fill out an application.”

Via Zack Crockett for The Hustle

The Hustle writes that, in the 1980s (10 years of floor-mopping later) Montañez’s life changed forever: he saw a corporate video by then-CEO Roger Enrico, encouraging employees to “act like an owner,” and he seized his opportunity.

Montañez started learning more about Frito-Lays’ process and products and quickly realized that the company didn’t have any products catering to Latinos; “nothing spicy or hot.”

After testing his “hot Cheeto” idea on friends and family, he decided to take it to the bigwigs. He found the CEO’s phone line in the company directory and gave him a call. Surprisingly, Enrico listened — and asked him to prepare a presentation for a visit to the plant.

Two weeks later, at 26-years-old, wearing a $3 tie his neighbor helped him tie, the janitor found himself “presenting to some of the most highly qualified executives in America.”

Six months later, Frito-Lay released Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in a few small Latino test markets. Finally, in 1992, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were approved for national release; today, they’re a multi-billion-dollar product — one of the top commodities in Frito-Lay’s portfolio.

So, what can we take away from this spicy success story?

A recent McKinsey study found that “94% of executives are dissatisfied with their firms’ innovation performance,” despite spending billions of dollars on internal incubators and initiatives. Here are a few basic innovation lessons from Montañez’s story that don’t cost a dang penny:

  1. Creativity can come from anywhere: The Harvard Business Review writes that although nearly 60% of US jobs require little to no creative problem-solving. But that doesn’t mean half of American workers (like Montañez’) aren’t creative, rather, their creativity “is not being tapped.” Get people from different business functions working on the same problem: idea generation benefits from diverse teams.
  2. Elevate diverse voices: Like Frito-Lay, maybe you’ve already given your corporate pep-talk and have a bunch of diverse and unconventional contributors thinking about a problem. Now it’s your job to listen to and elevate those voices. Frito-Lay’s CEO could have easily listened to Montañez’s idea, then dismissed it or simply took credit for himself. As our Head of Learning, Kimberly MacLean put it, “good leaders become great leaders when they learn to share power as allies — knowing when to take space, give space, and protect space for others.”
  3. Support with actions, not just words: Ultimately, this marks the difference between sustainable innovation effort and a rogue idea. The Hustle writes that before Flamin’ Hot Cheetos “Frito-Lay had only 3 Cheeto products; since then, the company has launched more than 20, each worth $300m+.” By elevating Montañez’s voice and championing his idea, the CEO showed his entire company that he wasn’t just spewing “innovation propaganda,” but that new ideas would truly be supported.

The Point: A CEO “yes and-ed” a janitor and now we have Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Managers, take note.

To practice tapping into your creative side and building on others’ ideas, try one of our mental fitness Studio Classes here!

Speechless is an organization that uses Improv Thinking to help people be themselves and be heard. Visit https://www.speechlessinc.com/ for more info.