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Women in Foodservice
Yum Brands' COO/CPO Tracy Skeans at this year's Women's Foodservice Forum.

Yum Brands’ Tracy Skeans: ‘Reducing inequality is the biggest body of work we can do to change the world’

Tracy Skeans, who served as the 2022 board chair for the WFF, believes the pandemic accelerated efforts to reduce inequality and changed the approach of leadership to be more inclusive.

Tracy Skeans joined Yum Brands in 2000 and has since worked her way up through the ranks gaining experience in finance, HR, business transformation, operations, food safety, culture, talent – name it.

Now, as the company’s chief operating officer and chief people officer, she oversees many parts of the global restaurant company. But when it comes to what she’s most passionate about, it’s gender parity. In fact, Skeans has spent the past several years as a board member for the Women’s Foodservice Forum, including as chair in 2022.

It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that Skeans’ company walks the walk on this issue. Yum Brands is a founding member of the WFF, for instance, as well as a member of the Paradigm for Parity coalition. It has been recognized for its efforts by the Bloomberg Gender-Equity Index, Forbes’ “Best Employers for Diversity” list, Fortune’s “World’s Most Admired Companies” list, Newsweek’s “America’s Greatest Places for Women” list and more.

Notably, the company’s Paradigm for Parity membership includes a pledge to achieve gender parity in global leadership positions by 2030, and the company is well on its way to meeting that goal. Currently, more than 42% of the company’s leadership positions are held by women, up materially from about 30% when the goal was first announced just five years ago.

During an interview at this year’s WFF, Skeans said the number of initiatives that exist throughout Yum’s entire enterprise – approximately 55,000 restaurants in 155 markets – are “almost countless at this point.”

“We’ve made tremendous progress. What I feel great about is that we have them for women at all levels of the organization,” she said. “We’re certainly not stopping until we make more progress and are focused on making the pipeline stronger.”

That means providing training, skills, support, sponsorship, networks – all of the tools the company can manage with intention.

“I would never want what we’re doing to seem like a program of the month. I think programs for programs’ sake won’t ever get you there. If it’s done in an authentic way, people start to ask why it’s important,” Skeans said.

Yum has a unique advantage here in having such scale and a diversity of markets and brands, which enables the company to extend best practice learnings across the system. One example is the company’s Lead It Forward program, launched In 2019 to simply connect senior director-and-above women leaders.  

“The intent was to help those executive women know that each other was out there because with a very decentralized business and with, at the time, three brands, you might not even had known that there was this leadership in Taco Bell or at KFC in Singapore,” Skeans said. “What happened is a lot of female leaders went back to their markets and focused on mid-level women. It’s almost like a trickle-down effect.”

Skeans said the company is focused on collaboration and not “re-creating the wheel.” She recently visited the Middle East to put this focus into play, learning of a program implemented in those markets called “SHINE" [Sponsor, Help, Inspire, Narrate, Encourage]. Essentially, SHINE brings together a small group of about eight-to-10 women at roughly the same stage in their careers to share best practices and support each other. It is now rolling out to the entire KFC system.

“These women were able to come together and lean on one another and acknowledge that they’re all feeling similar things but wanted to grow. Their group, their cohort, would say ‘you should go for this’ and encourage each other. The simplicity of that support system is now being replicated throughout the KFC system,” Skeans said.

Skeans adds that the business case quickly became clear in markets with this program; restaurants with these cohorts yielded stronger results.

“It’s working. And it’s a model that worked based on the fairly basic premise that people need support from people who get them. To see these women rising up and now being a bit more bold because they’re encouraging each other has been inspiring. That’s just one example,” she said.

Pulling together a group of 10 women at similar stages in their careers to encourage each other is certainly not rocket science, and it’s not complex. But, especially in a system the size of Yum, it requires intention. For example, who are the women, where will they meet, how often, how will the company empower them to share their stories? Indeed, intent has been one of the biggest barriers to gender equity in the restaurant space, but Yum has gotten better at it since the onset of the pandemic, Skeans said, when the industry experienced a significant erosion of its workforce.

“The silver lining of the pandemic for a company like Yum is that it helps us learn more specifically what people need to still be able to get to work, thrive in their organizations and manage what they have to manage,” she said. That means a franchisee in India who started offering a home leave benefit so employees could more easily be able to see their families after lockdowns lifted. It means adjusting meeting times for workers who have to manage the carpool line at their kids’ schools. It means offering more flexibility in general.

“We’ve done a lot of things to enable women to have more flexibility. Men, too,” she said, adding that the pandemic has shifted the approach to leadership. That shift, she believes, will benefit women leaders in particular.

“I now think that leadership includes with your heart as much as leading with your head. Coming out of Covid, industries and corporate America are going to be more susceptible to understanding we need leaders that aren’t just by-the-book leaders, but empowering caregivers. I think you’re going to see a lot more senior women tap into that part of themselves,” she said. “They are smart and strategic and hard charging, but they also lead with their heart in a much more inclusive way and that’s going to be valued more and we’ll see some breakthroughs from that.”

For Yum, those breakthroughs will also continue to come from both its major programs – like its Unlocking Opportunity Initiative that includes a $100 million investment to fight inequality – and its smaller efforts, like ensuring culture and talent updates are included in earnings releases.

“All of those more informal touchpoints, I believe, make a big difference because it gets the energy of our program out into the ecosystem of our company more,” Skeans said. “We’ve been very purposeful and planful in our three main areas – people, food and planet. On people, we always want to be out front leading on those initiatives.”

Walking the walk with simple, replicable work, and for the betterment of not just Yum Brands, but the entire industry – this is what motivates Skeans to execute the company’s “countless” programs and extend that knowledge elsewhere. And, she’s more optimistic than ever.

“I think this is the biggest body of work we can do to, quite frankly, change the world. The restaurant industry serves and employs people from all walks of life,” she said. “If we as an industry can figure out how to make our leadership more and more diverse, the ripple effect of that going into every other industry we touch could make meaningful change in the world in reducing inequality.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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