Lisa Hoggs, an operations HR manager with LongHorn Steakhouse, has witnessed talented women in the foodservice industry hold back from offering ideas or throwing their hats in the ring for a promotion.
“With women, when we ask if they have ever thought about becoming a manager, managing partner or director, we often hear, ‘I’m not ready. I need six more months of development.’ Whereas their male counterparts frequently will say, ‘I’m ready now and what I don’t know, I’ll learn.’ ”
So last year, to help women “turn up the volume on their voices,” Lisa began hosting women’s leadership forums for restaurant team members and managers invited by their leaders. During the sessions, held in LongHorn’s Atlanta Division, where Lisa is based, female restaurant managers and managing partners share stories of their successes and the challenges they have overcome. The personal stories teach participants to be more confident, said Lisa, who worked as a managing partner earlier in her 15 years with the brand.
During a team-building escape room exercise, she said, the participants drew on their problem solving and leadership skills. “The takeaway from the exercise was that participants said, ‘I have good ideas. My voice needs to be heard.’ We want to make sure that women’s voices continue to ring out.” Across Darden, 49 percent of managers are women, 43 percent of directors are women, and 56 percent of team members are women, all of which are above the industry average for full-service restaurants.
Cheyenne Hollowell attended one of the forums last December. Then a server at the LongHorn location in Woodstock, GA, she had been working toward management with help from Managing Partner Anthony Pecht, who suggested she attend.
“Looking around that room full of successful women who have been where I’ve been was humbling and inspirational,” Cheyenne said. “I related to them — especially to Managing Partner Leslie Godfrey of Canton, GA, who told us to work hard and not become discouraged — and they set my goals on fire!”
“The forums help women build strong networks,” Leslie said, “so they can celebrate achievements and seek career advice from people who will support and champion them. The most important thing I want to tell women is to be unafraid of failure because not everything will work. Fear of failing should not prevent them from trying something new, raising their hand or asking for help and seeking out a mentor who is unlike them.”
Cheyenne said she gained confidence. “I’ve had a tendency to wonder if I have enough experience. After the session, I thought, ‘Why do I do that? No one knows everything. I’ll learn.’ I told Anthony, ‘Let’s build a road map together and do this.’ ”
Last month, a mere two months later, Cheyenne got her wish when she was promoted to manager at the Cumming, GA, location. “I’ve been given this opportunity in an excellent region with many female managing partners and leaders,” she said, “and there is so much room to grow with Darden.”
That opportunity starts with a commitment at the top. “We win when we have a diverse group of smart, committed individuals working across our organization,” said President and CEO Gene Lee. “Women are critical members of the team at Darden — always have been; always will be."
As another sign of the company’s commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting women, Darden will participate for the second year in the Women in the Workplace Study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org. The survey of women in corporate America will provide data to help companies improve their policies and practices — and learn what truly makes a difference in gender equality.
When it comes to developing our female leaders, Lisa’s forums continue to help team members learn to speak up — and move up. She believes many women like Cheyenne could benefit from her leadership forums, which were begun in 2015 by Senior Vice President of Operations Janicka Green and Director of Operations Sheri Thomson. “I picked up the baton,” Lisa said.
Senior Vice President of Operations Shane Brooks and Director of Operations Dave Zehner are big believers in the forums. “We understand that it’s not an ‘us vs. them’ situation,” Shane said. “We are better together! LongHorn Steakhouse and Darden are taking steps to make sure that diversity is present at all levels in our organization. We’re investing in the future.”