The former Red Robin CEO wants restaurant leaders to get unstuck when it comes to past practices.

Throughout her foodservice career, Denny Post made it her mission to help women advance into leadership roles. Now the former Red Robin CEO is working to help other restaurant leaders do the same, both for women and people of color.

Earlier this year, Post joined the Atlanta consultancy GXG as its executive in residence for the firm’s DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) Growth Accelerator. She and a group of other leaders from across different industries are lending their collective expertise to executives so they can pinpoint areas for improvement and articulate actionable steps to build a more equitable and inclusive workplace.    

Post is one of the few women to have led a major restaurant chain so she has a special understanding of the challenges brands face in effecting real change—and she’s ready to be part of the solution.

After years in the restaurant C-suite, what led you to join GXG?

My entire time in the industry, I’ve been active with the Women’s Foodservice Forum. I even served as the interim CEO and was board chair. I have been very focused on advancing women leaders in the industry. When I was CEO at Red Robin, we had a 50/50 board, a 50/50 executive team, and most senior leadership were women, which is very unusual in our industry.

But I realized upon reflection that I was very proud of our accomplishments in terms of gender diversity, but we didn’t make much progress in terms of broader diversity with people of color. And that was a real gap for us. When you look at the guest base and you look at the front line—the folks who are out there, either in the heart of the house cooking or in the front of the house serving guests—you see a great deal more diversity than upwards throughout the organization.

So when I decided to not go back into a full-time operating role, I knew I wanted to engage in places where I could make a difference in the last stage of my career. The opportunity with GXG came up, and I just found the approach so smart and so action-oriented that I was pleased to be a part of bringing together diverse councils with a great deal of wisdom.

At what specific point does diversity plummet?

Where we seem to have the greatest issue is when you move beyond single-unit management and into multiunit. When you have a dispersed workforce, as we do in restaurants, it’s very hard to have the visibility, processes, and policies that ensure we’re interviewing diversely. Often there’s a perpetuation of the same type of leaders gravitating to others like themselves. That tends to be white men, particularly in operations. There isn’t a lot of encouragement or visibility for women, women of color, or people of color to step up for some of those multiunit management roles, which is the first step to moving up in an organization. You have to see one to be one or want to be one. So the organization has to be very intentional, very thoughtful, and very committed. The whole piece of belonging has to be there.

Speaking of belonging, why was it so important to add it to DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion)?

Diversity is about the numbers, and equity is ensuring that everyone’s being treated equally. Inclusion says you’re in the conversation, but belonging is where you actually feel that you can show up and give your real voice to what’s happening. It’s not just the sense of, ‘I’m included’ but instead, ‘I am valued, and my opinion, my experience, my unique point of view, is valued. The contributions I can make are sought out.’ It’s the difference between being on the team to really being a valued member of the team.

As a woman who spent a large portion of her career in the C-suite, what challenges did you face?

I came up the marketing side, but restaurants are heavily weighted toward an operating environment, so there was always the question of whether somebody who hadn’t actually run a restaurant could lead a restaurant company. I had to overcome not only, if you will, the gender bias, but also the background bias. More often than not, leaders come from either finance or operating. And both of those are heavily male, unlike HR or marketing, which tend to be more open to women.

To this day, I’m on a board where I’m still the only woman. You have to be able to find a way to give voice to your unique experience. And one of the best ways to do that is to speak on behalf of the customer because let’s face it, women make most of the purchasing decisions in this country. They make most of the purchasing decisions in this world. So I was able to speak with a voice that included women who were making the decisions about whether or not to come to our restaurants.

What other advice would you give to restaurant leaders?

Don’t look at it as a zero-sum game, but rather an opportunity for growth. So often people think they’re putting their own job at risk. The reality is that there is still opportunity and a lot of change and interesting innovation and growth in our industry, and more innovative companies come from more diverse workforces. Embrace it and approach it in a positive fashion.

And the other is to face the facts. People are loath to really look hard and see how little diversity is represented. They hide behind the total numbers, and the total numbers will look fine. At Red Robin, we had a 29,000-person workforce. Well, the vast majority of those were hourly employees on the front line where you have tremendous diversity. But you’ve got to look at the various layers of your organization and realize it’s not represented in the salaried and managerial ranks as much as it should be.

We’re all in a war for talent right now. And the studies are clear that more diverse leadership and more diverse representation throughout your organization leads to greater innovation and better performance. And yet, as you look across our industry, there’s still a relative dearth of diversity. I really want to see if I can help my former colleagues, those who lead restaurant organizations, make more rapid change in this space so that we can really demonstrate to other industries what it means to have really diverse teams.

Feature, Leader Insights