Female Disruptors: Tracy Skeans of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell & Yum! Brands is shaking up the food industry

Don’t be fearful of running too fast. I encourage people to be courageous and take strategic risks.

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Don’t be fearful of running too fast. I encourage people to be courageous and take strategic risks. At Yum! we believe that our leaders must be ‘Smart with Heart’ and have the courage to make the big decisions that will drive our business forward. Our most successful leaders have a growth mindset and they’re always looking down the road versus seeing what’s directly in front of them. I believe that if someone doesn’t stumble a few times to reach their goal, they probably aren’t pushing hard enough for big results.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy Skeans, Chief Transformation and People Officer of Yum! Brands, Inc. (NYSE: YUM), one of the world’s largest restaurant companies with more than 45,000 KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants in over 140 countries and territories. Skeans reports directly to the CEO and leads Yum! Brands’ global business transformation and people capability strategies to build powerful brands and fuel sustainable results around the world. In 2016, as Chief Transformation and People Officer, Skeans played a central leadership role in the successful spin-off of Yum China into a separate public company and the launch of Yum! Brands’ multi-year transformation strategy to accelerate the company’s growth by moving to a heavily franchised and more profitable business model.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

After working as a senior auditor for Price Waterhouse and in an international treasury role at Union Switch & Signal, I moved to Dallas in 2000 and joined Pizza Hut where I served in various strategic planning, asset development and finance roles. Prior to my current role, I was President of Pizza Hut International and Chief People Officer of Pizza Hut Global before that. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that all of my leadership roles have given me great opportunities to grow and take our brands, talent and culture to the next level. I love the magic that happens when you put the right people in the right roles at the right time to generate amazing results.

What are your job responsibilities?

I’m focused on guiding and accelerating our global business transformation and developing the right capabilities, roadmap, repeatable models, stakeholder engagement and culture at Yum! in order to fuel same-store sales and net new unit growth for our KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell brands around the world. While these are the areas I oversee, I feel responsible for every person that works for us around the world and helping them unlock their potential. This fuels our culture and our business. Together with our leaders and coaches across the company we work to help all employees who work with us know they can be their best and whole self, make a difference and grow — both personally and professionally — with us. In my role, I seek to hear, guide, motivate and support our talent across the organization. I believe that if people are well taken care of, they will take care of business and help our company move forward.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’ve been making strong progress executing against our multi-year transformation strategy to become a more focused, franchised and efficient company in order to deliver more growth to our shareholders. Undergoing a global business transformation is never easy and we’ve had to make some tough decisions along the way. We’ve realigned our global organization around four key growth drivers that now govern every decision and action we take: distinctive, relevant and easy brands; unmatched franchise operating capability; bold restaurant development; and unrivaled culture and talent.

We’re making bold decisions and critical investments in product innovation, digital initiatives and new and expanding franchise partnerships that grow our brands and market share and strengthen our customer experience. We’re also implementing repeatable models on everything from restaurant operations to marketing across our system and sharing these proven methods to drive results with franchisees. All of this comes to life through our culture and talent globally, which is a competitive advantage and differentiator for us.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

Two unbelievable role models that have influenced my leadership style are my mother, a retired executive in hospital administration, and my late grandmother, an Avon manager. They were hard working, inspiring leaders who always took care of others first and focused on getting the best out of their people. In turn, people gravitated toward them and they were able to build strong teams and have successful careers. One of the most important things I learned from them is that you have to give of yourself first if you expect others to follow you. It’s simple, yet powerful.

Additionally, having professional role models within my own industry has been extremely rewarding. While I was in finance, David Gibbs, Yum!’s President and CFO, encouraged me to run human resources for Pizza Hut globally because he knew it would expand my leadership capabilities. Greg Creed, Yum!’s CEO, pushed me to run the Pizza Hut International business because he knew it would be a challenge as well as an incredible opportunity to grow professionally. In fact, a huge part of what I love about our company are the ample opportunities to learn and grow, to be mentored and also become a mentor. We have different emerging talent programs to build our bench with the highest caliber employees including coaching from executive leadership.

How are you going to shake things up next?

We strongly believe that Yum! Brands’ unrivaled culture and talent fuel our results, and that our employees must reflect the global marketplace where we operate. We’re laser focused on ensuring that inclusion and diversity are integrated into all aspects of our business. I’m proud of how we’re investing in programs and making tangible improvements in the way women and under-represented minorities are represented, supported and mentored at all levels. For example, we’ve made a commitment to advance more women into leadership and achieve greater gender parity in senior leadership globally by 2030, aligned with the Paradigm for Parity coalition.

I believe that leaders within organizations need to do a better job advocating for high-potential female and under-represented minority talent earlier in their careers. If more leaders would mentor and advocate for diverse talent, I think we would see more women and under-represented minorities advancing at faster rates into leadership positions.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

#1) Stay open to possibilities. If you would have told me coming out of school as a CPA that I would work in human resources, run a global brand and help guide a FORTUNE 500 company through a massive business transformation, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.

#2) Don’t be fearful of running too fast. I encourage people to be courageous and take strategic risks. At Yum! we believe that our leaders must be ‘Smart with Heart’ and have the courage to make the big decisions that will drive our business forward. Our most successful leaders have a growth mindset and they’re always looking down the road versus seeing what’s directly in front of them. I believe that if someone doesn’t stumble a few times to reach their goal, they probably aren’t pushing hard enough for big results.

#3) Lead with grit and grace. Growing up in Pittsburgh and being raised by a hard-working family, I learned that grit and perseverance — plus treating people well and acting with grace — are powerful combinations to unlock great potential.

What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.

I highly recommend The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It’s about being more intentional in identifying memorable and life-changing moments, and how we can actually increase the likelihood of creating these moments. The insights in this book are relevant to many areas of business and could have a great impact on leadership, personal styles, emotional intelligence, decision making and much more. I enjoyed the book so much that I bought extra copies and shared them with other leaders at Yum!.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s paved the way for so many women, serving as a fierce advocate for gender equality and breaking down barriers when it wasn’t mainstream. Her courage to fight for the under-represented is inspirational to me as a female leader in our organization and fuels my passion for building a culture of diversity and inclusion.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My LinkedIn profile is the best way to connect. I find it to be a fantastic tool for discovering and sharing career, business and leadership insights. There’s so much inspiration that can be found by following thought leaders at all levels across many industries and enabling broader conversations by sharing ideas and best practices. My page is linked here.

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