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McDonald's global chief diversity officer has built an impressive career at the fast-food giant by embracing change.
Patricia Harris, vice president of McDonald’s USA and global chief diversity officer of McDonald’s Corp., was still in college when she took a secretarial position at McDonald’s. “I’ll stay here until I finish school and get a real job,” she told herself.
Thirty years later, she’s still there. Far from being the exclusive province of short-term fast-food jobs, McDonald’s offers “lots of ‘real’ jobs and lots of career paths,” she says. “We have hamburger lawyers, hamburger accountants and hamburger HR people.”
While Harris didn’t start out behind the counter, many top managers did, she says—including McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner and the three U.S. division presidents. And many, like Harris, have long tenures with the company. “Things change so much at McDonald’s,” she says, “and I learn something new with every change.”
The Road from McBee to McDonalds
The youngest of 11 children, Harris is “a proud South Carolinian” who grew up in the small town of McBee. After she graduated from high school at 16, however, the big city beckoned, and she was eager to follow her older sisters to New York.
In New York, Harris found a job as an administrative assistant and attended college classes part time, as she tried to “find myself,” she says. After she met and married a man from Chicago, they moved there and she enrolled in classes at Roosevelt University.
In 1976, Harris heard about an opening in the legal department at McDonald’s. Working there first in a secretarial position, she discovered her true calling when a job opened up in the HR department and she was offered a compensation analyst position.
“It was just one of those wonderful things—being in the right place at the right time in the right company,” she says. After three years in compensation, she moved into an HR generalist position and thoroughly enjoyed that as well. “I was an HR generalist for six or seven years, and I would have been happy to stay in that role. I knew by then that I wanted to be an HR professional.”
Harris continued to attend school part time while she worked, completing a degree in public administration and personnel administration in 1979. “I was never a full-time student” but was determined to get a degree. “Today, I tell people, ‘Yes, you can get that degree.’ ”
A Passion for Diversity
In 1985, Harris was offered the position of affirmative action manager, an opportunity that once again changed the course of her career.
She was apprehensive at first. Although interested, Harris wasn’t sure she could do the job. In addition, “I knew affirmative action wasn’t a popular topic.” The affirmative action department was new, having been established in 1980, and it was seen as the “police,” she says, coming in to enforce the rules. She wondered if this would be a wise career move.
Ultimately, however, she decided to “step out of my comfort zone” and take the risk, with the encouragement of her boss, Mel Hobson, McDonald’s first director of affirmative action.
By the end of the 1980s, the work of the department had expanded. Partnerships were developed with external organizations, and affirmative action moved out of HR and became its own stand-alone unit. At the same time, the name was changed, from affirmative action to diversity.
Although the department was no longer part of HR, it continued to have a strong relationship with human resources. “I don’t know how diversity people can do their job without HR’s support,” she says.
Looking back, Harris says that taking that risk in 1985 turned out to be the best decision she has ever made. “This job truly became my passion. It’s who I am, both personally and professionally.”
Nurturing Employee Networks
When I joined the company in 1976, I think we had one female officer, one Asian officer and one African-American officer. There were no Hispanic officers, says Harris. Today, of McDonalds 200 U.S. officers, 26 percent are women and 23 percent are minorities.
Harris is particularly proud that McDonalds received an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Freedom to Compete Award this year in recognition of the companys diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The EEOC specifically cited McDonalds employee networks, which include the African-American Council, the Hispanic Employee Network, the Asian Employee Network, the Womens Leadership Network (which is global now) and the Gays, Lesbians and Allies at McDonalds. Each group provides networking opportunities for its members and offers an avenue for sharing ideas with management.
Harris still remembers the first networking meetings she attended as a new employee. Those early sessions were somewhat ad hoc and casual, she says, but they started becoming more formal in the early 1980s.
Were in a different place today, says Harris, and the networks are continuing to evolve. They offer seminars on career management and leadership skills development as well as provide opportunities to network and to share best practices.
