Women in Foodservice | December 2013 | By Mary Avant

The Women of Foodservice

Today’s top female executives share the five best lessons they’ve learned throughout their careers.

Top women executives like Cheryl Bachelder are changing fast food for the better
Cheryl Bachelder was named CEO of AFC Enterprises in 2007 after serving on its board of directors. She has more than 30 years of experience in brand building and management, including with KFC and Domino’s Pizza. Shannon McCollum
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The women of foodservice are a savvy, confident, and—perhaps most importantly—growing group. They’ve fought their way to the top, led entire brands at young ages, chaired restaurant associations and organizations, and in some cases been the first female executive at their organization.

Though the balance at the top of the foodservice elite still weighs in men’s favor, these women are proving that more of their peers are finding a seat at the table and making their mark on the limited-service industry. But their journeys haven’t been without struggle, and the women of foodservice have learned their fair share of lessons along the way. These are five of the biggest takeaways from some of the top women in the biz.

Lesson No. 1: It’s all about the people

The leading female executives in foodservice may have earned their positions through hard work, dedication, and a healthy dose of risk taking, but they’ll be the first to tell you that something even more essential boosted them to the top: relationships.

Throughout her years in the industry, Kat Cole, president of bakery brand Cinnabon, has been part of the Georgia Restaurant Association, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, and the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF). She says the relationships she forged within these and other groups helped her move up the ladder to lead Cinnabon at just 33 years old.

“I was less experienced in terms of number of years in the industry, but because I had so many great mentors and had learned so much about the industry from all this volunteer, leadership, and board work, I was able to be a more well-rounded executive,” she says.

After getting her start at Hooters as a teenager, Cole quickly moved up the ranks, becoming a shift manager for the brand, helping open international locations, and taking on the role of vice president of training and development at the ripe age of 26. She says the people she’s worked with throughout her career—whether at Hooters, Cinnabon, or in various industry groups—have helped her achieve so much in such a short time.

“I couldn’t have had such great experiences at Hooters and in the industry if it weren’t for other incredible people,” Cole says. “I ended up building relationships with people in huge companies. … All of those people influenced my perspective. They were generous with their time.”

Fortunately, Cole says, women don’t have to look far for peers or mentors to provide examples of how to succeed in the industry. In fact, women don’t even need a formal mentor in the first place, she says. Instead, they should seek out everyday “mentoring opportunities.”

“It’s when you go to someone who has a certain experience, … and you ask them, ‘You’ve dealt with this before. When you dealt with it, what did you do? What did you learn?’” she says. “And then you internalize their perspective and allow it to enhance yours.”

Aside from these mentoring moments, networking with others in the industry allows women to not only form crucial connections, but also to make a name for themselves as a leader. Christine Specht, CEO at sandwich chain Cousins Subs, says women have to be open to meeting as many people as possible when networking, even if it’s not immediately obvious how these contacts may help their career.

“Even if that person doesn’t tie into your life immediately and is not that obvious then, you never know how that person might come back and how that might benefit you or benefit your organization in the future,” she says.

Specht adds that being an involved member of the foodservice community is the primary way for women to become known around the industry and to form relationships that can serve as stepping stones in their career.

“You have to keep yourself out there,” she says. “If you don’t do that, if you don’t personally network and you don’t join the right organizations, you’re not part of the community.”

Just as reaching out to others for help or advice is a necessary move for women, so is helping peers when they reach out to you. Cole says women, especially those in positions of power, have an obligation to lift up others who have a passion for excelling in the industry.

“We want to bring other women along with us,” says Linda Lang, who will retire from her eight-year post as CEO of Jack in the Box on January 1. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for other great people and great women in the industry who gave me a shot, who spent time with me.”

Many female leaders make it a commitment to reach out to other women in the industry and help them in their careers.

“It’s more of an encouragement and giving women confidence that if I can do it, they can do it,” Lang says. “If an everyday, not-superhero woman can get to this position, then they can as well.”

Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen parent company AFC Enterprises, says she speaks at WFF events and mentors other women out of a sense of duty. “If I’ve been given this opportunity, I have the stewardship responsibility to help other women grow in capability and grow in the character traits that they need for leadership,” she says. “The quality of the next-generation leader will directly correlate with the time and effort that we invest in those people.”

Lesson No. 2: You can’t do it alone

While relationships within the industry can help women make career-advancing connections, a bond with team members inside the company can help female executives flourish in their roles. This starts with not only recruiting and then cultivating the most talented team possible, but also building teams that complement the leader’s strengths and weaknesses, Specht says.

Despite the talent of the team behind her, Cole says, no leader can excel in her role without the support and loyalty of those team members.

“You’re not a leader without the team,” Cole says. “There’s no such thing as a leader with no followers, so you can’t ever lose sight that all success, all accomplishment of goals, will only come as the result of being able to create an environment where people motivate themselves to achieve great goals.”

Leaders must also create a sense of trust with their employees, Lang says, which in turn fosters loyalty both to the leader and the brand.

“I’ve had a very loyal team, people who have turned over and retired with the company, who have been on my team for years and years. There’s a sense of trust and loyalty between us, so they know that I trust them to do their job, that I respect them, that they’re the experts,” she says. “That’s the best way to build a team that’s high performance, that’s a loyal team that’s going to work hard on your behalf and on the company’s behalf.”

Bachelder says the best female leader guarantees that the people on her team are better off as a result of her leadership.

“Our culture’s an achievement, results-oriented culture, and we race to those results with often little regard for people,” she says. “People do not give their best to an enterprise until they’re in a relationship with the leaders in that enterprise. That’s human nature: We give our best to things and people that care most about us.”