In this episode of HRPA’s CEO Corner, Louise Taylor Green, HRPA CEO, meets with Susan Senecal, CEO of A&W Canada. They discuss how to drive a culture of trust in an age of disruption, what A&W is doing to engage millennials and Gen Z workers, and the difference between climate and values — and why HR professionals should prioritize climate in the workplace. 

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Louise: Can you tell us about your story [career trajectory]?

Susan: I joined A&W 29 years ago, so quite a long time and people sometimes ask me, “Isn’t it kind of boring to be the same company for 29 years?” But for me, not at all. I’ve had the benefit. And I think of A&W’s HR practices, actually, and the way that we develop teams, that’s meant that I pretty much had new jobs all the time. Through that journey, I joined A&W in operations when I first started with our corporate restaurants in Montreal.

And from there I was given the opportunity to learn about real-estate and franchising, which were new areas of the business for me. But certainly, I really enjoyed it. And that added a bit of a dimension to my understanding and to my knowledge about the business. And from there, I had different opportunities to lead the franchising of our corporate restaurants in Eastern Canada. I led all of the work in Quebec. We made it a separate little business unit, and that was a great time of learning and so on.

So just step by step by step. I was lucky to be leading marketing at the time when we moved from our Baby Boomer connection over to Millennials. And that was a new chapter for A&W, and it was certainly a brand-new chapter for me. But again, one that I’m enormously grateful for. So, for us, we call it a shoelace approach to the career where you’re not necessarily just moving from one position to another within a department. But you actually go side to side and lateral moves that really give you some greater knowledge and insight into the business as a whole and different relationships, of course, with people across the organization.

Louise: I’m curious about 29 years in one organization. Were there ever times in that where you weren’t sure about saying yes to some of those alternate opportunities? How did you go about figuring out for you whether or not it was right?

Susan: Obviously, every time you’re presented with an opportunity or that you decide to take on an opportunity that you have no experience in, it’s a bit of a challenge and risk because you don’t have that track record. You don’t have that.  But I would say that if the business interests and the business success is what you have at heart and you’re open to change and you’re open to learning and you’re open to sort of what you’re going to encounter, that’s going to be nearly you and different and probably uncomfortable. You have to be comfortable with that discomfort. I think I’m a person that embraces ambiguity quite well. I don’t really have a problem with it. But many people do. And so sometimes I put quotes on the front door of my office.

Some people literally don’t want to read that quote about embracing ambiguity [on my office door]. And of course, people are different so, you have to respect that. And it’s funny but I think that the willingness to understand that you’re going into something new and nobody can really tell you what it’s going to be like. And there is no certainty that it’s going to be a success. So, were there times that I thought am I really the best person? Yeah, for sure. But I think I just got into the habit of saying, yes.

Louise: What would you say to aspiring women about how to deal with either systemic barriers that might get in the way of their career aspirations or being open to taking on newer, different roles?

Susan: There’s a few things people often ask me about A&W. We have a quite balanced (from a gender perspective) leadership team, and actually throughout the organization and certainly within our restaurants as well. And I attribute a lot of that to what we call our climate, which is a set of climate goals that we commit to as we work for A&W and say, I’m committed to improving myself and to improving our overall performance against these goals. And they’re the areas that we think that we need to improve in.

So, they’re not values or things that we think we’re great at. These are things we think that we need to continue to focus on, and one of them we review them each time we do a strategy and one that keeps coming back time and time again. One of them is listening, and one of them is feedback, and they come back in different forms and at different times with different levels of importance and phrasing. But those two things, this idea of ensuring that you’re being listened to and sometimes that requires effort on the part of the speaker or the part of the communicator as well.

Oftentimes I think it’s too easy to just say: “Well, no one listens to me.” But it does sometimes require some effort, and that’s not limited to women. Of course, it’s just rationale and also an openness to changing your mind because dogmatic thinking is not very productive either. If you sort of say, I’m going to stick to my guns no matter what, that’s not the thing that’s going to advance the business. So, it really is that interplay between acting on feedback, listening, being open to learning that I think is most successful.

And I would say that if you find yourself in a situation or with people or with an organization where that doesn’t really work very well, then that’s probably going to be the barrier itself for great minds and great people and talents to advance. And, of course, that would include women.

Louise: Tell us a little bit about food sourcing and sustainability and why they’re important or why the people in A & W are especially proud of that.

