PR’s Top Pros Talk… Women Leaders – Dawn Ray
Dawn Ray, SVP, Corporate and Brand Communications, at Focus Brands
Dawn Ray, SVP, Corporate and Brand Communications, at Focus Brands stresses the importance of having both a mentor and a coach to help you advance in your career. She discusses some of the communications challenges faced by franchise businesses in the current environment.
Dawn also shares insights on centralized leadership and its impact on the franchisees.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: DAWN RAY
DOUG: So, Dawn, why don’t you start by just giving folks a look at what are the brands associated with Focus Brands company?
DAWN: Yes, thank you so much, Doug, for having me. We had a lot of today’s most iconic brands that you are used to seeing in the quick service restaurant space. On the restaurant side, Moe’s Southwest Grill, known for their famous queso, and hand-rolled burritos, McAllister’s Deli and Schlotzky’s. On the other side, which is how we categorize our brands. we have specialty category that is Auntie Anne’s, everyone’s favorite pretzel, Jamba, Cinnabon and Carvel ice cream, Carvel being one of the most iconic ice cream brands in America today.
DOUG: And we could do a whole conversation about our fond memories of different those outlets, but since our goal is to help PR people do their jobs better, instead, why don’t we start with your advice for women like yourselves who are in leadership positions in communications and for those who aspire to be?
DAWN: You know, I have been thinking about this a lot lately, just as I joined Focus Brands during a middle of a pandemic. So, I started in July, the end of July. We were in an interesting position in that we’ve never had a senior leader in communications before. Our CEO started two weeks before the pandemic really started to shut things down in the US. And, I’m not going into an office every day, my team is not going into an office every day. How do we reorganize the communications team? And I really have been thinking a lot about this as we’ve restructured our team. And a lot of it is just having a mentor and a coach. And I do think mentor and coach are sort of different. And for women, I think it’s really important to have some female role models, but the reality is, if you look at the senior leaders at a certain level and above in corporate America today, there are women, absolutely, but it’s primarily men. And so, you got to look for the right mentor and the right coach, no matter if it’s men or women, I’ve been fortunate to have both in my life. From a male perspective I’ve had people that have been really great coaches for me and coaches, meaning encouraging me, lifting me up, figuring out not just modeling good behavior, but helping me through a problem and not just giving me the answer.
DOUG: And with that definition of a coach, what would you say the difference is with a mentor compared to a coach?
DAWN: Yeah, I think you need a coach and a mentor in your life. Sometimes they’re one in the same. Sometimes there are two separate people. Sometimes they are various people in your lives that fill those roles. I think a coach really coaches you, think about a sports analogy, a coach will really coach you up, sometimes they yell at you, sometimes they lift you up. It’s just all part of it. They will help you get better. A mentor really models… You can look at a mentor and say, wow, you can see what their path was like, you can see their career trajectory. They may coach you along the way, but they can help you advance in your career more. So, giving you some very tactical things to do to advance. They might be working at the same company. Frankly, that’s what you should look for, is a mentor within your company that you aspire to be like, male or female, to help you get there. They may or may not be a coach for you to make you get better.
DOUG: One of the things that’s interesting about the challenges you face are communicating in a franchise business, especially in the time of COVID and the pandemic in businesses that are public facing. How do you address some of those challenges? And let’s take the franchise piece of that first so people understand how to navigate some of those challenges, and then we can get specific about what you’ve done during the pandemic to maintain business.
DAWN: Sure, in a franchise environment, the consumer, or customer, or guest, whichever industry or whatever moniker you call them, if it’s a McAlister’s Deli, they don’t really care if it’s owned by XYZ Corporation and franchised out, it’s a McAlister’s deli. So, they want it to be the same, or similar as the one, if they’re traveling, they want to be the same to the one down their street, their McAllister’s, or the one that they visit when they’re an hour and a half, two hours away or wherever. With that comes some challenges. And frankly, there are legal challenges. I think from a communications perspective, you have to be in sync with your legal team. And I spent a lot of my past career in hospitality and hotels. I worked at Hilton for 12 years. And I’ve always found that you’ve got to understand where the legal team is coming from. Your legal team is responsible for mitigating risk and making sure you’re protected legally. A lot of times that’s hard to translate into what real people and how real people think and communicate. So, you sort of have to agree to meet in the middle and say, hey, legal, here’s what I want to say, how can we say that, or how here’s what we want to support that franchisee in a time of crisis? Because the reality is at the end of the day, It’s Jamba, it’s not the Jamba owned by Dawn Ray.
DOUG: Yeah. And there’s an interesting challenge there as well, especially during the pandemic, as different states had different rules and regulations. So, how did you navigate that during the pandemic as it still continues and hopefully as things start to open up with the distribution of the vaccine?
