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    Women Rise in the Restaurant Leadership Ranks

  • Women are reshaping limited-service C-suites as the labor market demands change.

    Biscuitville, Jamba Juice
    Biscuitville president Kathie Niven (left) and Jamba Juice HR chief Humera Kassem bring new approaches to leadership.

    There’s a big change going on in the C-suites of America’s limited-service restaurant companies as women are increasingly being named to a wide range of leadership roles.

    While women have held a majority of jobs in the foodservice industry—nearly 54 percent in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—that hasn’t translated into more top administrative appointments. But that’s starting to change.

    “To build winning brands, it’s becoming more and more important to provide collaborative, innovative, accessible cultures,” says Kathie Niven, president of North Carolina–based Biscuitville. “Women align well with these business models.”

    Companies have realized that there can be a variety of leadership styles that work. “Women have this incredible momentum to break paradigms” and provide leadership from a female point of view, Niven says.

    Additionally, restaurant operators are increasingly open to offering top-level jobs to executives who come from divisions other than operations, such as marketing, which has a larger female presence. Niven has a marketing background.

    “Brands have to stay perpetually aligned with consumers’ ever-evolving needs,” Niven says, pointing to the rising importance of tools such as social media. Marketing professionals, regardless of gender, can bring a “consumer-driven lens to their leadership,” she says.

    Other trends fueling the rise in women leadership include the demand from important customer bases—not just women but also millennials and younger consumers—for more diversity and opportunities, a need for authenticity in food and interactions, and the changing and tightening labor market.

    Hattie Hill, president and chief executive of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, sees “the sheer war for talent” driving the push for more female leaders. As more women than men graduate from college, “the labor market has been dictating where we’re going.”

    Hill and others say millennial and Gen Z job seekers think differently than their predecessors, often spending time researching a company for issues like sustainability and diversity before deciding whether to reach out for or accept a job.

    “They are looking at you before you are looking at them,” she says. Not having women in leadership roles is a knock against the company for younger women considering it as a workplace.

    Limited-service restaurants are already a bit behind the eight ball when it comes to recruiting talented women, Hill acknowledges, because some people still have a dated view of the industry as “where you work until you get a real job.”

    Still, women have more management representation in the restaurant industry than the overall economy—46 percent to 39 percent, the BLS reports. And the National Restaurant Association reports that women own or co-own about half of the country’s eateries.

    Education, ability, and opportunity go a long way, but it takes commitment by restaurant company leadership to promote talented women to the C-suite level.

    Jo Brett experienced that, rising through the ranks at Pret a Manger. She began as a trainee at a London shop 20 years ago and was appointed to increasingly important jobs before being named president of the British company’s American operations four years ago.

    “One of our core values is opportunity,” she says, “so we’re always looking to promote from within.” That has led to a diverse workforce. “I saw women in important roles, so I always thought it was possible to get to the next level.”

    In ramping up for the U.S. job, she discovered there were no female operations managers on what would be her team. There were some talented managers, Brett says, but they were not getting the chance to move up the corporate ladder.

    As a result, she recommended one woman be promoted to operations director, and when she came to the U.S., she brought two female operations managers with her. Since then, a number of women have been promoted to the operations team.

    Seeing female leaders is a big deal for other women, says Humera Kassem, chief human resources officer at Jamba Juice. “Women have been talking about the glass ceiling for a long time,” she says, so having female leaders “is very powerful.”

    For her, there have been more women role models and mentors in foodservice than other industries where she worked, including finance, retail, and airlines. “There have been a lot of female leaders who really set the path, and that’s becoming more prevalent.”

    About 40 percent of the operating committee at Jamba Juice is female, she says.

    Mentoring continues to play a key role in helping employees move ahead, but that process is changing, too. Traditionally, mentoring was formal and somewhat forced, Kassem says. “We’ve found out that mentoring that is more organic is better,” with a relationship built on earned respect and credibility, she says.

    That is particularly important for those Generation Z members starting to graduate college. “They tend to be more loyal and will stay longer, but they want growth,” she says. “And authenticity is so important for them to see what the company stands for.”

    The demand for authenticity also has had a profound effect, says Niven, who led the transformation of family-owned Biscuitville’s brand positioning after joining the company in 2011.

    “I spent years believing I had to modify my leadership style to mirror the executive male paradigm,” she says. “It was incredibly liberating to allow myself to lead authentically … with all my flaws and differences in tow.” Her own style, she says, “is my greatest strength.”