Susan: I think the way that I think about it is that food has always been very central to A&W’s success throughout our entire history and quality has been sort of at the core. And as things start to change, moving from the drive-in and moving on to our shopping center business and moving from there to freestanding growth and development across the country. One of the central things that was important to our guests all through that period of time, all through the changes has been at A&W is food quality. And that was paired with nostalgia for the Baby Boomers because a lot of Baby Boomers’ first experience with fast food, with burgers away from home, was at A&W. And so those two were a very powerful set of dynamics that helped us really stand apart in the industry and really stand apart as reasons to choose A&W as we moved over to our Millennial guests and, of course, Millennial staff at the same time as society moved on and the demographics moved on, we knew that that was dominant because for a lot of the Millennials, the nostalgia was not a factor.

They maybe heard their parents talking about A&W, but they didn’t have that personal experience. So, food became even more important. And fortunately, at the time, fortunately for A&W, at least, food was becoming even more important to people. So, you started to have food networks on TV, and you started to have celebrity chefs that were unknown. 20 years ago, people started to pay much more attention to what they were buying and its impact and how it was raised and all of those kinds of things.

And so, we started to think in that way for ourselves about what does that mean for the home of the Burger Family, a group of restaurants that founded itself on great quality. What do we need to think about or change or do? And so, we started to open our minds to what could happen. How could we start to influence? And again, fortunately, we’re at the right size to be big enough to provide a very steady, stable market for innovation. But at the same time, not so huge that we would need years to develop the supply chain in the way that we wanted to.

So, we were able to achieve that incremental and step change sometimes and do it with success. But mostly by using our climate with our partners, our producers, our suppliers, by really having those long-term relationships with them as well. So, everybody wants to help partnerships when they’re long term and they are sustainable themselves. That helps the sustainability of the innovation that we bring about.

Well, I think I mentioned in our earlier conversation that I grew up in Manitoba, and certainly the drive in A&W still existed when I was there. And so, I am one of those parents from a nostalgia perspective, sharing with my own kids the important place that these iconic Canadian brands really do play in our lives. So, turning to the realities, I guess, of the last 17 months or so, the pandemic has just had such a profound effect on workplaces, and certainly in how consumers interact with businesses.

Louise: Were there any particular tactics that you found to be particularly effective in continuing to cultivate trust and transparency and the climate that is so important in the A&W culture?

Susan: Well, you mentioned transparency and trust. And as I talked about food and quality, two of the elements that are really there are this idea that good food makes good food. You have to start with great ingredients to have really good tasting burgers and food that you can feel good about putting into your body and visiting our restaurants and so on. And I think that idea of good has really expanded in our minds, but also in our actions that good food means good quality food, obviously great quality ingredients.

But it also extends to me what about the people serving the food? What about the people producing the food? How do you make sure that you’re building trust at all levels? What about the environment? What about the impact that we have in the world? And so, as we’ve started to sort of have that at the center of how we’ve differentiated A&W, this idea of good has spread to include more than just our ingredients, but all aspects of how we do business. And so, as the pandemic hit, we enjoyed that level of trust and transparency, and we continued that.

So, we held Q and A sessions when we didn’t have the answers to a lot of the questions. Nobody did. But we wanted to hear the questions. We wanted to hear the worries. We wanted to share the information. We wanted to have that open channel we had for a long time, daily conversations with our franchisees on an open mic type call, just like this one. But with lots and lots and lots of people. We also found ways to communicate directly with the team members at our franchisees restaurants, help them with what we were doing and why and so on.

Because again, communication was something that was very difficult. We’re a high touch type organization. We see our franchisees in the past. We certainly saw multiple times a year, we were visiting restaurants, and so on. And many of those activities were curtailed or dramatically reduced. And so, we really embraced technology and figured out different ways to use it effectively, with little video clips, with sharing of information on things, on topics like mental health, on health, itself, on the science behind some of the pandemic decisions that we were making, and the fact that likely there were changes and continued changes to come.

So, we never said: ”This is it.” And we avoided setting dates and those types of things because we knew that we weren’t really in a position to be able to make and keep those commitments. So much was happening on the outside. But through our openness and through our listening, I think we were able to maneuver and navigate quite successfully and to do it together with our operators, each of whom was experiencing the pandemic in very different ways.

And so, for some of our operators, they were busy and short staffed. And for other of our operators, they were completely shut down. And so, you couldn’t get more variation in people’s experiences. And of course, that had an impact on their teams. And the team members had their own challenges. Their children were out of school. They suddenly didn’t have childcare. In some cases, they had personal health challenges or health challenges among their family, or they were worried about vulnerable family members. So, there was all of these factors that were kind of layered into making the decisions. Not simple, but we thought the best way to do it is kind of like that matrix of communication.

Just find different ways to reach people and hopefully be able to support and help one another as we navigated a real time of uncertainty. It certainly was challenging for all of us in leadership roles, where information was changing rapidly. There was so much uncertainty. And as we talked about sort of at the beginning, some people have higher comfort with ambiguity and others not so much. Prolonged uncertainty has had a significant effect on many in society and in our workplaces. And I think many leaders have really been tested. This has not just been textbook leadership, but more so even the endurance that it has taken to sustain this pace in a virtual and live world.

