Bytes, Coffee and Pizza Dough

Time Warner’s Janet Parker learned about the intersection of employee happiness and customer satisfaction during a detour into the food industry.

When Janet Parker had been at IBM for about 10 years, she realized she had a solid career in place—and panicked.
“I had started my career at IBM in sales and was thrilled,” says Parker. “I loved the company and enjoyed the selling environment. Before I knew it, 10 years had gone by and I thought, ‘What if I don’t move now? This could be the only company I ever work for. Now is the time to go.’”

Today, Parker is the group VP of human resources at Time Warner, with an emphasis on sales and marketing, but since her epiphany at IBM, her career has followed a winding and fairly colorful path. She found herself running Pizza Hut locations and then was involved in the early days of Starbucks, before transitioning into communications.

Along the way, Parker has embraced change, both for herself and for the companies for which she has worked. She now serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications, and at Time Warner she is helping build a new generation of telecom pros. The company, which has achieved a Human Rights Campaign Equality Index score of 100 percent, has a wide range of diversity initiatives.For instance, it sponsors students in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) internship program and partners with the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers to recruit military veterans.

Diversity Woman spoke with Parker about the unique challenges in the communications industry, and about how her time manning a pizza oven and hanging with baristas helped elevate her HR game.

Diversity Woman: Why were you so averse to staying at IBM?
Janet Parker: In the office where I started, in Rochester, we had a lot of individuals who had been there 20 years plus—this was the only company they’d worked at. Perhaps it would have been different, in the reality I was in at the time, if I had seen more people at various levels of tenure. But I decided I had to get out.

DW: For many people, the mark of a great career is settling in at one place, or do you think that attitude has changed over the years?
JP: Perhaps. My father was in the army, so we traveled all over, and I didn’t have a hometown. Having moved around so much in my life, I find moving to be a really exhilarating experience. I also like finding a new city and exploring.

DW: How did you get from IBM to Pizza Hut? That’s a pretty drastic move.
JP: I had been recruited by an organization that worked closely with PepsiCo, which used to look for a profile of [a prospective employee]—what the person brought in terms of learning or experience. Then Pepsico would teach this person about its product or brand, rather than just looking for someone who came out of the food industry.
So they recruited me for a position at Pizza Hut. They bring you in and say, “Here’s the job you’ll have for a year to a year and a half, and on the way you get hands-on experience.” Because it was Pizza Hut, I learned how to make pizzas, wait on tables, run a restaurant, and did all that over a period of time. Then when a regional position opened up, you might be responsible for 80 or even 200 restaurants.

DW: How did you like it?
JP: I went from going to meetings with business clients at their offices and talking about tech to proofing dough and making a pizza. For a while I could get past that, because I knew what the end situation was, and it was a great way to learn the business. But somewhere along the way, I realized it was not for me!

DW: What did you take away from it?
JP: I could probably run a restaurant! It was excellent training. I learned how to make a quality product, how to service the customers, how to run the operation from the front of the house to the back. And, I learned how you have empathy for your employees.

DW: How was working with the employees?
JP: That was another big gap. At IBM, my colleagues and I had had similar conversations. People there had similar backgrounds and lived the same lifestyles, and economically we were the same.
But in the restaurant business, you’d be working with people for whom English is not their first language and who may be working for minimum wage. So the challenge becomes how you bridge that—to see what is important to your employees and how to make them comfortable with you being their leader. I found it very humbling to be with people who work very hard every day and to see what it means for them to move forward.

DW: How was your Starbucks experience different?
JP: Starbucks somewhat mirrored Pizza Hut, but it is a different industry, with different products, and its focus was so different.

DW: How so?
JP: When I joined, it was not nearly as big as it is now. Howard Schultz was there, and you could just feel his vision. He wanted to create an environment for the consumer and a quality product, and that got reinforced on a regular basis. We did coffee tastings daily, and we knew where the coffee was coming from and what challenges the farmers were facing. They were still growing when I joined, and they were all about establishing the brand.
They also referred to their employees as “partners.” I just thought how they treated their employees was phenomenal. When you walked in the door, the customer and employees were the most important things. They saw that if you created the right value for both, it would create the financial result any company would want—and that’s how you got there. At most companies, there is the financial plan, and you use that plan to figure out how you get there, but Starbucks kind of flipped that.

DW: How do you extend those good vibes to cable customers?
JP: At Time Warner, we’re aware of the fact that our subscribers on the residential video side have been declining over several quarters. People are watching what they want in all kinds of places. Our competitors have mostly been the satellite companies, but now people can get this stuff anywhere—like Hulu and Net-flix. It’s very different when your competitors are not right in front of you. So you have to offer both products and a level of service—because people can always go somewhere else.

DW: How do you do that?
JP: You do a couple of things. It’s the training, so every time there is an interaction with the customer, you have to exceed expectations. What I have also seen the company do is look at what’s driving our consumers. There is a focus on multiethnicity, and there is a focus on spending, and age, in terms of which products consumers purchase and whether we are appropriately packaging our products for them.

DW: Whether you’re offering the right kind of pizza, in a way?
JP: Having that operations experience was helpful and valuable as an HR person. When I first got in, I knew the challenges for, say, a new product rollout, including truck deliveries and a lot of small things—things where you knew what was frustrating to the employees and how that might impact your sales. When you understand how an organization makes money, and what some of the drivers are, and how things get done—coming from a firsthand experience—you can say how HR could help the process and the bottom line.

DW: One diversity initiative at Time Warner has focused on veterans. What in particular do vets bring to the communications table?
JP: In industries where process and standards are key, vets bring deep skills. In general, they are decisive and good problem solvers, and they understand how to collaborate in a work setting. Their training is quite rigorous, so it demonstrates a level of perseverance to completing a body of work. Also, the expectations are high, so the work is often completed at a high level.

DW: What books have you read lately that have inspired you in your career?
JP: One is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There [by Marshall Goldsmith]. It has a good perspective on the habits of productive leaders. It reinforces the need to be clear in your intentions and expectations. Communication is so important when managing teams and trying to get work done with, and through, others. DW

Katrina Brown Hunt, based in San Diego, has written for Fortune Small Business and Smart Money.

 

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