The CHRO of Avanti’s, an Illinois-based restaurant chain, shares her story of entering the HR field, plus her thoughts on leadership, volunteering and more.
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During her college years, Nancy Wraight was working three jobs to scrape together the money to pay for tuition at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. A manager at one of those jobs (at the now defunct Montgomery Ward department store) was the first person to suggest Wraight explore a field she knew nothing about—"personnel." She didn't take his advice right away.
Instead, after graduation she began teaching kindergarten while continuing to work at a retail chain. But when a full-time HR manager position at the retailer opened, she jumped at the chance. As Wraight puts it, "I got the job, and 30-plus years later, it's still the field I live and love—most days!" After rising through HR roles in retail and health care, she has served for the past decade as the CHRO of a popular 300-employee restaurant chain in central Illinois.
What’s your leadership philosophy?
I believe in servant leadership. I will not ask someone to do something that I am not willing to do myself. I have worked in just about every position for my current employer—washed dishes, made sandwiches and waited tables. HR must be present and pitch in when needed, which is a great way to form relationships.
During my first job in HR, my boss told me it was my job to make everyone happy—in retail! I still must remind myself, 30 years later, that I can't make everyone happy. In that first job, we had no strategy, no goals, no strategic plan. It was all subjective and not measurable. Slowly, things changed. HR must be future-oriented, measure what is important and not only have a mission and vision, but also a business acumen.
Open and honest communication is a must, even though it's difficult at times. I once had a boss tell me during a performance review that I had been doing something wrong for eight months. Do you know how many times I repeated the same behavior during those eight months? Don't wait to have those conversations, difficult or not. Behave like an owner.
Finally, "learn everything you can and build your tribe" are the fundamentals for me. HR is a lonely field. SHRM and my state and local SHRM chapters are my tribe.
Are there any leaders you’ve modeled your leadership style after?
I've had many different leaders in my lifetime. Some good, some terrible. But every one of them taught me something that made me a better HR professional.
I still love the FISH leadership philosophy [modeled after the famous Pike Place fish market in Seattle]. It's easy, and the four main ideas really work: "Choose your attitude," "Be there," "Make their day" and "Play." It only takes one negative person to change a room. I'm also a big fan of Brene Brown, Cy Wakeman and Steve Browne. And I still utilize many of Quint Studer's philosophies. By always learning, you grow, you learn from your mistakes and constantly move forward.
What are you especially passionate about in your professional life?
I love volunteering. As experienced HR professionals, we need to mentor and develop our next generation of leaders to be successful and passionate about our profession. These will be our new leaders. Currently, I am the state director for Illinois SHRM. Volunteering for SHRM, my church and our local theaters keeps me going.
I am also working toward a program with stay interviews. While they are not new, in a mostly hourly workforce, these meetings are somewhat of a surprise to many employees.
On top of that, I have had my own medical challenges. Being disabled is difficult enough, but when you have "hidden" disabilities you get judged. You can't see my autoimmune diseases or anxiety. Just remember, don't judge someone by looking at them. Learn their story. We all have one.
How is leading HR for a restaurant group different from leading HR in other industries?
In some ways it is no different, but in the areas of recruitment, compensation and benefits it can be very different. It was hard to find great people, and after COVID it's almost impossible. And the new ghosting trend is just unbelievable. Offering a salaried position to a potential manager and having them not show up still amazes me.
The biggest philosophy that we have tried to work on as an executive team this year is to always find the positives when we walk into one of our restaurants, rather than always jumping to the negatives.
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