Louise: If you were to reflect back on the last 17/18 months and reflecting on some of the challenges from a leadership perspective, is there one thing that stands out in your mind as being one of the most troubling leadership issues that you or your team had to tackle?

Susan: Well, the hardest part of this was the set of decisions that had to be made. We were often faced with serious business challenges, financial challenges. At times, there were supply issues. There’s a lot of logistical and I’d say material changes when it comes to human health. It’s unusual that we would find ourselves in a position of having to gauge the impact on human health as part of our decision-making process. And so, the whole science side of things was that we have obviously high levels of food safety and science on that side of things. But that’s quite a different idea from this unknown illness that was spreading and really nobody knew very much about it.

But again, I would say that the lesson that’s learned and relearned is that together people are much stronger than any individual could possibly be. And it’s sometimes that one little comment from someone you go, oh, wait a minute. That’s a different way to think about it. It really enables me and us to understand who might be able to help us here, who might have a little bit of a different piece of knowledge because the idea wasn’t in my mind to set out there and to say, okay, “Here’s where we’re going and here’s the roadmap and everybody just follow this.”

It was much more of an ongoing daily set of listening and conversations and ideas and seeing what others were doing and learning from one another that sort of coalesced into a set of directions that were at the beginning, quite short term. Let’s figure out what we do tomorrow and then let’s see what we do next week. And over time, of course, we learned more, and there was more information out there, and we were able to set a bit more of a path forward, but always leaving ourselves open to the idea that we didn’t know everything, and no one did.

But that shouldn’t prevent us from taking the actions and providing the support that we could. So, if we could only do 50% of it, let’s do that. 50%. And let’s not wait until we have all the information, because that day might never come.

Louise: You’ve got this amazingly innovative franchise program for Millennials. What drives such a focus on this particular demographic for you?

Susan: I think for us, one of the important things is the fact that for many of our employees, we are their [Millennials] first job, and everyone remembers their first job. And so making that first work experience positive, I think, is just something that gives me pride. It makes the work fun, and people come to you without previous knowledge or previous experiences. And therefore, they have the openness and the confidence to be able to share with you how they see things. And that’s a great source of learning. But the responsibility side of it is that we need to make sure that they understand the work, that they feel, that they have the tools they need to do the job, that their relationships with their teammates and with their management teams and so on are positive.

And if we can do that, they can go out into the world [and make a difference], whether they stay with A &W for 29 years or whether they stay with us for a few months.

Flexibility has been the thread that’s held it altogether because sometimes people just need that flexibility because they’re students and they’ve got exams and they’ve got courses, and that changes all the time. And we need to be able to be responsive to that – whether that’s because they’ve got families, young families or childcare or other types of care needs at home or just because their lifestyle means that they want to work in a way that allows them maximum flexibility.

Maybe their dream is something different and they’re working on that at the same time as they’re working with us. We can really accommodate all types of needs within that group. But work is still a very social place. It’s a place where people form lifelong friendships. And when you look at the whole impact that you have on someone’s life and their future career, I think it’s extremely important that we live up to our responsibilities as an employer to do that effectively.

Louise: How do you know that climate is really alive in the organization?

Susan: This was my first experience of seeing climate in action: I had just joined A&W. I was an area manager for a dozen corporate restaurants in Montreal, and I obviously read about climate. I signed on the dotted line to say that I was committed to upholding climate. But I wasn’t really sure how it actually would play out. In any case, this particular restaurant manager, she had been with A&W for a very long time.

But in any case, she was having her first meeting with me. We chatted in the food fair for a little while and then we went to the back to see the kitchen and to meet the staff. And just as we entered the back kitchen door, a staff member came flying out, who was a young person, and said [to the restaurant manager], “I need to talk to you about climate.”

And the manager stopped what she was doing and said to me, “Oh, just give me a second here.” And then turned to the young person and said, “Well, what is it?” And she kind of leaned in to listen.

And this young staff member said, “Well, we said [A&W] one of our climate goals is sincerely listening, but I don’t feel sincerely listened to,” the young staff member said.

“In fact, I’ve said several times that I can no longer work on Thursdays because my schedule has changed and this is the third schedule in a row where I’m once again scheduled on Thursdays. I came in the last two times. I am not coming in again.”

And the manager just said, “You know what? You’re right. I’ve not been listening to you. I remember now that you told me that I’ve not taken that into account. Let me change the schedule for you right now, and I will make sure that you’re not scheduled on Thursdays. And thank you very much for letting me know.”

