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Mentoring the next generation

Mentoring the next generation

Women are still a long way from reaching parity with men in the executive suites and board rooms of foodservice companies, but the path to the corner office has fewer roadblocks now that it has become easier to find mentors who can help them get there, according to some of the industry’s female leaders.

A dozen years ago, the number of women in senior executive positions was small enough to fit inside a telephone booth, quips Edna Morris, president of Coral Seafood & Spirits, a two-unit upscale seafood concept in Southern California that is owned by Tampa, Fla.-based OSI Restaurant Partners Inc. But as more women fill senior positions, they offer a bigger reserve of guidance available for women coming up, she says.

“It’s really good now to see the progress [women are making], albeit not as fast as it should be,” says Morris, who is a former president of the Red Lobster casual-dinnerhouse chain, which is owned by Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants. “But it’s easier to be a mentor and easier to be mentored.”

It has been seven years since a landmark study of women in the restaurant industry by Catalyst, a New York-based research organization specializing in women’s issues, determined that a lack of mentoring was one of the greatest challenges career women faced. Since then, several companies and independent organizations, such as the Women’s Foodservice Forum, have created mentoring programs and networking groups to help women connect with mentors who could help them navigate the choppy waters of career advancement.

“Women these days are reaching out to other women in ways that would not have happened when I started my career 25 or 30 years ago,” says Janet Steinmayer, president and chief executive of Centerplate Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based sports and entertainment contract caterer and facilities management company.

While many of the women leading companies today had male mentors as they progressed in their careers, gender is irrelevant. What is important is having a mentor, says Sheri Miksa, president and chief executive of Robeks Corp., an all-franchised smoothie chain based in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Perfectly matched: A mentor success story

Kat Cole and Krystena Sterling first met last year at a session to introduce mentors and protégés to one another during the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s annual leadership conference.

As Cole and Sterling tell it, it was a perfect match.

Sterling was an area manager for three restaurants at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., but she wanted to transition from operations to a training position. Cole, who started her career wearing the orange shorts and tank top uniform of a Hooter’s waitress, spent several years in operations before eventually becoming vice president of training and development for Atlanta-based Hooters of America, the owner or franchisor of 450 casual-dining restaurants.

“By design we were matched up to her needs, but we’re also a match in terms of energy,” Cole says. “We feed off each other. We’ve become professional friends.”

The pair have been among the hundreds of WFF members who have mentored or been mentored since the organization formed a formal mentoring program about seven years ago. The organization launched the program after sponsoring a study that showed a lack of mentoring was one of the key challenges women faced in their career development.

This year, the WFF is putting the program online to more efficiently match members looking for mentors with certain competencies and experiences to help them advance in their careers.

“We’ve developed an online matching tool that is similar to, but for mentors,” says WFF president Mary Bentley. “When you describe it that way, people immediately get it.”

The program does not ask members to describe their hobbies or send in photos. Instead, matches are based on leadership competencies so that protégés wanting to strengthen certain skills are paired with mentors already strong in those competencies.

Once matched, protégés and mentors are encouraged to meet face-to-face at least once and set up regular intervals to interact, whether by phone, email or through personal visits.

Cole gave Sterling reading assignments, and they spoke by phone every month to discuss Sterling’s progress.

“It would be, ‘What’s going on, how’s it going, what goals do you have,’” Sterling says. “A lot of it was the nuggets of wisdom Kat would give me based on her experience coming from operations. I would say, ‘This is what’s going on.’ She’d say, ‘I remember when that would happen; here’s something you could do.’”

While she is surrounded with good leaders at Walt Disney, Sterling says she pursued an outside mentor to get objective input on her career.

Cole says she kept encouraging Sterling to stretch and take risks.

“I would push her and say, ‘Why not? Why wouldn’t you?’” Cole says. “For every ‘Could I’ or ‘Should I’ there are 50 reasons why you should.”

Six months into the mentoring relationship, Sterling was promoted to catering and convention services training manager. Five months after that, she was promoted again, this time to a regional learning and development manager.

“That was hugely exciting for me,” Cole says. “I get to live those advancements vicariously through her.” —Dina Berta

“A mentor is often somebody that has gone before you and done the things, learned the lessons and can help guide and coach and provide some perspective,” Miksa says.

