Leaders at Darden Restaurants have developed a culture where employees can achieve their personal and professional goals across the company's restaurant brands, which include The Capital Grille, Yard House, and Seasons 52, Red Lobster and Olive Garden. The company has translated its brand-specific employee development approach to an enterprisewide strategy that supports 185,000 employees.

"We have a very strong commitment to our people. We have an internal promotion rate that is unparalleled in our industry," said David Fischer, senior director of learning center of excellence at Darden Restaurants, during the 2013 Great Place to Work conference.

Fifty-five percent of restaurant managers were promoted from floor workers, and 85% of employees in the senior-most level of the corporation are there thanks to internal promotions.

"We offer an extremely strong commitment to employees that we can help the American Dream come alive," said Fischer, who started as an Olive Garden server.

The company history reads as an American success story. Darden has grown into the world's largest full-service restaurant company since its founder opened the first Red Lobster in 1968. As its workforce has grown nationally, leaders at Darden have worked across company brands and locations to sustain their inclusive and opportunity-rich culture.

"Our workforce has over 185,000 employees in over 2,000 locations, so for us to be a special place, it's not about offering nifty programs like sleeping pods or bring your pet to work. It has to be through our work culture and the work experience that our general managers create on a daily basis for those employees," explained Samir Gupte, senior vice president of culture at Darden Restaurants. He added that it's critical for Darden to have an overarching employer brand across its unique restaurants to deliver on high expectations from customers.

Darden executives have developed an internal process to share talent across restaurant brands. "It's important to internally shift business resources where we need them. We have an aligned process to do so," said Fischer.


Dream sheets

Every year, employees complete a "dream sheet" for their managers, sharing information such as career goals and any geographic areas they'd like to live in. Supervisors evaluate each employee's top strengths and suggest career opportunities from a leadership skills perspective. Midyear and year-end performance reviews include specific and "detailed development plans that accelerate talent within our organization," said Fischer.

Supervisors and managers chart employees' potential and locate any talent needs or gaps in the company to accelerate team members into leadership roles. Prior to a position change, Darden field leaders assess the individual's leadership skills and strengths outside their typical work environment. At their division offices, managers use virtual simulation, role-play simulation and examine cognitive ability and personality profiles to determine the employee's potential for other company positions. Employees receive success profiles at every position level, so they constantly get the feedback needed to succeed.

Leaders read employees' dream sheets to find appropriate promotional opportunities across the country and company brands. Often, employees don't need to relocate for a promotion; they can begin working for another Darden brand in their area. Leadership development is cross-fertilized for managers' positions and higher. This year the company has focused on sharing talent more broadly across brands.

"In order to get these processes to work, in 2009 we moved from a very siloed structure to a learning organization, which includes a Learning Center of Excellence," explained Fischer. While the company does offer brand-dedicated training, he added, "Our brand cultures were very strong. We strategically worked over the last few years to share the stories of Darden."

Currently the 26th largest employer in the U.S., Darden is growing fast. In the next four years, leaders expect they will require 50,000 new positions at the company - and that doesn't include turnover.

"Having a world-class training organization is critical to growing the talent at the pace that we need," Fischer said. He concluded that "if you bring hard work, determination and the drive for success, and pair it with Darden's culture, our structure and our tools, from a development perspective, we fervently believe that the American Dream can be alive and well at Darden and in corporate America."

One employee testimonial affirms how the company philosophy informs its business strategy: "Darden is a unique place where you can truly go from the dish room to the boardroom."

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