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Lynne Zappone, chief talent and HR officer at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, led her team in cooking up a strategic HR function from scratch.
Lynne Zappone is chief talent and HR officer at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, a company founded by Alvin C. Copeland Sr. in 1972 and named after Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the New York City detective from the 1971 movie "The French Connection."
The company is known for its spicy New Orleans-style chicken and buttermilk biscuits. As of October 2013, it had restaurants operating in 2,187 locations in the U.S., Guam, Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands and 27 foreign countries. America’s Favorite Chicken Co., or AFC Enterprises, purchased Popeyes and Churches Chicken in 1972.
Zappone oversees a staff of 10 and spends about 10 percent of her time visiting the company’s restaurants. Before she entered the HR profession, she taught grade school, and education is a thread woven throughout her career. She has played diverse roles in organizational development, training, talent development and global learning. HR Magazine sat down with her at the corporate office located outside of Atlanta to talk about HR’s role in training, her definition of success and her appearance on the television show "Undercover Boss."
Early in your career, you taught sixth grade in an urban part of Jacksonville, Fla. Any lessons you learned that inform you as an HR leader?
My ability to have a conversation with anyone is something I learned from a bunch of 12-year-old kids in 1986. I realized then that I enjoyed helping people figure out problems, connecting with them professionally and being approachable to everyone. I was only 22, and parents were asking me for advice! So my capacity to connect probably started then, along with being able to find creative ways to get information across to people and keep the message simple.
Tell us about your transition to HR.
One summer I attended an in-service teacher training that was very experiential, and I was intrigued by the learning development process and the woman leading it. I said to myself, "I don’t know what she does, but I want to do that."
My first job in training and development had a lot to do with my teaching experience and showing the recruiter that my skills could translate to the business world. I did the same thing when I left InterContinental Hotels Group; there are core skills to being approachable, connecting with people and communicating in a way that’s engaging.
What role do you think HR has in training and development: onboarding, developing career paths for employees, instituting various kinds of mentoring?
My definition of training is finding the people with the right competencies and character and figuring out how to develop them. What will it take to prepare them for their next role? I have to constantly think about the future needs of the business and how to get individuals ready to meet those needs.
One of the things that intrigued me about coming to Popeyes was the prospect of creating an HR function from scratch. I could see that the people on my HR team had potential and a desire to do new things. Last year, we set up HR Business Partners, which assigned six HR professionals to six business leaders at corporate headquarters. They became a one-stop shop of HR support, and it gave them great visibility.
In October, we completed one-on-one career discussions with the HR staff, and that really shaped what they wanted to do as HR professionals.
Has your perception of HR changed since you entered the profession?
I came up under the HR umbrella but never felt myself to be on the traditional HR side; I didn’t take the generalist path. I’ve always worked in business operations, running training and performing strategic HR work.
You recently said that you wanted to be out in the restaurants, spending more time connecting with the Popeyes field team. Was that influenced by appearing on "Undercover Boss" in March 2012?
It wasn’t prompted by it, but it was reinforced. I don’t view myself as an HR person; I see myself as a businessperson, and the best way to be connected to the business is through our people. They can really help me understand the challenges they’re facing and how to respond to them.
You come from a large Italian family. What influence has that had on your career?
I’m the youngest of five from a working-class family in Rhode Island. My father worked for the U.S. Postal Service, and my mother was a homemaker. I grew up around a lot of people—I have 50 first cousins—and everyone was welcome in our house. Everybody in my family contributes, everybody is valued, and everybody helps everyone else. The idea of collaborating and being welcoming is sort of in my bones.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
It’s OK to make mistakes because you can learn from them. When I make a mistake, I tend to own it and reflect on what I could have done differently.
One of my first bosses told me that there are different types of people in companies—some choose a path that is all about them, and others don’t. You have to choose which way you’re going to go.
What’s your definition of success?
There’s two parts: One has to do with the group I’m a part of and the other with myself—being able to contribute in a way that helps the team to win. I really, really enjoy collaborating to achieve something.
How do you know when you’re successful?
I think I’ve gotten good at identifying people who have real talent. I get a lot of joy from seeing that I’ve helped someone get to that next step.
Any career advice for HR professionals?
The only way the company will see you differently is if you act differently. Look for ways to make the "people plan" drive the business plan. If you’re doing HR work on how the development team can open new restaurants, you’re doing business work.
You have a 17-year-old daughter. What lessons do you hope she learns from you?
She’s a very inclusive person, and we talk a lot about the importance of engaging everybody and being approachable, open and willing to step up when there isn’t a leader.
How have you balanced a career with being a single parent?
I took the first two years off after my daughter was born, and early in my career I was fortunate to have flexibility and a later starting time so that I could drop her off at day care.
My advice for others: Do the best you can and give yourself a break—some days you’re going to be a good employee and an adequate parent, while others you’ll be a good parent and an adequate employee.
There’s a lot of pressure to do it all and be everything. You just have to be measured in what "all" is to you and try to make the right choices for you and your family. This is my daughter’s last year to play high school volleyball, and my staff knows I’ll be leaving early on game days.
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.
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