Monday, March 11, 2013

We lean toward leaning forward. Amen to that.

A new phrase has entered the vernacular, courtesy of the fast-selling new book from Google COO Sheryl Sandburg: Lean forward. You may not have heard it uttered in the restaurant business, but that’s only because our paradigms of female success have been too busy advancing to master the lingo.

Sandburg’s thesis is a contradiction of the idea that women lean back from ambition. We need to sit her down with a margarita and a burger and do some serious talking, because female ambition and success are hardly a novelty in our business. Our women have been leaning forward since the days of Allie Marriott, Joan Kroc, June Martino, Esther Snyder, Sue Aramian, Ella Brennan and Maude Chasen.

Forget for a minute the women who’ve risen to top jobs by proving that smarts trump testosterone anytime. Liz Smith heads Bloomin’ Brands, a.k.a. Outback Steakhouse, an operation that all but required its executives to wear a jock and cup. She’s a former president of Avon, but you’re a fool if you doubt she can play as hard-knuckles as need be in headquarters, the boardroom, and meetings with investors.

Sandra Cochran is the CEO of Cracker Barrel, a company founded by a brilliant but old-school force who referred to powerful women like Hillary Clinton as femin-Nazis. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it wasn’t easy for a woman to rise in that culture. Anyone think she’s not been masterful in handling a takeover challenge from Sardar Biglari?

If there’s a better quick-service turnaround artist than Cheryl Bachelder, the Harry Potter who’s resurrected Popeyes despite the Vegas odds, please point her out. But don’t waste your time by singing the praises of Linda Lang, chief of Jack in the Box. I got religion on her, dude. She’s the real deal. I said “turnaround.”

Do I need to mention Sally Smith, the CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, or Julia Stewart, the deal maker who turned IHOP into the most powerful franchisor this side of McDonald’s? They lean forward so much that I fear a fall.

And don’t forget the other side of the foodservice business, the so-called non-commercial sector. Lorna Donatone is COO of the school feeding operations of Sodexo, the contract-feeding giant.  What she does day to day should be an inspiration to any government bureaucrat—wracking up accomplishments, with a budget that sounds like a college student’s allowance.

Mary Molt, assistant director of Kansas State University’s dining operations, literally wrote the book on high-volume feeding. If your child ate in a school cafeteria, wolfed down a college breakfast, or even ate a tray-delivered lunch in a hospital, the meal was a lot better because of the practices that Mary codified.  I’d suggest she’s been leaning forward for decades, but I’d fear a slap for suggesting she’s out of her 20s (I wouldn’t suggest such a thing, but some say that Mary is about to start her fourth decade in the business.)

We in foodservice have had women leaning forward since the industry’s birth. But we welcome Sandburg’s advisory to seize ambition and aim for the big jobs.

Ours is an industry of opportunity. Any theory that underscores that point will get an amen from us. And a big cheer for all those who’ve proven in our business that ability trumps gender, regardless of how your body is leaning.

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