Blog Post

The Next Generation of Women Lead Differently–And How That Builds Business

April 17, 2018

Sodexo is widely regarded as a world-class diversity and inclusion leader, as demonstrated by its 10 years on the Best Companies for Multicultural Women and five years on the Top Companies for Executive Women lists, and recognition on the first (2017) Inclusion Index. The food-services and facilities-management company recently released a significant five-year gender study, linking gender-balanced teams to higher operating margins, employee retention and client satisfaction, among other business indicators. We sat down with Lorna Donatone, CEO of Geographic Regions and North American Region Chair, to discuss the reasons for the gender study and her own personal and professional thoughts on women’s leadership.

Why did Sodexo take on such an ambitious gender-equity study (involving 50,000 managers across 70 entities worldwide)?

The first gender-equity study we did was in 2014. The impetus was that we had a lot of data and business case information outside of our organization. We knew what would resonate would be our own data. We’ve completed another study and it proves that there is this band between 40 and 60 percent gender-balanced teams where they perform better than all KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), whether it’s traditional business KPIs or engagement.

Our recently retired global CEO (MIchel Landel) put the line in the sand and said by 20/20 we’re going to be 40 percent women globally. Now that’s what we work towards and I think it’s achievable. It’s not going to happen by itself. It’s going to happen with a lot of hard work and a lot of personal involvement by our leadership.

How are you able to implement your goals around female representation?

We put some fundamentals in place around hiring and recruiting, balanced slates, posting of jobs. We have a mandatory “Spirit of Inclusion” training that all employees go through. At the executive level, we have mentoring programs. We’re just getting ready to kick off a sponsorship program, where the regional leadership program takes some ownership of that. It’s a harder one because you need to have a relationship with somebody to have that sponsorship. We have a women’s network group that’s very active and we use external partners.

In the foodservice industry, where employees staff clients’ workplaces, is it harder offer a flexible workplace?

It’s a good question because it’s been a barrier to our leadership even looking at flexibility because they say, “We are at clients’ sites and you must be here, having to do these jobs.” But the more we look at that, the more we’ve seen flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have to be there. Flexibility might be around hours; it might be around job sharing–it can be a host of different things. We’re finding that our clients are quite helpful and willing to partner because their employees are asking the same thing.

Is travel an issue for women at the higher levels?

We definitely have the “road warrior syndrome.” Historically, that’s been the way that we have communicated with our teams and our clients– to be there. My generation of leadership is kind of used to that. The generation of leadership coming up now is not going to do that. They’re not going to make the sacrifices as much nor do they need to if the workplace is changing. We have to get more people comfortable with the use of technology and virtual meetings. But there is also in the service business a people aspect — you need to establish relationships and it’s very difficult to do that virtually. There are some ways of working that can be modified. You don’t always have to get on the airplane. You can do it differently.

I don’t talk about balance. I talk about effectiveness. Am I being effective in my work-life and my personal life? The company is not going to make those choices for me. The company is going to ask a lot of me but it’s up to me to put some boundaries and restrictions on that from my own personal life and get my job done at the same time.

On a personal note, you suffered a terrible loss five years ago when your husband died of pancreatic cancer. How did that change you as a leader?

My whole life I’ve learned so much more through hardship than through the good times. This definitely changed me as a leader. I’ve always been a people person. I’ve always led with what’s best for the teams because I learned a long time ago that business is made up of people. You take care of people and the business is going to take care of itself.

But this taught me about the importance of an empowered team. When I had to step back, there was an empowered team there ready to step in. They very quickly said, “We’ve got your back and do what you have to do.” I had a 24-year-old daughter, two stepkids, various family members. I’m such a caretaker that I want to make sure everybody’s OK. There were choices I had to make. I think until something like that happens, you don’t realize how impactful it is on people’s lives and you bring it into the workplace.

What would you do differently now than before this happened?

I will choose personal over work more often and allow others to do that as well. I will do it more for myself. I’ve always been supportive of others but it’s the self-care thing that I certainly learned more about. That’s evolved over time. There are times when business has to come first and there are times when personal has to come first. If you are working for an organization that is inclusive, and if you are working for an organization that values people, you are going to be able to do that. If you’re working for a company that doesn’t, you are going to very quickly find out. I feel fortunate to have been where I was at that time. But it was as much about my team. I could be involved as much as I wanted to in the business and the business still ran. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Do women leaders lead differently than male leaders?

My generation of leadership, my first five or 10 years of business, was about how you fit in, how you look like and act like men. We were told, “Don’t stand out and don’t be different.” But I have seen women lead more collaboratively by nature. We can’t broad-brush an entire gender. There are a lot of very collaborative men. As a whole, women look for consensus yet women will also take action. We’re going to get it done.

I think women are more comfortable with a diverse team. We’ve proven now that diverse teams are more productive. When I have had teams that are balanced, both ethnically and with other dimensions of diversity including gender diversity, those are the best teams I’ve led by far. They are much more fun. There are so many different personalities and different backgrounds. From a business perspective, they perform better and they challenge each other. The thing about homogenous teams is there’s less challenge because there’s more group think.

Women operate a little easier in a matrix environment and right now, we are in a matrix environment. The leaders who are struggling are those who need command and control. I think it’s fine that women lead differently. We are different.

How are you a role model for your daughter, who is about to become a mother?

My daughter (Catherine) is 29. She is having a baby in June. She is in grad school getting her doctorate in psychology and is a Cross-fit coach. When she was 14 or 15, I was starting to travel quite a bit and work a lot. We were in the car one day and she said to me, “You know what, Mama? I know I have to work. I know I have to support myself but I don’t want to work like you.”

I went back to work when she was three months old. My husband worked. We were fortunate. We really found great care providers for her. I wanted to work. I think I was a better mom for Catherine because of that. Then my husband retired when she was about 8, so he was the stay-at-home parent for really the rest of the time before she went to college. It really gave me an opportunity to travel as I needed to as my career was growing.

My advice? You have to be a fulfilled individual, however that works. Things change. She wants to plan everything. I’m like: “Life’s going to happen. You do the best you can. Just make your choices for the right reasons and they’re going to be OK.” And I’m here to help her. I am all about the grandma thing now. I’m totally ready for it. I want to be able to be there for her. So, I’ll make choices, too. It’s learning to say no more than anything.