Aaron White, senior vice president and co-chief operating officer of Brinker International Inc., was chosen for the NRN Power List by CEO Wyman Roberts for how she “balances driving long-erm results and cultivating a strong, family-like culture among her team.” Here’s what else Roberts had to say:
Each day, Aaron White brings a unique perspective, breadth of restaurant experience, and “ChiliHead” passion to her leadership role. You could say hospitality runs through her veins.
Aaron approaches leadership as a coach. She provides the tools and guidance to empower and develop others. And ultimately, she balances driving long-term results and cultivating a strong, family-like culture among her team.
This year, Aaron will celebrate 20 years with Chili’s. She joined the Brinker family as a server and later was promoted to general manager, where she was recognized in 2008 as Brinker’s first female general manager of the year — the company’s highest honor for operators. She went on to hold several leadership roles in PeopleWorks (human resources), franchise operations and Chili’s operations services. In 2020, she was promoted to senior vice president and co-chief operating officer.
This past year, Aaron successfully integrated 116 franchise restaurants and their team members into Chili’s company-owned system, was a key player in Chili’s COVID-19 response and continually advocated for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and representation in leadership. Aaron has made countless contributions to Brinker, but it’s her passion for developing others that continues to set her apart as a leader.
Nation’s Restaurant News talked with Aaron White about navigating the challenges of 2020 and building a diverse and inclusive company culture. Here’s what she had to say:
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned during this chaotic year?
The stressors and challenges of 2020 have reminded me of the importance of focusing on well-being, both at work and in our personal lives — and not only for myself, but for my team. Through active listening and empathy, I seek to understand the individual obstacles team members are facing that may be impacting their well-being — someone may be a caretaker for an at-risk individual, while another person is balancing the challenges of virtual school for young children.
As I prioritize time to self-reflect on my own well-being, I’ve found support in Brinker’s Women Take the Lead (WTL) development program, where I have the opportunity to connect with others and talk through experiences and challenges — even if they’re different. When we make space to understand our people's unique, personal challenges, we create a sense of belonging and help each other to be our best selves both at home and in our restaurants.
What are you most proud of in terms of company leadership and community impact as you look back at the challenges of 2020?
I am so proud of the way Brinker’s leadership team prioritized taking care of our team members throughout the pandemic. We went above and beyond on safety practices, kept our entire operations management team employed and quickly acted to provide $15 million in relief pay while continuing benefits for hourly team members who lost shifts when dining rooms temporarily closed. We stayed focused on team development, connection and culture when we needed it most. While the restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, we stayed proactive and focused. We didn’t cut our menu and leaned into technology and systems to provide a safe, convenient, best-in-class guest experience.
How are you or your company fostering diverse and inclusive future leaders of foodservice?
Nothing is more important to me than paving the way for more diversity in senior leadership positions. As a company, we are leaning in to support underrepresented groups through training, education and development, to empower diverse team members and support their personal and professional goals. We start by recognizing and celebrating our differences to create an environment where individual strengths and stories are respected and valued.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to listen to firsthand stories from team members across the country on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as obstacles they’re facing, and opportunities to improve our programs. I am also actively involved in Brinker’s WTL program since its start in 2015, whether I’m facilitating discussions or mentoring others. WTL is an inclusive career development program designed to empower female leadership by providing customized training, mentorships and access to resources like the Women’s Foodservice Forum. The workplace is continually evolving, and I’m proud that we’re growing along with it.