Learn at Every Turn: Carin Stutz, President of McAlister's Deli, is a Quick Study

Learn at Every Turn: Carin Stutz, President of McAlister's Deli, is a Quick Study

Carin Stutz, president of McAlister's Deli, considers herself a student of business. If her own success in the industry is any measure, she's a quick study. And since taking on the role in mid-November, she has been immersed in all things McAlister's.

Discovering a brand's essence is a typical strategy for Stutz, who has built a career by taking the time to study every aspect of a brand, from finance to to franchisees, to ensure she protects what the customers love and uncovers new ways to make the business better.

Stutz, 58, has spent her entire work life in the and brings a passionate, results-driven approach and rich background in operations to McAlister's. "I learned early in my career that you have to be an advocate for yourself," she says. "As awkward and uncomfortable as it is, you have to be able to take risks and put yourself out there."

Before joining McAlister's, Stutz spent a year as president and CEO of Così Inc. Previously, she served two years as president of global business development at Brinker International, where she led the expansion of Chili's and Maggiano's Little Italy worldwide; eight years as an executive vice president of operations at Applebee's; and five years as a division vice president at Wendy's International.

Along the way, she adopted the same learn-at-every-turn approach to leadership. She soaked up advice from mentors and advocates to help grow her career and discover what it takes to get promoted. These days, she frequently returns the favor, reaching out formally and informally to help women reflect on and walk through their own possibilities for advancement. Women, she says, often focus on everyone but themselves, making it harder to define their career path.

"The interesting challenge that I find with women is that they often do not have good insight or direction on where they want to take their career," Stutz says. "That is something I can't decide for them."

She never lacked ambition, and her own career clarity came early at a gathering of the Women's Foodservice Forum, a leadership development organization that Stutz would later chair. At the time, the group was releasing the results of a membership survey revealing that not one of the 400 participants aspired to be a CEO. On that day, the forum chair pressed her audience with the challenge: "Why not us?"

"That was a pivotal time for me," says Stutz. "I sat there in that meeting and said, 'Why not me?'"

Having established her credentials in operations, Stutz set out to pave her road to the C-suite by honing her financial skills, forming a finance committee at Applebee's to think creatively about how businesses invest their money. Each week the group of investor relations, finance, and marketing members put themselves in the shoes of a CEO or CFO of a publicly traded company (typically a competitor or vendor) to answer one question: What would you do with the cash?

"It was a really interesting exercise to make you think more broadly about running the business," she says. "It created opportunities to speak and learn the language, and because of that, I ended up on the investor relations team." And to think Stutz thought she would become a dentist.

Growing up in Aurora, Ill., her family did not have "a lot of means," but her parents were her first mentors "who taught us never to see obstacles." Aurora was also the place she would meet Rodger Stutz, her high school sweetheart and husband of 35 years. The couple has two grown sons, both married, and are still reveling in last year's birth of their first grandchild. "I feel so blessed," says Stutz. "I got it right the first time."

As a teenager, Stutz left babysitting gigs and three paper routes behind for a crew job with her twin sister at McDonald's. Working the window (where women were relegated to at the time), she got her first glimpse of the possibilities the business might hold for her.

"I was 16 years old, watching these guys, area directors, driving in with brand new company cars," Stutz remembers. "I knew that if I was going to stay in the my goal was to be an area director so I could have a brand new car."

Stutz and her sister were the first generation in the family to attend college. Initially, she felt her parents expected to become a doctor or dentist. She took dentistry courses at Western Illinois University--until discussions with actual dentists convinced her that she wouldn't enjoy the profession. With her parents' blessing, Stutz switched her motivation and major, graduating with a bachelor's degree in food and and working in various positions at Wendy's before and after college. She later earned a master's degree in business administration from MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas.

Stutz steadily built her credentials in operations, serving for five years as a division vice president at Wendy's before joining Applebee's in 1999 as senior vice president of operations. When an executive position opened that Stutz wanted, mentor Lou Kaucic, former Applebee's and chief people officer, helped her think about career advancement in a new way.

"He asked, 'Who is in the room when the decision is made?'" she recalls. "Who is going to sponsor you or bring your name up, and who is going to speak on your behalf?"

Kaucic, now an executive career coach, preached the value of building relationships with decision-makers, a task that can prove more challenging in operations, with so much time spent in the field. Focusing on the rewards of building networks was an eye-opening mindset change with a big payoff for Stutz.

"I learned so much from spending time with them and seeing how they looked at business, and I think I grew significantly as well," she says. "It gave me a much better perspective, and I made better decisions, based on their feedback."

Stutz views every experience as a learning opportunity. One of her toughest came in 2012 as CEO of beleaguered Così Inc., where she established a three-year strategy for long-term success and raised millions to implement it. From the beginning, Stutz faced an uphill struggle to turn around the Deerfield, Ill.-based chain, which had experienced years of financial losses. She resigned after 18 months, but emerged battle-toughened with a renewed appreciation for business profitability.

"My biggest lesson in the last position was that I am typically a people developer," Stutz says. "I love to grow people, I love to grow the brands. But when you are in a critical turnaround situation, you have to have talent at the table who can do the job today."