DAWN: Yeah, our company was really aligned. We had to get aligned across all brands. If one brand was experiencing something, chances are the other brands were experiencing it as well. And what we’re able to do is we used a lot of our time, our legal team, we set up a lot of webinars, a lot of tools and resources to help them navigate ever changing… some of those changes within an hour. It’s interesting to think now, 12 months later, that there were some things that weren’t happening in a restaurant, or a place of business that now just seemed normal. Everyone’s wearing masks and gloves, you’re not crowding on top of each other, social distancing. Social distancing didn’t even exist, that word, or phrase. So, we sort of were helping them interpret based on state, based on their state or municipality, what the rules and regulations were. Another thing is, if we think, if I look back at my career, this has been probably, through 9/11 and some other really challenging weather issues and so forth, it’s probably been the most challenging crisis that we as communications people have ever been through.
DOUG: I was going to just jump in and say for organizations, a lot of time they’ve thought of reorganizing during this time because so much has changed, and you’ve taken the step towards centralizing leadership. What’s some of your advice and takeaways there and how best to go on a path to centralized leadership? Sometimes there can be resistance, especially if you’ve got a corporate parent with many well-known brands.
DAWN: I think it was a lot easier to centralize in a COVID environment, and let me tell you why. We had not been centralized for a long time, and “centralized” is not a bad word. Sometimes it is, and you sort of have to work your way around it and message that its efficiencies and be more effective and using economies of scale. That’s what we really saw a huge difference is economies of scale. Because, again, if one brand was experiencing it, all of our brands were. They may be slightly different in a certain state or municipality, but trust me, all the Auntie Anne’s that are located in malls and all the Cinnabons that are located in malls, we’re kind of in the same boat because no one was going to malls and malls were shutting down. So, we found that centralizing and having one message was the way to go, particularly as it relates to COVID. Now on some other sort of like lighter issues, I’d say you do have some nuances there, but I always use the example of if we’re sending out a PPE message to one brand, we’re really sending it out to all brands, so we shouldn’t replicate that message seven times, it’s really one message. There’s a supply chain issue with certain PPE. That was a nationwide issue, right? It wasn’t just a Jamba issue in this part of California. It was an issue across all of our brands. So, to be more efficient and more effective it made more sense to centralize a lot of that. Also, a lot of that came from a new CEO who joined us in the end of February. So, he’s been here right about a year now. What a time to join a company, right, a couple of weeks before your company shuts down and you have to figure out how to keep people’s jobs, how to keep stores open that are in places where they can remain open, stores and restaurants, and how do you make your franchisees profitable? So, we found that centralizing this is a cliché, and I don’t like using clichés, but my husband tells me I use a lot of them. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in this instance, in terms of code, it is. It’s just a lot easier and a lot more efficient and effective to do it from a centralized location. There are some nuances, if you’re about 85% of the way there, right, 90%, that other 10–15% you can nuance.
DOUG: Great. And just as we close, given that it is Women’s History Month. Any final thoughts to women who really aspire to leadership? What’s your best advice for them to go forward and achieve?
DAWN: I think it’s finding the right mentor, or coach to help you through what you want to do. It’s always being willing to do some of the things that nobody else wants to do, or to do what you’re asked to do. You never know where it may lead. I truly am in this role based on my previous experience. I’ve worked with our CEO before. And it truly was a hey, I’m going to invite you to this meeting, he’s been one of the best mentors and coaches, frankly, in my life, in my career. But it truly was a hey, as you’re learning this new brand, when I started working at Hilton, come to this meeting and I want you to just sort of see a lot of learning. What developed from that one meeting was a very rich career, supporting him in various communications roles as he moved through the ranks at Hilton, and then later he became a CEO and brought me on as his, and I’ve been away, we haven’t worked together in six years. We kept in touch, but it was just knowing you can do the things that someone relies on you to do and seeing that potential in you and watching it grow, I think you have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I tell my team that a lot. Sometimes things particularly change, is a little bit uncomfortable. So, we have to be uncomfortable, or we have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable in order to move forward. I am a black and white person as well, meaning I don’t like to operate in the gray space. However, the nature of communications and public relations, particularly strategic communications, it’s sometimes there’s a lot of grey and you got to be comfortable operating in the grey. And I always tell my team if we can get it to 85%, where it’s black or white, it’s one way, that 10–15% is the grey area, and we can operate in that.
DOUG: That’s some great advice. And one of the things I’m taking away that I think applies, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, et cetera, is like seizing those key moments of opportunity as you did when you went to that meeting. Because sometimes they’re going to come, it might be a senior person leaves the company for a different opportunity, there’s a reorganization or even a situation like the pandemic where there’s change in the air, and being able to be an incredibly valuable resource at those moments of opportunity in times of change can really help propel you forward. And, Dawn, it’s been such a pleasure talking with you and hearing your advice. Thanks so much and continued success for you and your team, and hopefully I’ll be hitting a Auntie Anne’s, Cinnabon, or Carvel, which are three of my favorites that you rattled off pretty soon.
DAWN: Thank you, Doug. I hope you get some Auntie Anne’s, Cinnabon or Moe’s next time.
DOUG: Yeah, heading that way. Thanks again.
DAWN: Thank you.