Talent & Tech Asia Summit 2024
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Q&A with Len Jillard of McDonald’s

Catering for change

Len Jillard, chief people officer and corporate VP at McDonald’s APMEA, enlists family/friends, flexibility and future as the three components of an EVP that can adjust to each generation’s needs. 

Vital Stats: Len Jillard is a 43-year veteran at McDonald’s, starting out as a crew person at a store in Ontario. He worked his way up, spending time in training, operations and management positions before taking up the role of chief people officer at McDonald’s Canada. In November 2014, he moved to Singapore to lead the HR team for the APMEA region.

Q. Having started behind the counter of a restaurant, what made you stay for another 43 years?

People ask me how I can possibly stay with one company for so long, certainly in today’s world that’s different and unique. But many of our people have been at McDonald’s for their whole career.

I describe my time here as many careers within one. McDonald’s provides different opportunities to grow and try new things, as long as the individual is committed to be open to them.

Each step of the way – the training, development, coaching and mentoring has been first class. Anything you lack from a functional perspective, they shore up through training.

That’s so unique about the McDonald’s culture, that moving here from Canada has been a fairly easy transition. There are nuances in culture and country, but at the end of the day, it is still the same “McFamily”.

Q. How did you get into HR from the storefront?

My background is from the operations side of the business.

While in university, I worked here part-time, mainly to continue playing hockey. It was great because McDonald’s provided me flexibility in my schedule, which no other part-time job offered.

After university, I went full-time as a restaurant manager, and after a couple of years, moved to the training function in Toronto.

From there, I moved back into operations as an area supervisor, and later into the service side which deals with the owner-operators and franchises.

That was a big step because from running corporate restaurants to dealing with independent business people required a different skill set to be able to influence them.

I got an opportunity out of the blue to move to Mexico as senior director of operations which I call my real-life MBA. This was right after the peso crashed, and to go in and help support the business that had been devastated overnight, was fascinating.

After three years, I moved back to Canada to handle a fairly large geography, and then moved on to become chief people officer, after the CPO retired.

I always had a lot of passion behind the people part of the business, understanding that nothing gets done if you don’t have the people motivated, trained and engaged to do the job.

I firmly believe in being an HR business partner. If you’re just going to be a transactional HR leader, you are not providing the full value you can to the business.

It’s very important that you understand and engage with the business and its leaders.

I got a call for this APMEA role last summer, so I talked to the boss, meaning my wife. She said it would be a good thing, and it has been very exciting.

The diversity, the differences and the number of countries we have here are in different stages of growth, and it is pretty cool to be part of that. Asia is positioned in a way for incredible growth in the years ahead.

Q. What are the “McFamily” values that helped you make the transition between these roles?

The core values of McDonald’s align very much with my personal values, and that makes it easy to stay.

The commitment to our people is first and foremost. It’s not just about talk, but about living it in what we do daily.

From a business perspective, it’s very important that we operate our business ethically. Our approach is open and candid. There are things which can be done which might be easier, but that doesn’t make them right.

So giving back to our communities is important. I have gone through my career being involved with Ronald McDonald House Charities, and it’s an important thing for my wife and kids too.

Again, there’s that alignment with personal values, which makes our company values universal. That doesn’t mean they are perfect, but what the values do is lead us.

We expect them to be followed in actions and behaviours. They enable and empower people in our restaurants and offices to make decisions, using them as their filter.

In making the transition here, the people have been terrific – so welcoming, open and friendly. However, it doesn’t diminish in any means the diversity and culture that exists in Asia.

You have to be open and receptive to experience it, have fun with it and learn from it. On the personal and professional side, the growth in such a role is exciting.

There are nuances within each culture that you have to be aware of. I always ask questions to help me understand why they do things a particular way.

From a business perspective, it’s very important that we operate our business ethically. There are things which can be done which might be easier, but that doesn’t make them right.

Q. After having relocated here, what are your priorities for this region?

I have two goals, the first of which is under the umbrella of our people – engagement and education.

The engagement piece is to really help people understand what it means to be part of McDonald’s. I’m not sure people understand the opportunities available to them, and why I, for example, have stayed here for 43 years.

At the end of the day, engagement is at the front of the counter, with the customer. So will look at how we engage employees there to embrace the brand, and how important what they do at the front of the counter is.

Tying in with that is the education bit, something we have been working on in various parts of the world, and Asia is really starting to gain traction.

We have long been recognised for our development and training systems. When someone sees McDonald’s on a resume, they know the candidate is bringing in a skill set, particularly in retail and other customer-facing businesses.

They know our candidates our well-trained, know how to deal with customers and situations, and have got a strong sense of teamwork, self-discipline and commitment. They are people who like to smile and enjoy what they do.

The education piece is how we provide more opportunities for them, whether they stay with us for a year or a career. Let’s train and teach them as best as we can.

If they stay with us, that’s great because that will set the foundation for their future growth. If they choose to go somewhere else, that’s fine too, because we want them to look back fondly and say their best experience was at McDonald’s.

We are working with schools, colleges and universities towards accreditations to provide more opportunities for our staff if that is the path they want to go down.

