Sodexo top leader saw her career flourish after being tapped to head up women’s diversity effort.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
Lorna Donatone was appointed Sodexo’s Region Chair for North America and CEO of Schools worldwide in January, overseeing 133,000 employees and all Sodexo business in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.
Her rise in leadership at the company has been impressive, but she wondered early on if taking on a diversity role at the company would hurt her career. Clearly, it did not, and it actually helped propel career.
Here is the first in our new video series, Leadership Career Advice, where Donatone shares a story about taking on the role of leading Sodexo’s Women’s Network Group in 2002.
And the following is a Q&A with Donatone conducted by DiversityInc’s CEO Luke Visconti.
LUKE VISCONTI: Studies show that women and minorities who support and promote diversity at their organizations often pay a career price. Clearly, that wasn’t the case at Sodexo. Why?
LORNA DONATONE: The whole question about paying a career price for being focused on diversity and inclusion, I think, exists. I think I would be naïve to believe that it didn’t exist. It was exactly the opposite for me, though, and I want to tell you a story, because it was a big concern of mine. I first got on the executive committee as a new division president in 2002, around the same time as we were starting our diversity and inclusion initiatives, and really getting focused on that, and Rohini [Anand] was here. And I was asked to chair our Women’s Network Group. And we were launching. And I had never done any work in the diversity space. And I was concerned that being new on the executive committee, I was going to be labeled.
DONATONE: That was a big concern of mine. And so I went to my boss at the time, Michel Lendel, and I asked him, because by that time in my career, I knew if I have a question I just need to ask. And I said, “I am concerned I am going to get labeled as just focusing on diversity issues. And I want to be known for results.” And he looked at me, in probably one of the shortest meetings in my whole life, and he said, “If not you, then who, Lorna?” And we concluded the meeting. I walked out. And I became chair of the Women’s Network Group. And it was fantastic for my career.
VISCONTI: Now I don’t want to minimize the role that Michel Lendel had in this. Not every boss is going to get it.
VISCONTI: So you have a global CEO who truly does understand the subject.
DONATONE: Yes, and I think it’s why Sodexo has become the organization that we have become, because he has been laser-focused on that. He saw it early on. He pushed the organization. We hired a fantastic chief diversity officer who made us take a hard look at ourselves, at our processes, our procedures, our hiring practices, the inclusive nature of our organization or the lack of inclusiveness. And then he made it a safe space to do that. I could easily have had a CEO who didn’t want that. And he was like, “This is the only way we are going to change, you know. You are sitting at the executive committee; who better to role model this behavior?”
VISCONTI: Well in essence, he was mentoring you. And so that goes to the second question: how do your mentors and your sponsors help you in your career? And were you a good mentee? And could you have advanced without a sponsor?
DONATONE: I’ll answer two different ways. Mentors and sponsors, I didn’t really ever catch on to the value of a mentor until late in my career. I sometimes sit back and go, “Would I have progressed faster? Would I have been a different leader?” I don’t know without a mentor, because I tell people now, it is absolutely critical that you get a mentor at all phases of your career. And right now, I am managing a global team, and I am asking them all, they are very senior level executives, to get a mentor in another country — somebody who is going to be able to help you view who you are as a leader, how you run your business from a different point of view. So I think it’s absolutely valuable. I have had them since I started my involvement in our diversity and inclusion strategy. And for me, it helps me take an inward look. For me it’s a mentor. It’s about helping identify blind spots, roadblocks, if I want to make a career move. And so I have had many, many, both inside and outside. I have had a gentleman outside of Sodexo as a mentor since about 2003 who’s just really, really helpful for me.
The sponsor, I believe that it’s critical, especially for women and minorities, somebody who knows your skillset and advocates on your behalf. And I think we are just in the beginning of that here. I think that trying to first help folks understand the difference between mentoring and sponsorship, and then taking ownership as a sponsor, as an advocate. And I have been fortunate to have a number of sponsors within the organization.
But first, you have to bring the résumé to the table. How are you running the business? Or how are you running your part of the organization? Are they comfortable to say you have the leadership skills? You can go to any part of the organization. And that was what really helped propel me in my career. Demonstrate the leadership skills to get a part of the business through difficult times, to grow the business, to do something. And then those leadership skills, in my opinion, are transferable to anything.
