How Darden Restaurants Surprises and Delights Employees

Darden RestaurantsThis summer, I had the honor of speaking to a group of managers from Darden Restaurants at St. Regis Monarch Beach. These general managers had flown in from all across North America, where they manage individual Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, and other restaurant locations in the Darden family. And this wasn’t just any group of restaurant managers: I was talking to the top 5% of general managers, who had each won a highly competitive spot at the company’s annual Diamond Club recognition trip.

I was so impressed by the employees and this special event that I had to learn more. I recently got the chance to talk to Theresa Willings, senior vice president of human resources at Olive Garden, who shared more about the company’s culture and employee engagement philosophy.

Darden is the only restaurant company to have been recognized by FORTUNE Magazine as one of the top “100 Best Companies to Work For,” and the company has earned that recognition three years in a row. One of the guiding principles at Darden is that people matter. Taking care of employees translates directly to taking care of guests. Darden boosts its employees through development, recognition and rewards.

The company works hard to develop, train and grow talent. That dedication leads to a lot of internal promotions. A whopping 50% of managers are promoted from hourly employees. Theresa, who is now a leader at the SVP level, started as an HR intern. Many of the company’s leaders started in entry-level positions.

Darden also recognizes and rewards employee achievements, and the results are astounding.

First, the focus on people creates a feeling of ownership among employees. For example at Olive Garden, every restaurant features a marble sign on the outside of the building with the general manager’s name. Theresa says “Those signs send a signal that I own this restaurant, it’s mine and I’m accountable for hiring and retaining employees and delivering a great guest experience.” Each brand has similar ways to reinforce that the General Manager/Managing Partner has the most influential position in the company.

Consistent recognition also creates a high-performance culture. Each team member’s and restaurant’s goals are based on what Darden calls a “balanced scorecard,” which measures metrics that go beyond just revenue. Those metrics start with the guest, then the employee…then the investor.

One of Darden’s most visual and inspiring employee recognition tools is the Diamond Club recognition program. Since only 5% of 2,000 General Managers/Managing Partners nationwide are invited to the Diamond Club recognition celebration, Darden goes above and beyond to ensure these achievers feel recognized and have a memorable experience. As Theresa explains it, “we set the bar high and then celebrate big when employees achieve outstanding results.”

The event takes place every July, just after the close of the company’s fiscal year, at a five-star resort. The location changes each year, but the experience consistently blows employees away. Each winner comes with their spouse or a special guest, and as soon as they arrive, the white-glove treatment begins. An executive who is three levels higher than the winner arrives to pick them up, carry their bags, and escort them to the resort in luxury transportation. When the winner gets to their hotel room, they find a special gift, and continue to be surprised by new gifts in their room every day.

The 4-day trip is full of amazing excursions and activities (which over the years have included white-water rafting, fly fishing, golf, spa treatments, and wine tasting, to name a few). The theme of the trip is celebration and recognition. While most of the time is skewed away from business and toward pleasure, the Darden leadership team does host educational sessions to empower winners to continue to grow and perform.

At the end of the trip, winners receive a bag to ship home all of their new gifts, paid for by Darden. Did I mention that the company also helps winners pay for pet care and babysitting at home while they’re gone? As Theresa explains, “we know that one of the reasons these leaders are successful is because of the support they get from home.”

When they get home, the celebration continues this time for the entire team with funds provided for a celebration and special Diamond Club gifts for the managers and team members.

It’s easy to guess what kind of feedback Darden gets from employees who attend this Diamond Club recognition trip. They report feeling like royalty and feeling constantly surprised and delighted by the experience. Did you catch that? It’s important. There’s a lot of buzz in the customer marketing space these days about surprising and delighting customers. But at Darden, they’ve figured out that doing it for employees is just as important, and that it has a direct effect on the customer experience.

Theresa says it well: “We’re looking for opportunities to enhance people’s lives. We know that we have competition — there are a lot of places our leaders could work. Turnover in the hospitality industry is higher than in others. So we find ways beyond just monetary rewards to make sure the work experience is fulfilling and people know that what they do is appreciated.”

How are you telling your top performers “thank you” every day? How are you surprising and delighting your employees?

Ryan Estis & Associates is a training and development organization helping companies, leaders, sales people and individual contributors embrace change and achieve breakthrough performance in the new economy. We offer keynotes, live classroom training and online learning that blends interaction, energy and actionable content designed to elevate performance. Contact us for programming inquiries and assistance determining the curriculum that could best support your learning and development objectives.

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