The second big thing for us will be about the tools and experiences we will apply to ensure we are getting the best and brightest talent.

By 2030, the whole workforce dynamic will change so dramatically, so it is important to find individuals who are looking for growth opportunities.

Besides training and development, this will need to focus on opportunities to go down whatever career path they want in the organisation.

Q. Will that focus on developing careers define your EVP going forward?

Our EVP is underpinned by three things actually – family/friends, flexibility and future.

The first, family/friends, is a social component. Various activities are held to encourage bonding and for employees’ families to learn more about their career and development opportunities at McDonald’s.

Flexibility has different parts to it. For a mum, it means the ability to get her kids off to school and then come to work part-time, with flexible hours, and to be back home when the kids come home.

McDonald’s was also one of the pioneers to begin hiring mature workers in the 1980s.

Career flexibility is another, where you’ve got to be able to do what you want to do. For example, at a recent golf tournament, I was talking to a young lady working part-time at our restaurant.

Waiting to tee off, I asked what she was studying at university, to which she replied, finance. I asked, why not join McDonald’s after you graduate?

She looked at me funny. I told her, we are a big company, we have lots of finance people and we need accountants, and requested her to keep my card.

The learning for me in that was that we don’t do as good a job as we could in explaining the opportunities that exist in the company.

When it comes to the future, we’ve got the Millennials who are just looking for opportunities to build their career path. In fact, 50% of all McDonald’s restaurant managers in Singapore began their career as a crew member.

What I find very interesting about our EVP is that we are able to adjust it for the needs of all four generations that work at McDonald’s.

Q. With such a vast mix of company owned and owner-operator stores, how do you plan to drive engagement?

Within the business, we have what we refer to as “plan to win”. It is a framework that provides consistency to our priorities to help build the business plan, and cascade this down to what it means for the restaurant.

We spend a lot of time communicating how we’re doing to the franchisees and staff. We also have commitment surveys with the staff.

We don’t just sit in the office reading reports. We go out visiting restaurants and markets because that’s where it’s all happening. Even there, we don’t just meet the consultants and vice presidents, but the store manager and crew.

Len Jillard, McDonald's


Q. As part of the possibilities the EVP offers, how do you plan to communicate it for potential and internal candidates?

Externally, the recent Aon Hewitt recognition, as “best of the best” in Singapore, helped generate conversations.

One of our strengths as a company is we are very humble. At the same time, we need to be more proud and loud of the great things we do.

Over time, you’ll see more proactive external communications to create more awareness.

Internally, it is about reinforcing opportunities for staff and creating that dialogue with them. I am very impressed with the way China and Singapore are doing that.

Q. How do you guide the line or store managers to reinforce these messages?

It is about making sure we find out how often they talk to our staff about how we are performing on the business plan, and the regular touch-points to let them know what’s coming in the short and long-term, and the role they can play.

Q. A lot of companies this size try to get their employees together frequently. Do you do that?

We have a webcast coming up, which features a quarterly update for the group.

We also do town halls. Whenever I’m in town, we encourage the president or one of the functional VPs to set up a staff meeting to engage with them. Inevitably, I get an email afterwards with specific questions.

When someone sees McDonald’s on a resume, they know the candidate is bringing in a skill set, particularly in retail and other customer-facing businesses.

Q. I know it is early days, but have you identified any specific HR challenges in this region?

I haven’t been shocked by anything. It is more about the degree to which a challenge is – for example, the staffing challenge may be a degree higher than what it was in Canada.

Different markets can have different staffing challenges for a multitude of reasons, but more often than not, it’s needing to get out there and letting people know what the EVP is.

Q. How big is your regional HR team?

It depends very much on markets, since they are closest to the customer. My team at the zone level is made up of 11 people, primarily based in Singapore and Hong Kong.

We also leverage our global team’s help in terms of policy design, while my team looks at a more strategic perspective. You certainly can’t paint Asia with one brush, so my team’s responsibility is to provide the markets with the tools they need to help them succeed.

Q. Recently HQ announced new benefits for company owned store employees, such as tuition reimbursement. Do you have those planned for this region as well?

Each country and the needs within it are different. We don’t have a big plan to do this, but what we do on an ongoing basis is strictly assess what is happening in each market, what we need to address, and ensure we are a strong and committed corporate citizen.

We reflect on what needs to happen in each community, and that’s simply what’s needed in order to be relevant. The education work we have done reinforces that. The teams here are very much on top of the particular issues in each market, and it comes back to the EVP.

The learning for me in that was that we don’t do as good a job as we could in explaining the opportunities that exist in the company.

Q. The company is often questioned because of the nature of the fast-food industry. Is there something you do to educate your employees on wellness?

Here’s one of those opportunities we are getting better at – to educate our staff from a supply chain perspective, in terms of where we source our food, and the policies that exist within that.

More often than not, we meet or exceed government requirements. And we should be able to tell that through our quality story, not just internally, but externally as well.

A lot of our training covers awareness of the food safety perspective, both at the time of orientation and certainly the business practices within the restaurant.

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