VISCONTI: So you talked about the résumé, your résumé, and what you brought to the table. How else could you be a good mentee, or a good sponsee?
DONATONE: Well, I think the most valuable thing is that you have to be open to constructive criticism. You have to be open to learning. You have to have a learning mindset. I have worked with mentees who do not have a learning mindset, and it doesn’t work. And we usually don’t continue. But for me, I think I was a decent mentee, because I know I am not done learning. Regardless of where I am in my career, I know somebody in the room has something to offer that I don’t know. And I see that in people I seek out. How did you get here? How did you do that? Or how did you deal with this?
And now I am in a part of my career where training really stops, to a large part, the further you go in your career, if you allow it to, because there is some assumption that you know how to do this. But then you are given different challenges and different opportunities where the skillset might be a little bit different. Right now, for me, I’m doing a lot of global management. And up until a year and a half ago, that was new to me. I was certainly, because we are a global organization, exposed to different leadership styles, different parts of the business. But to actually manage it is different. And I had to be willing to ask some questions, and especially around cultural differences. I can’t manage the same way that I do in the U.S. in other places, and it’s not up to them to change. It’s up to me.
VISCONTI: What kinds of things would you recommend that people do to stay on top of their game, and to signal to people that they are worthy of investment?
DONATONE: I think that what I would recommend to people, and especially in today’s environment, is that you have to stay current with what’s happening. You have to stay current with what’s happening in your industry and what changes are happening in your industry, whether that’s making sure you read the trade feeds or whatever. Everything I read today is mostly online. And now I need to be much more aware of global.
Before I could get my daily fill with the Skimm, which is an entertaining way to get the news. And now, I was at a dinner, and I asked somebody, “How do you keep up on the international side?” And they said, “I read the Courts,” which is something that I had never heard of, and so now I read that every day. But I would say to people that you really do need to stay up on current events, because I was in an interview, and this was a few months ago, and they were talking about Brexit. It was the first time I had heard it. Had I been reading up more globally, I would have been more aware.
So I think that’s important, but I also think it’s important to keep up with your industry. And I also think it’s important to keep up with your community, where you are, and how does your business impact, and how can you impact, your community, because, especially here at Sodexo, we are so focused on the communities with which we serve in that our teams need to be involved in the communities so that we can be a part of that.
VISCONTI: What diversity management emphasis will you bring to your new position?
DONATONE: I think where I can bring emphasis on our D&I journey now is on a global level. It’s keeping the focus and not stepping back, because I’m sure, as you know, the minute you step back there is a chance to backslide. Keeping the focus, how do we continue to evolve? But also then assisting, as I am currently doing, but even more so on a global basis. And where are the challenges there? And where can we have impact? And where can I have impact?
I think also, from a personal perspective, one of the areas that I feel strongly about is pipeline. And it is so challenging to be able to quickly identify ready talent when opportunities come up. And we have a very robust process to identify talent. We have a robust hiring process, but, to be able to identify the most diverse, the best talent, whether it’s internal, or external, it’s still not enough. It’s still not enough.
And so, I really feel strongly that in the next couple of years, if I can have any impact on that, on helping break down some of our barriers to that, and that may be how we talk about jobs, the different areas we are targeting, it could be all sorts of things. But I think it’s where I can have a value.
VISCONTI: Do you think that, because of the concept of diversity at Sodexo, you have an easier time identifying talent, or even identifying more talent, than maybe an average company would be able to?
DONATONE: I think because of our lens on diversity that we have the processes in place to identify that we are equipping folks with the right skillsets and the right leaderships to be able to be ready for that, and then identifying that talent, because we are incredibly diverse in our business. But, like most all companies, once people start to grow in their career, then we are having fall off.
VISCONTI: Do you have any thoughts on growing professional women, and where those fall offs occur? Which, from what I’ve seen, remarkably coincide with when professional couples have children, which is in their early thirties.
VISCONTI: Do you have any thoughts about how to not have those women opt out, or not opt for the next position that will put them in the spotlight for a promotion, or that they opt out of the workforce for a period of time, and then can never be competitive when they come back in? Do you have any thoughts on that?