While the early groups focused more on social aspects of networking, the primary focus today is on the business. Each network has a diversity goal and a plan that complements the organizations customer-centric approach to business. To prevent silos among the networks, cross-functional teams of network leaders share information and ideas.
Asked which career achievement gives her the greatest satisfaction, Harris says she is most proud of her work with the employee networks and with the companys diversity education program.
Last year, McDonalds recognized Harris work by creating the Pat Harris Diversity Awardonly the third time in 50 years that an award was named for an employee. Given for the first time in 2006, the new award goes to the McDonalds officer each year who has achieved the highest results in meeting his or her departments diversity goals.
One Foot Back in HR
Earlier this year, Harris was promoted to global chief diversity officer, and she has already begun to meet with HR leaders from McDonald’s country areas around the world to enlist their help in ensuring that diversity reaches all levels of the organization across the globe. “Diversity has so many dimensions,” she says. “It means different things to different countries.” As she takes on this exciting new role, she says happily, “I feel like I’m starting over again, and I love it.”
She has also come full circle, back to HR.
In her new role, Harris will have “one foot in HR” again, reporting to McDonald’s executive vice president for human resources, Rich Floersch, in addition to continuing to report to Jim Johanessen, senior vice president and chief support officer for the U.S. business.
The new relationship makes perfect sense to Floersch, who says it’s critical to have “diversity of thought” built into the organization. “We can make better customer-centric decisions when all points of view are considered.
“Pat is an important part of the HR leadership team,” says Floersch. “She’s very well informed, a true student of diversity. She is good at analyzing U.S. diversity principles and applying them in the international market. She’s also a good listener who understands the business and the culture very well.”
Driven To Succeed
Harris admits to being a workaholic with “ketchup in my veins. They call me Ms. McDonald’s, but I’ve decided that I’m OK with that.”
Harris remembers that she once told Hobson, “I want your job!” He supported her ambitions and gave her some sage career advice: In order to get promoted, Hobson told her, “you need to be recognized by others outside of McDonald’s.” She has taken that advice to heart, collecting multiple awards over the years from the restaurant industry and the Chicago business community. Harris serves on a number of outside boards, which she says “strengthens my ability to do my job at McDonald’s” by helping her build relationships and widen her circle of contacts.
Her longtime friend Jan Fields, president of McDonald’s USA’s Central Division, thinks “driven” is a good word to describe Harris. Fields, who has been at McDonald’s nearly as long as Harris, says, “Pat is a very driven person who is a good role model.” Fields estimates that “Pat probably mentors a thousand people. I call her a mentor myself.”
Not All Work
Despite her enthusiasm for her work, Harris maintains that she does have a life outside the office. She enjoys going to the theater and loves to travel, often taking trips with her 16-year-old granddaughter, Cydnii, including Caribbean cruises.
Harris also is a big fan of tennis and basketball. “I go to the U.S. Open every year,” she says, and she attended the French Open last year.
And family is very important to her. Each year, her family gathers in McBee for a July 4 holiday celebration. She’s already planning next year’s event, which will be the 40th anniversary of the reunions. It’s “similar to a mini-McDonald’s conference,” she laughs.
You Will Not Go Back
Although Harris is not ready for retirement, she has told people for years that she would retire to McBee, when the time came. However, “Maya Angelou pointed out to me that that will never happen,” she says.
She met the poet some years ago when Angelou spoke at a conference Harris attended. As they chatted, Harris learned that Angelou was from North Carolina. Told that Harris was from South Carolina and planned to move back to McBee some day, Angelou proclaimed in that well-known dramatic voice: “No, my dear, you will not go back to stay, but [McBee] will always remain your special village.”
Harris admits that the poet is likely to be right. Meanwhile, that time is still in the future. As Fields says, “There are so many paths at McDonald’s,” and Harris looks forward to exploring her new global path with the company she describes as “the best company in the world.
“I know where my heart is,” she says.
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