Growing up in Merrillville, Indiana, Gloria Santona dreamed of being a doctor. She pursued her dream, majoring in biochemistry at Michigan State University.
Then she applied to medical school—and didn’t get in. It was time for Plan B.
One problem: She didn’t have a Plan B.
But fortunately, she did have supportive parents—her father, who worked in a steel mill, was the child of immigrants from Spain; her mother, born in Cuba, was a cashier in a medical office. They had always encouraged their daughter to reach for the American dream.
Santona also had a mentor. After graduating from college, as she searched for a career fit, Santona worked in a human resources department where a labor lawyer took her under his wing.
“He convinced me that I should give law a try,” says Santona. “I had never thought of law as a career choice, and it was very fortunate that he pushed and prodded. He said, ‘What are you doing here? You’re talented and you can do more with yourself.’ I knew I wanted to do something more—I just didn’t know what. I was 23, and I had saved some money from working, so I said, ‘Why not? I’ll try law school for a year, and if I hate it, I can do something else.’”
So she headed off to law school. And she loved it. Her first job following law school was at McDonald’s.
Thirty-seven years later, Santona is the executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary of McDonald’s Corporation, the world’s leading global food service retailer with more than 35,000 restaurants in 120 countries. In this role, she leads McDonald’s worldwide legal, compliance, regulatory, and corporate governance functions. As part of McDonald’s senior leadership team, Santona is also actively involved in the company’s strategic direction and growth.
Quite an accomplishment for someone without a backup plan.
Diversity Woman: How did your family background shape your values and career aspirations?
Gloria Santona: My dad’s parents went from Spain to Indiana, and my mom’s parents emigrated from Spain to Cuba. My mom was born in Cuba and grew up there. When she was 18 and visiting relatives in Indiana, she met my father, and they ended up getting married. I have a younger brother, and we were the first generation in our family to go to college. It was a really big deal for us. My parents, typical of many immigrant families, saved for a better life for their kids. My parents are very supportive of me. At the time, when I wanted to be a doctor, they thought, “Okay, you can do that.” I was also encouraged to do anything my brother could do. I think it’s just those values of people who have immigrated to have a better life and build that better life for that next generation. As a result, you don’t want to let anybody down.
DW: Did you have any role models?
GS: Today, I really believe that it’s important to be a role model for others, to let others see you. But I have to say that as I was coming up in my career, in the late ’70s, there weren’t a lot of people for me to look up to who were doing what I was doing. If I go back and think about my family, my grandmother was very independent. She had her own business. So there was probably a streak of independence that ran through my family that I saw.
DW: When you went to McDonald’s, what was your first job there?
GS: They hired me right out of law school as an attorney, at the first level. Within a couple of years, I started to specialize in finance law. A lot of what I did was international finance, which was fabulous for me because I was bilingual. Then when we got into the go-go ’80s, and everyone was doing deals, I was the deal lawyer for McDonald’s, which was a plum job and so exciting. I was very lucky at a very early stage to have been identified by both the general counsel and the CFO as a lawyer they really liked to work with. These two gentlemen gave me a huge career boost.
DW: That level of responsibility must have been pretty unusual for you on several levels: being Latina, female, and young.
GS: When I joined McDonald’s in 1977, it was fairly diverse, which was unusual for the day. I was the 13th lawyer, and I was the fourth woman. I was the fourth minority on the legal team. They had an Asian, an African American, and two Hispanics. If you think about the legal industry and what it looked like in 1977, that was extraordinary. McDonald’s was a very inviting place. Just to show you what kind of place it was, they had a vice president of individuality in 1977. His job was basically making sure that everybody was recognized and included. It was about appreciating individuality. When you think about how forward-thinking that was in the ’70s, it’s absolutely amazing.
DW: Were there any obstacles you had to overcome?
GS: In the ’80s, I was doing all these financings, and I would typically be dealing with the largest law firms in the country. There was never a woman on the other side of the table. Actually, I think I was the only woman on my side of the table too. I would be in a room with 20 people, and I would be the only woman.
I have a biochemistry degree, so I do have the capacity to do higher math. We would get into discussions and negotiations about particular provisions that were financially oriented and when I would come up with the solution and voice it, the others would talk over me. And two hours later, they would come up with the same solution. I remember doing one particular deal, and I took one of the attorneys who worked for me, a young man. As he walked away, he said, “You said that two hours ago.” I knew I had said it, but somehow when it came out of my mouth, it didn’t have the same credibility. Now was it because I was a lawyer talking about some financial concept that they didn’t think I was capable of, or was it because I was a woman? It happened more than once.
DW: What mistake did you make that you learned the most from?
GS: I was very fortunate that early on I was identified, had mentors, and got challenging positions. I became quite accomplished and respected as a securities and finance lawyer. So eventually I decided that I wanted to be the general counsel. But I never really voiced my aspirations. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing or if it’s a female thing, but I never asked what it would take to get there. When it appeared that the general counsel would be retiring shortly, I asked. I wasn’t appointed to that spot, and I was surprised. I had been with the company for 20 years at that point, and they didn’t think of me that way? When I think back about it, I realize, “Well gee, why didn’t I ask 10 years before?” Silly me. If I had asked 10 years earlier, I could have worked on all the things that I needed to work on [to be prepared for the position].
But I stuck around, and fortunately I was prepared [the next time around]. I did all the things that I needed to do to be viewed as being prepared. I learned that doing a really good job wasn’t enough.
DW: In your experience, what is the most productive path to the C-suite for females?
GS: I think there are so many different ones. History shows us that if you want to be a CEO, you have to spend time in the operations field. You have to have P&L responsibilities. I think there have been studies done that essentially show that if women don’t have P&L responsibility, it’s much less likely they’ll ever be a CEO.
DW: What do you think is the key to good leadership?
GS: Hiring and working with the right people. For example, when I took over responsibility for oversight of real estate legal, I had been managing a group of probably 15 or 16 people. I then had to incorporate a larger group that was probably about 70 or 80 people who were in a functional area that I wasn’t familiar with. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, where do I start?” I started with my leadership team. I guess I must have intuitively thought that you’ve got to have the right team. So for everything I’ve done since then, whenever I’ve taken a new position, the first thing I do is make sure I have the right team supporting me. DW