DONATONE: I think it’s a big, big challenge for women in the workforce, and for companies, of how do we create a culture that’s going to be inclusive enough to allow women to go different paths. There are a lot of positions that you can work out of your home with at Sodexo, and we are very virtual. We just as a culture are virtual, and we are okay with it. But there are parts of our business where, operationally, that doesn’t work, and that flexibility goes away. But I think that what we have to do is we have to create the culture, and whether it’s the policies or the culture that say it’s okay to step away, you can program for that.
We can say it’s okay to do that, and to come back, and then reenter, and here is how. Here are different career paths. One is going to go like this. One is going to go like this, and the infamous lattice type of a career, or one is going to go like this, with a break in service, and here is your path back, but to define the path back, because right now, in most all companies, it’s you who has to figure out the path back. And I think if we want to be really leading edge, we need to define the path back. Here is that one-year break. Here is a two-year break. Here is a three-year break. Here would be the path back. Maybe you have to reenter this way, or that way, but I think that’s great work to do because, as you well know, women will go off and start their own business because they will have more flexibility, they will look for other opportunities. And with us, that site-based business requires that.
But also, I think we have to stop thinking like we used to. Does the district manager have to do what they have always done? Does a general manager have to do what they have always done? And that’s hard, because we have clients in the middle who are used to a certain structure. But if we propose something different, would they be open to that? I think that’s some of the thinking we need to do.
The other thing I wanted to follow up on, because that question about, and the story I told about Michel, and if not you, then who, and I just wanted to connect why that propelled my career.
VISCONTI: Oh, okay, that’s great.
DONATONE: For me, I really do believe that my involvement in diversity and inclusion was an accelerator of my career, because when I first got on the executive committee at Sodexo, I was running Spirit Cruises, and I was running a business that was separate and apart from the organization. I wasn’t housed in the same building. I had some involvement but it was very little with the core business, very easy to get lost. As long as I hit my numbers, people left me alone.
Well, because of that involvement in diversity and inclusion, and we were growing WING at that time, our Women’s Network Group, or business resource group, I got out to a large part of the organization as we grew it, and we grew regional chapters. And I would go and do all of the kickoffs. And so I was out. I met all sorts of people. I got to know leadership because the CEO, and CFO, and everyone was involved in our diversity journey.
Well, then in 2006, we sold Spirit. And so I very much wanted to stay with the organization, and the organization wanted me to stay. And I don’t think that would have happened. It would have ben very easy to just leave. Nobody would have known me. But because of that involvement in diversity and inclusion, I was exposed to a great part of the organization. And at that point I came in as president of school services. So I went from running a $50 million business to a $600 million business. And I really attribute a lot of that to that exposure that I got. And it’s when I talk to folks about getting in leadership roles in our ABRGs, I’m like, “This is as good for you as it is for the company. You’re going to meet people you never would have; this is a large company. You could stay in your little part of it and never get outside of it.” And I have told that story a lot of times because I believe it.
VISCONTI: So your leadership role in the resource group allowed you to have exposure to other leaders, which facilitated the success of your career.
DONATONE: Absolutely, and developed my leadership skills.
VISCONTI: Well that’s an important point too, because you had to run something.
DONATONE: And I had to get out, and I had to do a lot of speaking. I had to grasp onto things I didn’t know. I had not been involved in diversity and inclusion up until that point. And so it really was an accelerator. And with things changing and moving so rapidly today, I think that’s the other thing that our organization is challenged with, is change as a constant.
And you have to get used to that. Everybody is waiting for that day when it will calm down. And it’s just not. It’s not. And so how do we then equip our teams to deal with that change? And I could see a great employee resource group around change, the constancy of change, and being able to help others do that, because I think certainly the millennials are more used to that pace.
VISCONTI: They are also not used to identifying strictly by race, or gender, or orientation.
DONATONE: Exactly, exactly.
VISCONTI: So that’s a whole other problem that resource groups have.
DONATONE: That’s a good point.
VISCONTI: It’s that the younger people tend to shy away from them, thinking they don’t need them.
DONATONE: I think at one point, our fastest growing resource group was, as we called it, The Generations, and because everybody could identify, and everybody had a part in that. So I think that’s a great point. It’s a great point about the evolution of the EBRGs. What is that next thing? And I think that’s the thing. We have to look at every part of our business now. Everything is changing.