Stutz, who is known to tackle The New York Times crossword no matter how late the puzzle hits her inbox, has turned her attention to McAlister's, known for its sandwiches, soups, and spuds. As she readied to hit the road to meet with franchisees, Stutz says she likes what she sees so far. "What is great about this brand is that it is already so successful," she says. "It is more tweaking to position McAlister's to ramp up growth, versus trying to reestablish the brand. It is quite strong the way it is."

Stutz says she is grateful to the women before her who blazed the trail and will continue to do her best to help others follow. "As women, we have to look out for one another," she says. "We have to support one another and create opportunities for the next generation of women leaders."

No. of units: 338 (44 corporate)
International locations: None
Public or private? Private
Year founded: 1989
Began franchising: 1994
Years with company: Since November 2014
Years in franchising: 28

How did you rise to the top?
Obviously, hard work, high standards, a passion for what you do, and consistently delivering great results gets you an interview. What differentiates a candidate is one who surrounds themselves with great talent and develops them to reach their full potential. Strong financial acumen is a must, along with strategic thinking and being willing to take risks.

Was becoming a CEO/president always part of your plan
? I knew that I wanted to advance, but I hadn't thought about advancing to that level until I attended a Women's Foodservice Forum leadership conference early in my career. They referenced a membership survey in which not one member had expressed ambition to rise to the top position and said, "Why not us?" So I thought, "Why not me?"

Did you have a mission statement for your business life?
Take the high road. Treat every member of the team with respect, knowing our business will not be successful without their contributions.

How did you prepare yourself and set goals that led you to the C-suite?
I tried to do an honest assessment of my skills and leadership abilities. I asked several colleagues and mentors for their feedback to validate my thinking. Next, I learned what skills were necessary for the next level and measured myself against those. Then I focused on closing that gap.

When and where did you gain leadership experience/knowledge?
I started as an hourly employee and worked my way up. Most of my learning came from taking on challenging assignments, learning from franchisees, and going back to school for an MBA.

What leadership examples did you learn from?
One of my mentors, Lou Kaucic, former chief people officer at Applebee's, was a shining example that you can lead at any level in an organization. He was able to influence major decisions with his ability to get people to think more broadly and understand the impact of their decisions. He also modeled how important a great culture, with an engaged workforce, is truly a differentiator.

How did you benefit from networking?
I can't begin to stress how important this is to advancing your career. When you are being considered for a promotion, ask yourself, "Who is in the room when the decision is made? Is there someone who will be a sponsor or an advocate for me?" You must build those professional relationships in advance, as well as let your boss know that you are interested in up with your company.

What role, if any, did mentors play in your career? How have they helped you?
They've listened objectively, helped me see my points of view from another perspective, and provided feedback that I needed to hear.

Are you now mentoring others?
Of course! I try to tackle a leadership competency at each session, but always start with, "You have my undivided attention for the next hour. What is the best use of this time together?"

What communication skills helped you reach the top?
Being comfortable speaking in public is important, but my biggest lesson was about timing: understanding when is the right time to put your ideas on the table in a meeting to have your voice heard.

What other skills were important?
Financial skills. Don't shy away from this. Just keep at it until you understand.

Did you encounter stereotypes/sexism, and how did you overcome that?
I think most women I know have dealt with this in some form. Have the confidence to call out the behavior and ask for it to stop. If it doesn't, ask for help from the next level up or human resources. Chances are someone else in your company is experiencing it as well. Don't let that one inconsiderate individual get away with it.

Do you think women bring a different approach to leadership? How?
When I look at leadership competencies, I don't see a significant difference between genders. I think it plays out more in the context of the company's culture and how well the company accepts diversity. I would give women leaders a slight edge on their level of engagement, but with that comes taking things too personally.

What are the biggest mistakes you see female leaders make?
My experience of years of reading and writing performance reviews is that women rate themselves much lower than men, despite equal performance. I see this played out further on the job, with a lack of confidence or not applying for the next job, even though they are well qualified.

Can you have a family and a career at the top?
Yes, once we figure out that we don't have to carry the entire load by ourselves and feel comfortable asking for help.

What does it take for a woman to become a CEO in franchising today?
Have clarity on your career path, as you have to want it; the ambition, hard work, and extra effort that goes along with being successful in your current role, while learning the skills necessary for the next level; a strong network; business and financial acumen; and the ability to pick yourself up with confidence despite the circumstances and keep going after it.

What's at stake if women continue to be underrepresented in the C-suite?
If you see this as a problem, please explain. More and more research has proven that companies with female representation in their C-suite and on their board outperform their peer group financially, as well as demonstrate more innovation. I would not be surprised that one day, given the power of social media to support a cause, the female consumer--who controls the purchasing power--ultimately will demand change and will decide to support only those companies with fair representation of women in their leadership ranks. That could be a real catalyst for change. I think it's important for successful women in the C-suite to mentor and guide other women, so together we can create more opportunity for women.

Are you doing anything to help the next generation of women become franchise leaders?
I hope that I have opened doors for the next generation of women leaders and have made it easier for them to have equal opportunities to advance. I see myself as a mentor, sponsor, and advocate for them. It's important to create a culture and atmosphere that welcomes female leaders, as well as female franchisees. McAlister's Deli is growing rapidly, and we see a significant opportunity to have more women represented in our system.

What advice would you offer to women seeking the C-suite?
You can do this!

What would you like your legacy to be?
I lived both a fun and purposeful life making a better life for my family and my colleagues at all levels of their careers.

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