May 18, 2021

Darden’s leaders talk about diversity at the management level

Otis, left, and Lee talked about what it takes for companies to really be inclusive and help people of color become managers and higher-level executives in the restaurant industry.

In part two of a conversation with Darden Restaurants’ Clarence Otis and Gene Lee, the former and current CEOs, talk about how to recruit more people of color into management and executive level positions in the restaurant industry.

What can the industry do to attract more people of color into management?
We have to do a better job of telling the story of the opportunities available in our industry, especially getting the message out in communities of color where fewer people may understand those opportunities to advance exist. Hourly employees can rise up and manage at the store level at company-operated businesses, like Darden, and do it quickly. That employee can make serious money, and even go beyond that to become a multiunit manager and higher.

LEE: One of the things we're focusing on at Darden is making sure our diverse team members understand the opportunities for advancement at our business. We're trying to be much more proactive, instead of sitting back and waiting for them to come to us. When we see talent, we talk to that talent, let them know the opportunities available, and the gaps we need to fill to move them into management positions.

Case in point: We have a very successful managing partner at Capital Grille who opened 19 restaurants as a server, but never thought about going into management until we approached him. He didn't think it was a possibility. Today he runs one of our highest-volume restaurants, and does an incredible job.

What should recruiters do to help people see the opportunities?
A big part is telling them they’re going to enter an environment that’s personally interesting, that they’ll work with different people, and get to know them in a real way that enriches their lives and day-to-day experiences. That’s very attractive to people, the whole notion of coming into a place and starting to have a broader set of experiences where they’re interacting and learning, engaging with and having fun with people who are different than them.

I also might add that leaders should make sure they can see gaps that may exist. They need to see across the dimensions of diversity, and understand what talented black or brown people look like. They also have to make sure they see the obstacles these candidates might face inside their organizations and help them succeed and progress; to eliminate those obstacles.

How do you address the real issues associated with DEI?
It’s important to make sure it's not just formulaic. You have to step back and try to understand what's going on. I’d suggest a cultural audit to figure out how people feel about working at the company, how they feel about the programs already in place. See if there are disparities among different demographic groups.

For example, do men feel different than women? Do younger people feel differently than people who are older than they are? Are there racial disparities? Get a situation assessment and make sure that revamping and revitalizing your program is what you need to do as opposed to something else, something more fundamental, as a first step.

LEE: I think every situation's different, so prescribing at this level is risky. I would want to understand what we're trying to solve for. The comment I’d add is to think culturally. People have a tendency to spend too much time thinking and writing about what they want their culture to be. They don't analyze behavior enough. I’d urge people to look at their behaviors and make sure they're consistent with what they want to become.

All of our leadership, at different levels, goes through different types of DEI training. We build on it in the restaurants, at the support center, and it continues to evolve over time. We need different training today than we did three years ago. There are different issues, so we have to keep evolving from a DEI standpoint.

What are some best practices to move more people of color into the C-suite?
It’s really management basics. You have to have a rigorous talent-assessment process, and figure out how to decide if someone really is talented, has upward mobility potential, and is a high-potential person.

We had a robust talent management function, and assessment centers. We sent people through those assessment centers so we could get away from the bias of having someone identify subjectively who they thought might be talented and who might not be. That kind of process was very important. It was essential to have valid assessments.

LEE: We still have the same robust talent-management system we did when Clarence was CEO. However, I do think there's still one flaw today that might be a little controversial, but it's important to bring up. It’s one of the most crucial things for anyone to grow. In today's world, I don't think we're getting the same kind of mentorship we did years ago. Sometimes being a good mentor means pushing people so that they grow. In this world of 360 feedback and other mechanisms, I think some mentors don’t push people with potential as hard as they could, as hard as they should.

When I think back on some of the mentors I had, I didn't like them all that much because they pushed me to do things I didn't think I could do. Developing mentor/mentee relationships and having permission to push is how people grow. We need to be comfortable pushing our diverse talent to do things they might not think they can do.