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What Opportunity Looks Like

Published June 24, 2016

A set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something. I love that definition of opportunity! As I look back over my career as a leader I can identify several times where the circumstances I experienced led to an opportunity for me to do more and contribute at a higher level. Without exception, each time I was given an opportunity, it was always rooted in the fact that someone believed in me. 
“I am a leader because someone told me I could be.” I read that quote several months ago that deeply resonated with me because that is my story. I had very few bright prospects in 1985 as a 17-year old crew member at McDonald’s or at least that is how it appeared to me. What I did not realize is that over the course of my first year at McDonald’s in 1984, my manager Wanda Ford saw something in me that I did not see in myself, which that was a leader. This came on the heels of another manager Brenda Weiss, who after a few months, gave me a chance to work the front counter even though I had a profound stutter. So when Wanda approached me and said “I want you to complete the first Management Development Program module” I was incredibly surprised, but also really excited about the opportunity.
Of course back in 1985 there was no such thing as an Internal Career Fair, but she developed me nonetheless and invested in me to teach me the basic management skills of how to run a shift, count down cash, and manage others, building on the leadership skills she saw below the surface. This experience changed my life and set me on course for a lifetime in the restaurant industry and I have always held this experience close to me as I have grown in my influence and made it a point to invest in the people around me at the highest possible level.
But in 2005, as an Operations Director for Chipotle, a leader that I deeply respect, Jean Wallace, presented some learnings from a meeting she had with In N Out on how they built their people culture. There was a passing comment about an “Internal Career Fair” and how they used that format to identify future leaders and I latched onto that immediately, so much so that I don’t remember much else from that meeting. I flew to Houston, rallied my team and said “We are doing this!”. So my team and I built the Internal Career Fair process for Chipotle, completely from scratch and it gave me another opportunity to pay it forward. Another opportunity to repay Wanda’s investment in me by creating the opportunity for others to invest in those around them.
I remember in the earliest days of the Internal Career Fairs, when long-time employees who were truly top performers, came to their interviews dressed up, incredibly nervous and proud of all they had accomplished. They were so thrilled to be able to talk to leaders of the company about their work, their restaurant, and their hopes and dreams. There were many times where I got emotional during these meetings. It was impossible not to. We saw the future of our company in their eyes, and we knew that we were on the front end of a movement; a revolution, and there was no turning back.
From 2008-2012, we never had to hire one external candidate for any position in the South Region, across 228 restaurants, which is an accomplishment I give full credit to my teams in the restaurants for the culture that they created to support having the internal talent to promote when we had open positions.
Fast forward to today, where I am privileged to lead an amazing team at Freebirds, where we are about to launch the ICF process again, and once again, we have lightning in a bottle. For our 29-year old brand, we have new life, and we have opportunity. We have the privilege of creating the process by which our Tribe can embrace the career path in front of them to accomplish things in their life they may not have previously thought possible. At Freebirds we are all about opportunity and welcoming new Tribe members and today when we hire someone externally it is because we WANT to, not because we HAVE to, and that is a wonderful place to be. To have so many wonderful leaders already in our organization gives us the chance to do amazing things like relocate an entire management team to Nashville, TN ahead of our brand new restaurant that opens later this year, and I am so proud of that accomplishment.
The future is bright, and I am proud of the momentum we’ve achieved as a brand and look forward to this next generation of leaders and all they will accomplish!