Debbie Roberts: The zone president at a huge global brand learned her love of business working in a corner store
By Katrina Brown Hunt
When she started really moving up in her career at a certain global brand, Debbie Roberts took time to do one important thing: flip burgers.
An accountant-turned-marketing-director who had been working on the corporate side of McDonald’s since 1990, she was tapped in 2004 to join the company’s
Accelerated Operations Program, which lets employees rotate through various operations positions.
“I was nervous,” admits the Illinois native. “I started as a crew member, and then you’re a shift manager, and ultimately a restaurant manager. I was on my feet all day, and I had never done that before.”
And while her feet got a workout, she also learned some big lessons in management and strategy. “You’re managing the working mom and the teenager who’s working part-time,” she says of her time in the stores. “You’re making sure equipment is calibrated. You’re also learning how to be a part of the community—developing relationships with schools, businesses, local aldermen. It’s a lot you’re balancing every single day—but it was the best learning of my career.”
Today, Roberts is the zone president for the eastern United States at McDonald’s, managing roughly 5,600 stores and half of the company’s US business. Diversity Woman spoke with Roberts about her own working-teenager ambitions, her initial perceptions about the Golden Arches, and how the company now happily blurs lines among its diverse set of groups.
Diversity Woman: As a child in Chicago, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Debbie Roberts: It almost makes me laugh, it feels so far away. I was always into sciences, and I wanted to be a dentist. I loved, and still do love, teeth. As a kid, it was kind of weird. I would say to my parents, “You gotta floss your teeth.”
But at college, it all changed. I wimped out. I was a biology major, and I took a class where you had to work with cadavers. I changed my major. I was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and, at that time, it was one of the toughest colleges for accounting, so I went after that. I was a strong math student, and I really liked it.
DW: Are you still “into” teeth?
DR: I definitely have nice teeth, but I do know now that things happen for a reason, which lets you course-correct. I can’t imagine looking down someone’s throat every day of my life now.
DW: What was your first job as a young person—fast food, perhaps?
DR: It wasn’t really a job—in fact, it may have been violation of child labor laws!—but I used to visit an aunt in Pittsburgh, my mother’s closest sister, who had a corner grocery store. I visited her every summer. While my cousins would be outside, I would be inside working in the store.
I would take inventory. She got so comfortable, she could leave for a little while and I would run the store. I was doing it at the age of 11, and I loved it.
DW: What did you get out of that experience?
DR: Well, for one thing, my daughter still says, “You count money faster than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
But it also gave me a love of business and the interaction with people. My aunt was a huge personality. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her. In the store, there were always people she would know, and she knew what people were coming in for. Kids would come in and she’d give them candy.
I also learned the importance of processes, procedures, and accuracy. Later,
I worked at a grocery store back at home, as a cashier, and I took my job so seriously—reconciling my drawer with the
receipts, not being under or over. I don’t recall my mother ever saying, “You have to go to work—get up and go.” I just went.
DW: What was your first job after college?
DR: I worked in the steel industry, but I knew that was not meant for me long-term. My friend got a call from a headhunter at McDonald’s, and she called me about it. I said, “Yes I’m looking, but not at a hamburger company. If I wanted that, I wouldn’t have gone to college.”
But I took the interview, and I researched the company. I learned that McDonald’s had more accounting departments than I thought—international accounting, real estate accounting, financial accounting. I could rotate through different departments and never get tired in 10 years. I was also impressed by how many people had started in the restaurants themselves—it looked like the land of opportunity. By the time of the interview, I wanted the job so much I didn’t know what to do with myself.
DW: What kind of leader are you now?
DR: I’m a highly accountable leader. I’ve been entrusted to lead a significant portion of the business, from a financial standpoint and a people standpoint, so I’m accountable for delivering results, and for developing talent for our organization. I try to listen more and talk less, so I understand the perspectives of all.
DW: You’re part of McDonald’s Women’s Leadership Network.
What is the benefit of that for your work environment?
DR: We also have the African-American Council, the National Hispanic Employee Business Network, McDonald’s Pride, the Asia Pacific Middle East Network, a Young Professionals Network, and more. It’s about having people from the same walk of life as you, to share your challenges or your victories. But our leadership network is also open to others. At the women’s meeting, we have guys there, and they are supportive.
We recently had an event for Martin Luther King Day, and we had every diversity group get up and talk about MLK’s leadership platform. I sat there in awe—all of these different individuals. The power of one plus one is really three.
DW: What objects in your office say the most about you?
DR: One is a picture of my daughter. She’s 17, but she’s younger in the picture. Family is important to me. I have a supportive husband who gets me, too. I talk a lot about my family, and I encourage employees to talk about their families. It’s important to understand what motivates people.
The second thing is The Shining Light award. It’s an award that celebrates the principles that MLK embodied as well as [McDonald’s visionary and former owner] Ray Kroc. To receive an award like that was extremely humbling.
DW: You’ve come a long way from those aspirations to be a dentist. What is a big lesson that you’ve learned along the way?
DR: Someone once told me something that their grandma used to say: Don’t write the end yet, because you miss the real story along the way. You have to be open to possibilities. That hits me between the eyes.
Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, my mom was a school clerk, my dad a construction worker—blue-collar folks. Now here I sit at a company like McDonald’s, responsible for half of our US business. I never saw the story ending this way. I feel so blessed.
DW: What book have you read lately that has really has stayed with you?
DR: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I refer to it often. One principle that I absolutely love is “It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder.” Again, it’s not about where you end up, but the journey.