C-Suite Solutions: Sodexo CEO Geographic Regions Lorna Donatone on the benefits of upskilling

Sodexo Quality of Life Services relies on in-house training to develop its workforce. CEO Geographic Regions Lorna Donatone says it is key to boosting her company's inclusivity while providing employees opportunities to rise through the ranks.

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Lorna Donatone, CEO of Geographic Regions, Regional Chair for North America, Sodexo. Photo – Sodexo

WorkingNation consultant and workforce reporter Ramona Schindelheim continues her series of interviews with America’s top CEOs about solutions to closing the skills gap.

Sodexo may not be a household name, but there is a good chance you have eaten food their chefs have prepared or stepped foot into a facility that they maintain.

“Our mission is about improving the quality of life of those we serve, both our clients and our customers,” according to Sodexo’s CEO for North America Lorna Donatone. Its reach is impressive, operating in 80 countries and serving more than 75 million consumers each day. It provides food services in hospitals, universities, airports, corporations and military bases. Sodexo also supplies in-facility and in-home health care assistance, air conditioning and heating services and develop employee rewards programs.

It takes a lot of employees—450,000—worldwide to get the job done and Sodexo considers its employees its most important resource. “Our employees have a tremendous amount of personal pride and reward from doing their jobs. They have an impact on people’s lives on a daily basis,” Donatone tells me.

People skills are critical for Sodexo, because its employees come face-to-face with customers in many of the job sites. “We’re in a very, very competitive space, and a lot of times the differentiator is the people we hire,” says Donatone, “The way the [consumers] see Sodexo is by the individuals who we employ.”

But given Sodexo’s broad reach, the needs of the company’s clients are increasingly sophisticated and varied, according to Donatone, which challenges the company to make certain its workers are up to the task, both from a business perspective and from an employee perspective.

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The training we provide can be anywhere from on-site culinary training to managerial training. We know the benefit of hands-on training and there have also been over 120,000 development activities completed online in the past year. Nobody hits their job without some kind of training,” explains Donatone.

In the United States, Sodexo has added more than 15,000 jobs in the past ten years at 12,500 new sites as its added new customers. Donatone sees each new job as an opportunity for the employee to start small and go big.

“We have so many fantastic career stories of individuals who started frontline and rose their way up. There are so many accessible jobs for individuals regardless of educational level. And that’s one of the challenges in the workforce today, the availability of jobs where people can advance. We have those jobs in which somebody can provide a living for their family, and they can move through the ranks,” Donatone says.

Sodexo employs and trains workers with disabilities, such as Michael Black and Denika Taitt, who both have hearing impairments. Photo – Sodexo

Sodexo puts a lot of emphasis on developing its managers and helping them identify gaps in their skills. “We’ve got a really robust annual assessment process and feedback loops for individuals to say, ‘Okay, what is missing? What do you need?’ We definitely have to hire the right attitudes. We’re in the service business and that service spirit, which is one of our core values, needs to be there. And we can train everything else,” Donatone tells me.

In addition to online learning and on-site training, Sodexo also provides its employees with tuition reimbursement. Donatone is proud that the learning and training that a Sodexo employee gets can lead to advancements within in the company, but it can also create other opportunities. “We’ve got CEOs with businesses, large businesses now, who started in college as a student employee.”

“Part of what I think sets Sodexo apart is our diversity and inclusion strategy. It’s been a business imperative of ours for over 15 years,” according to Donatone. Increasing diversity broadens the company’s reach, helping it find employees with the skills the company needs to compete effectively and continue to grow the business. “We have been recognized for it being at the top five of diversity and the top 50 for the last six or seven years. We’ve been recognized by Catalyst as the winner of the Catalyst Award for the work we do in gender diversity.”

Donatone says a key to expanding the diversity program has been the creation of employee business resource groups—there are nine now, including HONOR, which supports the company’s employees who are military veterans. “We go out of our way to hire veterans and reservists and members of National Guard. “We know that as a workforce it is terrific, whether it’s in food service, whether it’s in facilities management, whether it’s in healthcare. When you think about the size of the organization we are, we have a lot of opportunities. We also have a huge I.T. department, a huge accounting department, and marketing and communications team.”

Last year, in 2017, we were recognized by Victory Media as one of the military-friendly employers. It was one of many recognitions that we’ve had for our programs for veterans and also for military spouses. We have found them to be an amazing source of employees.”

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The HONOR program supports a peer-to-peer mentoring program that’s modeled after the military’s “Buddy” system. During the first year of the program, the company pairs recently-hired veterans at Sodexo with an employee guide who can help them navigate the civilian and corporate culture. The final six months of the program emphasizes ways in which the vet can advance his or her career at the company. In addition to holding hiring events to attract veterans, the company created a video featuring Sodexo managers who once served in the armed forces, and sharing their own stories of success within the company.

Sodexo’s commitment to the veteran community goes beyond hiring. “We recently worked with Arizona Coalition for the Homeless on the Arizona StandDown Event for Veterans, providing food and employment training there. We worked out San Diego StandDown event with Veterans Village, again around training and providing food. And we’ve provided grants to help disabled veterans through our HONOR group,” says Donatone. It all goes back to the company’s mission: improving quality of life.

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