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.”

Lesson No. 3: Play to your strengths

Though women are finding their way to the executive office in nearly every industry, they’re primed to shine in foodservice—an advantage they should leverage at every chance, female leaders say.

Specht says many women are inherently caring, nurturing, and great with people, all traits that translate especially well in the restaurant industry. They’re also natural connectors and communicators, as well as collaborative and empathetic, Cole says.

“We keep the family together. We find a way where there is no way,” says Monica Boyles, vice president and general manager of McDonald’s Greater Chicago region. “We’re all about inclusion and keeping everybody in the bubble.”

Not only do women easily connect with team members and colleagues, Cole says, but they also have a knack for bonding with and understanding the consumer, especially those in the Millennial generation. “It is a huge advantage because of the way Millennials work today, because of needing to be open and sensitive and having your antenna up to the way the consumer feels and the way employees feel about a brand.”

Since women often make the majority of family-related decisions, Boyles says, female leaders understand what drives the family and can anticipate women’s needs as consumers. “Because of the woman’s connection at the home, at the root of the family, I think we have a unique advantage that others may not have to be able to foretell the future in a way that maybe hasn’t been done before,” she says.

Though Bachelder says women should leverage their inclination toward hospitality and the ability to create positive environments, she believes they should also take some cues from their male counterparts. Just like the title of a book sitting in her office, Bachelder says, women must “think like a lady, act like a man, and work like a dog.”

“This is an industry where working hard matters,” she says. “And if you do it out of your own authentic self, I think you can do it very well.”

Lang says it’s helpful to combine feminine and masculine traits in the workplace by being both tender hearted but tough minded when it comes to business. “Tender hearted meaning showing care and respect and compassion for others, but tough minded meaning being willing to make tough decisions that are in the best interest of the business,” she says.

Still, playing to some of the stereotypical female strengths—like empathy, organization, and intuition—doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to use them as a crutch, Specht says. “Don’t be a victim,” she says. “Put the fact that you are a professional in the restaurant industry first, and then put the fact that you’re a woman second.”

Lesson No. 4: Strive for harmony, not a perfect balance

Thanks to the flood of conversation sparked by the growing presence of women in the workforce—and certainly thanks to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, Lean In—many women have been inundated with talk about how to create the perfect work-life balance.

However, many executives interviewed for this story say a “perfect” balance simply doesn’t exist, adding that the scales often tip toward different sides of the work-life spectrum from day to day.

“In those stressful times when you’re under pressure and you know you have to put in the hours, you do what it takes,” Lang says. “But then other times, when there’s maybe not as much pressure, take advantage of those times to spend some quality time with your family, with your kids, or even just have a bit of down time for yourself.”

Rather than reaching for the virtually unattainable perfect balance, Cole says, it’s wiser for women to seek harmony between their work and personal lives. “Find something you love to do for work, because it makes it a lot less difficult when work and life intertwine,” she says.

Boyles says striking a fairly even balance between personal life and work life is a tricky, but sometimes attainable, goal for women in the industry. “I believe you can have it all, but I don’t think you can do it all,” she says, adding that delegating is a necessary skill for leaders. “You have to get smarter about how you get things done and what you personally need to have your hands on and what you can have done by others.”

Boyles acknowledges that, at times, the quick-service industry can be all-consuming for leaders, making it challenging to carve out time for oneself, family, and friends. To ensure she’s making time for herself and her loved ones, Boyles has her assistant schedule personal events in her calendar just like any other business meeting or commitment.

Instead of thinking about it as a balancing act, Bachelder likes to put the work-life juggle in terms of a “purpose”—one that must align in both her work and home life.

“My purpose statement is to develop purpose-driven leaders that exhibit confidence and character in all aspects of their life, and interestingly, I think that’s my role as a mother to my three daughters,” she says. “Once I understood the purpose for my role in my family and my role at work, I felt they weren’t all that different and they weren’t at odds.”

She says connecting her home and work lives through a singular purpose helps eliminate the conflict and guilt many working mothers have.

“What kills women … is trying to meet up with everyone else’s expectations of what the right work-life balance is, and that’s quite exhausting and it’s quite impossible to achieve,” Bachelder says. “I encourage women to figure out why they do the things they do, so that the only test of their day is whether they’re living their life to the purpose that they’ve chosen and feel called to.”

Lesson No. 5: Know yourself and your purpose

Establishing this purpose Bachelder speaks of not only allows female leaders to more easily juggle the responsibilities of work and personal life, but also to see themselves more clearly, creating a sense of confidence and authenticity both at work and home.

Boyles says it’s crucial for women to be comfortable in their own skin in the workplace, and says having a personal mantra or mission helps make this simpler. “You have to decide in the role that you’re in: What’s the vision? What are you trying to get done? Then live that vision and make it inspiring,” she says.

Lang says not only does authentically envisioning and projecting yourself foster self-confidence, but it also inspires trust from your team and others around you. “If you’re willing to share who you are and what’s important to you and what sort of inspires you, then your team members and your employees are going to be willing to rally behind you and get inspired by you and motivated by you,” she says. “Then you can align everyone toward a common vision.”

Bachelder says figuring out who you authentically are and bringing that to work in a self-assured manner is essential for executive women, adding that the downfall of many female leaders is that they spend too much time trying to live up to others’ expectations or mirroring their leadership styles.

“But when they do bring their authentic strengths and their values to work, they perform better,” she says. “They’re more comfortable in their own skin, and the organization sees it, feels it, and embraces them more quickly than if we try to be someone we’re not.

“My wish for women,” Bachelder adds, “is that they would reach that point of authenticity and self-author their leadership story as soon as possible.”