And I just thought, wow, here was a person that was just meeting me for the first time. They could have easily tried to shun off that conversation to another time and say, “Oh, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m busy.” But she gave her full attention to this climate issue. She agreed with it. She committed to getting better herself. The staff member felt empowered to have that conversation with her manager in a respectful way but relating it to the climate goals.

And I just thought, now I really see how this can make our work and our success and our results better and make us better as an employer for that young person. I think had that conversation not taken place, she probably would have quit because there’s other jobs. But there we get someone who’s committed and responsible and just had a problem and had a way and a language and a way of dealing with it. And a manager who was also equally committed to those goals, who was able to listen in the right way and make the right change.

I thought that was such a fabulous example because it really showed that the climate aspirations, the climate goals in the organization are felt and lived by everyone. The empowerment that a young person feels to express from a self advocacy perspective, the fact that the leader, the manager was in tune to that expectation of the employee while their new area manager is with them. And they were probably a little anxious about that, but still made the climate goal the priority. And I think in a lot of organizations we see values and mission statements and those sorts of things up on the wall, but employees will often say that there’s a significant disconnect between what the company aspires to be and do and the way it wants to engage and treat its people from what the lived experience really is. And so, what I love about this approach at A&W, it’s really about the climate that’s cocreated in the organization between all of the stakeholders that are interacting with it. And that makes it much more living or alive than something that we might review once a year during goal setting or performance reviews.

What’s special about climate as well as it’s a set of behaviors. So, it’s not a set of values, and those are observable behaviors somebody can comment on. Obviously, we have values as well as people and as an organization. But values can sometimes be hidden, or they can be subjective.

For example, let’s look at honesty. I think we would both agree that honesty is very important. I don’t think anyone would say honesty isn’t very important, but when we say it’s very important, it means something slightly different to you than it does to me.

And it’s not really observable. It’s a harder one to observe in the day-to-day world. And so, our goals are really focused on and written, and the commitments that we make are to what we do, not to what we believe or say. And therefore, that does give that sense of language and an opening to a conversation.

I often say human beings are generally pretty good at carrying on a conversation. What’s often hard is starting the conversation and what happens all too often when people tend to avoid conflict, if possible, a lot of people do anyways, and it’s sometimes hard to get the conversation started when you have a language that allows you to easily get into the conversation and to know that that conversation will be taken very seriously because of the word climate. Then it becomes a lot easier to address things when they’re small or when, maybe, you haven’t even interpreted them. For example, you might say, “Louise, I want to talk to you about climate right away.”

Your ears will perk up. Now you’re ready to listen. It’s not like I’m just saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m really mad about something.” Instead, I’m saying, “I want to talk about climate.” And now you’re listening and you’re trying to understand. You’re trying to internalize, and we can give examples and we can share specifics.

So, I think this all really helps climate live in its day-to-day world and be effective and be a tool for people to use in every part of the organization at all levels.


Louise: Ultimately, the work we do as HR professionals contributes to business performance. So, from the lens of a CEO, what advice would you give to HR professionals about what they could be doing to really help elevate their impact on their organization?

Susan: One is a true interest in the business itself, not simply sort of the impact of the people and their contributions and so on, but really an understanding of the business and the role that each person plays. And so on.

The other one that I’ve noticed is that really being a good spotter of talent and potential. We talked about the shoelace career, and that’s not something that just happens by accident. It really happens with conversations that are opened up and they’re opened up maybe years in advance of an opportunity to help understand what people’s interests are and sometimes to ignite an interest that wouldn’t naturally be there. A lot of people are really happy and satisfied in their job. I was certainly one of them at each part of my career. I’ve always been very happy and felt like I could do that job forever.

And so, having conversations and sparking conversations and spotting areas really helps to create that multi dimensional talent and give excitement and opportunity to people, but at the same time also really stack the bench in different ways with more options. I think if you have 20 people that could each do five different things if you needed them to that’s way more powerful than having 20 experts that are on a single track that really are only interested in and have only had exposure to and experience with one particular area of the business.

And so, I think that the HR team having a good understanding of what the business is will help them in that role spotting that they are so good at and that helps organizations grow and thrive.

Here are some key highlights from the discussion: 

  • Senecal’s “shoelace” career trajectory – (1:05)
  • Embracing ambiguity and navigating new opportunities – (4:47)
  • How women can overcome systemic challenges in the workplace (7:37)
  • Sustainability & inclusion (11:34)
  • Culture of trust and transparency (15:43)
  • Early pandemic response (20:34)
  • Supporting younger generations in the workplace (24:33)
  • Workplace climate vs. values (28:00) 
  • How HR can elevate impact on their organizations (38:23)

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