Aaron White was promoted to chief people officer for Brinker International in October. In this role, she oversees recruitment and retention, talent selection, learning and development, and diversity, equity and inclusion.
The DEI piece is particularly important to her. In an interview earlier this week at the Women’s Foodservice Forum, White said she wants her professional legacy to be the cultivation of a diverse leadership bench.
“The only way you’re going to change the future is if we change who is sitting in the room making the decisions,” White said. “It’s not just about gender, it’s about thought, race, all of those things. We have to make intentional choices to make changes.”
White undoubtedly has a unique perspective here, as there isn’t exactly an abundance of women in the c-suite in the restaurant industry. Her path to this position has been long and “kind of winding,” as she calls it, and started about 26 years ago as a team member for Chili’s.
“I fell in love with the brand and met some of my best friends there who remain my best friends to this day,” White said.
She poured herself into the job. After college graduation, she became a manager at Chili’s, then a general manager. In 2008, she was named Brinker’s and Chili’s first female GM of the year. She then moved on to become director of operations. The path was forward versus “winding,” but then she decided to take a lateral move to the training and development side of the business. For the most part, she was comfortable. But deep down, she wanted more. About seven years ago, she experienced a sort of “a-ha” moment at the Women’s Foodservice Forum conference when a speaker challenged the women in the room to raise their hand for opportunities.
“She was on the edge of her seat with all of this intensity talking about how men will raise their hand for any opportunities maybe not even knowing how to do the job, while many times women are second guessing ourselves and telling ourselves all the reasons why we can’t do the job. She asked us what we would tell our younger selves,” White said. “How many times have I not raised my hand over the last 15 years that could have put me in a different place? It really hit home.”
So, about two weeks later, she raised her hand for a vice president of operations opportunity. She described the room as going silent for a bit “with a few head nods and smiles" and wasn't sure what to think. Then Kelli Valade, who was Chili’s president at the time, gave her the green light for the job shortly thereafter.
“That was the catapult of my career, and it was all because I was told to start listening to the right voices in my head. That (WFF) moment was transformational for me,” White said.
About a year after moving into the VP role, White was promoted to senior vice president/COO, where she spent a year and a half before moving into the EVP/CPO role in October. Now that she better understands how to simply stop second guessing herself, she wants to impart that wisdom onto others. This role gives her a better chance to do just that.
“In this industry, I believe you can be anything you want to be. But we’ve got to tell these stories to break down the barriers. It starts with us, one leader at a time, and sometimes it’s just telling people, ‘You’ve got this – put your mind to it and treat people with respect,’” White said.
White often relies on three pieces of advice for her teams at Brinker – raise your hand, one she calls Q-Tip (quit taking it personally) and another called “courageous choice.”
“Q-tip is important because sometimes we tend to take things personally when people may just be giving us feedback to make us better,” she said. “I keep a Post-it beside my bed that says ‘courageous choice’ because every day you have to make sure you’re listening to the right voice – the advocate saying, ‘You can do this. You’ve got this.’ Some days are easier than others, but just making sure you set your own destiny.”
The north star on her leadership roadmap, which includes these affirmations, is building a diverse bench for each role and maintaining a strong culture in the process. One of the enablers of that priority is Chili’s sharpened focus on simplification. When CEO Kevin Hochman came on board last year, he announced a plan to streamline operations and reduce complexity to grow the core business. This “multiyear” simplification strategy includes everything from enhancing equipment to streamlining the menu.
“Part of that culture piece is simplification. The industry has been hit hard around turnover and one of the ways we stabilize jobs is to make sure we’re not overcomplicating things,” White said. “And this simplification gives us more room to focus and takes away some of the obstacles for our team members. It gives us room to think about other things that are important, like DEI.”
White’s urgency about this work comes from her own experiences – as a young girl from East Tennessee who was the first college graduate among all of her cousins – and wanting to pay it forward. Her urgency also comes from wanting to provide others with that same “a-ha” moment she had seven years ago when she was told to raise her hand.
“It’s been rough since the pandemic for our industry in general, but especially for women. We’ve got to change that narrative and think differently,” White said. “The great thing about this role is it gives me a seat at the table and the voice to make a decision, and it allows me to build that diverse bench and really see in people what they may not see in themselves.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]