The Women’s Foodservice Forum, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, will convene its annual Leadership Development Conference in Dallas on Sunday with more than 3,000 attendees, eclipsing the prior record set in 2008.
“It has been an amazing journey,” said Anna Mason, the WFF’s general manager, in a phone interview. “If you look at 25 years ago, we had a group of 14 women who really saw the need and the vision to change the dynamic and landscape for women in the foodservice sector.”
Those 14 women who gathered in 1989 included Julia Stewart, who is the president and chief executive of IHOP-Applebee’s parent DineEquity Inc., Monica Boyles, vice president and general manager of McDonald’s USA LLC’s greater Chicago region, and Edna Morris, a partner at Axum Capital Partners. Today’s WFF has more than 5,000 members and engages with 30,000 people in the foodservice industry, Mason said.
The conference, which runs March 23–26, will feature a keynote address by poet, novelist and lecturer Maya Angelou, who addressed the group 10 years ago. Angelou said in a statement that she was pleased to make a return to the WFF. “I have admired the work of the WFF,” she said, “because they have seen the need to make sure women are given a chance and the resources to succeed.”
Laurie Burns, WFF chair and chief development officer at Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc., said this year’s record conference registration levels reflect a post-recession emphasis on corporations developing leaders. “Companies are a little bit back into the behavior of investing in their teams and their teams’ development,” said Burns, who has been on the WFF board for six years and attended her first conference in the early 1990s.
“There are huge leadership development opportunities and at the right level in the organization,” Burns added. “At Darden, we absolutely value the content and the offerings that our team can get at WFF. It’s an opportunity for our team members who go to get exposure to other executives in the industry, peers in the industry, and learn from them. … It’s a significant part of where we invest our people-development dollars.”
Investment in developing leadership remains important for all foodservice companies, Burns added. “It’s this battle we are all in for top talent and the need to grow and develop our team to fuel or growth as organizations,” she said.
This year’s WFF conference, which carries a theme of “Changing the Face of Leadership,” will reflect what WFF has accomplished over the past 25 years as well, Mason added.
“The beauty of WFF is that it’s different from any other quote-unquote trade organization — not just in this space but in others,” Mason said. “We don’t have a selling component. There’s no trade show aspect. There’s no B-to-B selling at all. What that does is allow the opportunity to truly network and build the strategic connections that open doors and allow you to present yourself as who you are to everybody at the conference.”
Mason said that in her eight years with the organization it has expanded conference development tracks beyond the original two — emerging leader and director — to incorporate other senior manager and executive levels.
“This is a way organizations can make sure they have ready talent in their pipelines,” Mason said. WFF also developed an executive program four years ago with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management for members at levels of vice president and higher.
“We provide thoughtful and purposeful leadership development that is actionable when you go back into the organizations,” Mason said. “We are giving you the tools to not only train the trainer once you go back into the organization but, more important, they see the value that these individuals who gone to conference and all of our other events bring back with them when they return. There’s an immediate return on investment that is tangible and identifiable.”
Burns said her casual-dining company has tracked the career paths of its attendees to measure the effect. “Within Darden, those are the folks that often get the next opportunities at a higher rate,” she said. “We’ve seen a payout in our organization.”
Darden also expands the scope of its attendees’ takeaways with headquarters follow-ups. “When our folks come back from conference, we’ll have them participate in a ‘lunch and learn’ to share their learnings with other team members that didn’t have an opportunity to go,” Burns explained.
In its 25th year, WFF plans to honor the founders and former leaders of the organizations, including Fritzi Woods, who served as president and chief executive of WFF for three years before her death on Sept. 18. Mason said Woods was instrumental in honing the founders’ original vision and strategy for WFF, which, she added, has become “a $10 million enterprise.”
In addition to the WFF’s core leadership sessions, the conference is continuing its four-year-old “Communities of Interest” programming on the last day for attendees’ personal development, Mason said. Those seven categories include: military families, working mothers, gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender, young professionals, people of color, caregivers and international mobility. Participating has grown from 700 attendees four years ago to more than 2,100 this year, Mason said.
“That enables organizations to supplement their affiliate-group learning and development,” Mason said, adding that WFF is building a website community around those areas.