Despite the obvious benefits of having a mentor, women traditionally have been less aggressive about pursuing mentors in their careers, says Mary Bentley, president of WFF, which sponsored the Catalyst research on mentoring.

“Catalyst looked at women in top jobs and women who were struggling,” Bentley says. “The difference was the use of an effective mentor in a woman’s career. But finding a mentor doesn’t happen naturally for the larger percentage of women.”

Conversely, men, who were more likely to have participated in team sports and dealt with coaches early on in their lives, are generally more comfortable establishing relationships with mentors than women are, says Leslie Christon, president and chief executive of Shells Seafood Restaurants Inc., based in Tampa, Fla.

Female execs recall those who helped them succeed

Women who have made it to the top of their companies credit mentors they met along the way for giving them the tools to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling.

Often the mentors handing out hammers and chisels of knowledge and advice were male colleagues or bosses, but sometimes parents, high school teachers and other female executives helped them in their development.

Leslie Christon, president and chief executive of Shells Seafood Restaurants Inc. in Tampa, Fla., points to her high school physics teacher as someone who taught her not to limit herself by what others thought of her.

“I was one of only three girls in that class for physics, and she would say to us, ‘I hope you don’t ever think you are not as smart as the boys,’” says Christon, whose list of mentors includes Norm Brinker, founder of Brinker International, and Joe Lee, former chief executive and chairman of Darden Restaurants.

Female executives say that effective mentors took an interest in their progress and established relationships by consistently asking about their welfare, both on the job and in their personal lives.

Edna Morris, president of Blue Coral Seafood & Spirits, a two-unit concept in Southern California owned by Tampa, Fla.-based OSI Restaurant Partners Inc., says most of her mentoring relationships were often informal interactions, but always effective.

“The checking in—‘How are you doing? What’s going on?’—that was very critical,” says Morris, who also has been president of the Red Lobster casual-dinner-house chain and an interim president of the James Beard Foundation. “It was not so much about working on specific projects and initiatives as it was staying in touch.”

Morris counts among her life’s mentors Jerry Richardson, now the owner of the Carolina Panthers, a National Football League team. She worked for Richardson when she was a vice president of human resources for Hardee’s Food Systems, back when Imasco, a Canadian company, owned the fast-food chain. She also had the benefit of being mentored by one of the company’s board members, Angela Peters, who was president of Xerox Canada at the time, Morris says.

“She took an interest in how I was doing,” Morris says. “She was very encouraging and inspiring.”

Sue Morelli, president and chief executive of Au Bon Pain in Boston, stills maintains relationships with mentors who have helped her through the years. She recently flew to Charlotte, N.C., just to have lunch with Tom Ondrof, chief financial officer of the Compass Group’s Americas division, which had owned the bakery-cafe before a management buyout in 2003.

“I’m grateful to him,” Morelli says. “He believed in our management team and he is always there when I need counsel. He’s very smart.”

Jean Birch, president of Romano’s Macaroni Grill, which is owned by Dallas-based Brinker International, still feels comfortable calling her former mentor, Aylwin Lewis, for advice and guidance. Lewis was chief operating officer of Pizza Hut and then Yum! Brands Inc. before becoming president of Sears Holdings.

“Aylwin found me,” Birch says. “He provided me with a couple of opportunities to be in situations where I could have a voice.”

Women today have greater opportunities to find mentors because there are more formal mentoring programs available and more female managers and leaders in foodservice, Birch says. But women do need to speak up and ask for help from potential mentors, she adds.

“If you want to be mentored, ask someone you admire to lunch,” Birch says. “Start with: ‘I’ve always admired how you work in our company. I’d love to learn more about your background. Can I buy you lunch?’ Have some questions prepared, but keep it casual. If you have a good rapport, ask if you can meet with them on occasion to get some advice on a couple of issues you are working on. —Dina Berta

“Women from my generation did not have that [experience] to the same degree,” Christon says. “We were not used to participating in the coach-and-student role. I think the next generation of women is much more confident and receptive to seeking out advice and counsel. It’s not seen as a weakness, but as a strength.”

The WFF, which has more than 3,000 individual members, encourages them to pursue mentors, Bentley says. The organization also encourages its member companies to establish mentoring programs, whether by adopting the WFF’s program or another organization’s program, or by establishing an internal program, Bentley says.

“When companies establish a program, it leads to higher percentages of women in senior-level positions,” she says.

Such observations are supported by a recent report by Catalyst that found that restaurant and hotel companies ranked among the Fortune 500 showed greater gender diversity in their senior management ranks than their Fortune 500 peers. The study did not take mentoring programs into account.

According to the study, among nine accommodations and foodservice companies ranked in the Fortune 500, women accounted for 20.6 percent of corporate officers and 15.8 percent of board members in 2006. Those figures were slightly better than the total percentages for all Fortune 500 companies, which showed that women accounted for 15.6 percent of corporate officers and 14.6 percent of board members.

“While there are not as many women executives as men to serve as role models, there are more opportunities for women to find someone they connect with, someone who has been there and can help them avoid the bumps in the road,” says Miksa, who also served as president and chief executive of Rubio’s Restaurants Inc. and chief operating officer of Seattle’s Best Coffee Co. when it was owned by AFC Enterprises.

After the Catalyst mentoring study seven years ago, the WFF, an organization committed to improving gender diversity in the industry, started a mentoring program for its members. The WFF this month is launching a Web-based version of the program that is similar to an online dating service that will match mentors and protégés.

“We’re confident we can significantly increase the number of emerging leaders we can reach with this program,” Bentley says. “Our goal is to have 70 or 80 pairs and go from there.”

Catalyst, in a survey last year of its own member companies, which represent a wide variety of industries including hospitality, found that 69 percent had formal mentoring programs, and of those, 74 percent had mentoring programs dedicated to women.

“Individuals who do have a mentor report they receive better career advice, were offered insight into an organization’s work environment that they were unaware of, and one of the greatest benefits is they were exposed to their mentor’s network of influential people in the organization,” says Michael Chamberlain, brand manager for Catalyst.

Some large restaurant and on-site foodservice companies have created affinity groups for women and minority employees to create networking and mentoring opportunities intended to help individuals in their career development and prepare them for bigger roles.

Compass Group’s Americas division, based in Charlotte, N.C., recently launched a Women’s Leadership Network with events in Charlotte and Atlanta, where its Morrison Management Specialists division is based.

The networks, which are run by Compass associates, are open to men and women, but the theme and purpose is to develop women to lead, says Vince Berkeley, who joined Compass 18 months ago as chief diversity officer. Before that, he managed similar affinity networking groups at Burger King Corp.



Demonstrate your openness to coaching and feedback.

Listen carefully to your mentor’s advice and incorporate those insights that make sense for your career.

Ask a lot of questions.

Exceed performance expectations.

Inform your mentor of significant career accomplishments and failures.

Share with your mentor the advice that made the most difference for you, and why.

Give back to your mentor. Be loyal.


Act defensive when receiving advice.

Expect a promotion or other reward as the result of a mentoring program.

Feel “entitled” to your mentor’s time and attention.

Be judgmental about your mentor’s experiences or choices.

Breach a confidence.

The networks will broaden opportunities for women to meet potential mentors from other divisions in Compass, he says. Women account for 23 percent of Compass managers.


Build from your own experience.

Think about what you wish you had known.

Think about who mentored you and what you learned.

Share what you know.

Translate the unwritten rules. Explain how information is transmitted.

Share your failures.

Open doors and set up contacts.

Provide internal and external professional contacts for the mentee.

Arrange for the mentee to participate in high visibility activities.

Provide perspective.

Help your mentee to recognize his/her challenges—and to ride them out.

Be candid. Serve as a reality check when your mentee faces conflicts.

Enjoy the benefits of being a mentor.

Take advantage of the two-way source of advice and perspective.

Gain a sense of fulfillment from passing your wisdom to others.

Know the limits to mentoring.

Respect confidentiality.

Don’t feel you have to know all the answers.

From “Creating Successful Mentoring Programs: A Catalyst Guide,” Catalyst, 2002.

“The whole idea here is to help women progress up the ranks of management by exposing them to senior management as role models,” Berkeley says. “If you look at the most progressive organizations that are close to mastering this thing called diversity, they have affinity groups. It’s those companies that haven’t realized the value all their associates bring to the table that are slow to go after ideas like this.”

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