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The Rungs of Learning with Zeta Smith, CEO Sodexo Seniors

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

A seasoned operations executive, Zeta Smith joined Sodexo Seniors in January, 2020 and went "live" in her position on March 6th. Seven days later, COVID shut the world down. Talk about a leadership transition! In typical Zeta fashion, she calmly went into crisis management mode with a focus on safety and care for the residents and her team.

What do you do as the CEO of Sodexo Seniors? I’m the proud leader of a team of employees that support hundreds of clients across the U.S. in the senior living space. Sodexo is a food and facilities management company. I lead the senior living division which is about elevating the resident experience for the clients we support.

I started there in January 2020 and my onboarding was January and February. I went “live” March 6th and we went into lockdown on March 16th. I had met my team once during my second week on the job, but I wasn’t leading them yet. Then the pandemic happened and I had to lead a team and clients I didn’t know and a new industry.

I went right into crisis management and communication and set up a cadence of how to communicate what’s going on, standing up processes, recognizing people as I went, problem solving, all those things. This was where I spent my time because what would have been the “normal” approach was getting out to meet my clients and meet my team, but I couldn’t do any of that.

It was a different industry and different people, but it felt very familiar having gone through many crises at Starbucks and Exxon Mobile so that muscle wasn’t new. The people were but the muscle wasn’t.

The big change from other crises I’ve had to manage is I had to do it in a virtual world. I introduced Zoom to the team, and we did daily calls for six weeks and that’s how I started creating a team. It required building a growth mindset in a lot of ambiguity.

People commented that I was a calming force in a very difficult time because we were never closed. We were still feeding people three meals seven days a week. These are people living the rest of their lives in these facilities and they were counting on us. The team was so creative in creating themes while the seniors were in isolation to celebrate anniversaries and holidays to make sure the residents cared for. Food is the highlight in the senior living community, so we really focused on the teams to bring that light to their day.

It was an interesting start for sure.

You went back to school to get your MBA. What prompted you to back in the first place and how did that serve you?

I always knew that I was going to get an advanced degree. My attitude was I needed to stay competitive in a competitive business environment and everyone had a business degree but not everyone had a MBA.

I didn’t think I was ready to step into that right away after undergrad because I wanted to get out into workforce experience what it was, not just the theory and the concepts but actually do the work so I could come back and apply those learnings. I wanted to finish by the time I was 30 but I didn’t go back to school until I was 30.

I did the executive MBA program at George Mason University for people working full time and going to school on weekends. It was accelerated in a two-year program and I was with a cohort of five other people that worked on projects together. What was so interesting is that my cohort had an accountant, a lawyer, a tech person, someone from the government and we all had to work together on these projects. That’s where the learning was.

We got to do an international assignment to Prague, Oxford University and Germany and we got to meet different executives

When we first met, you were one of my field leader sponsors when I was heading up Lean at Starbucks. What did being a sponsor contribute to your development?

That was a new concept for me at the time because my priority was my day-to-day job as a regional vice president. Once I was identified as sponsor, I felt a great sense of responsibility for the success of that initiative and what that looked like was I needed to learn as much as I could about it, role model what I was saying and doing. But the biggest learning was influencing my peers and help them move through their skepticism or challenges.

I also served as a listening ear to you and your team with some of the challenges being faced. I learned that I was at a different level with my peers now. What worked for me was having one on one conversations to build the foundation. I remember one of my peers was skeptical of what we were doing so I reached out to him to explain the why and the benefits. I encouraged him to imagine what it could be if it worked – easier for your team and better service for the customers. I did have credibility with my peer team going into it which helped.

Speaking of Lean, did you bring any of the Lean practices into your work today?

When Lean was introduced, there was a saying that “problems are good” and that has stayed with me. The biggest concept in general is continuous improvement – how can it be better the next time? How can it be more efficient or effective? How do we continue to improve upon what we are doing today? The problem-solving mindset is something I continue to this day.

One thing you told me once about diversity and Lean, that when everyone’s in charge no one is and that, while things should be embedded in an organization, sometimes things need to stand on their own first. How does this relate to organizational learning?

Companies want to embed things too quickly before the idea has proven itself and behaviors are truly embedded in what we do. I’ve watched how things like diversity haven’t stood on their own long enough and then they are put up under something else, you don’t necessarily get the right resources located or the right support and then we wonder why the outcome isn’t what we thought it would be.

I think everything needs to be very purposeful in an organization before a concept is embedded. If you’re going to stand up something, assign a time period, resources, focus, goals and outcomes. And, if it hits those outcomes and the behavior is embedded in the day to day things we do, it is much more likely to be embedded. A lot of times companies assume and not validate that it’s ready and see things happening consistently.

Tell me a time when you went through a significant leadership transition. How did you approach it and what lessons did you take from it?

Two significant leadership transitions where when I went from Exxon Mobil to Starbucks and from Starbucks to Sodexo because I was entering different cultures and bringing that previous culture and experience with me.

When I think about going from Exxon Mobil to Starbucks, I had a big learning that I still take with me today because it was a tough one at the time.

The culture at Exxon Mobil was hard core, male dominated and very direct. My job was to open a new convenience store concept and I was in charge of the openings. I would walk on to the site with a hard hat, talking with contractors about different aspects of the projects that were wrong things, it was not about lifting people up. That was my job and that was the culture.

So, I get to Starbucks, and we were opening or remodeling all these stores. As I was walking around with the project manager and district manager reporting to me reviewing the punch list and pointing out everything that was wrong. The district manager started modeling me, so I felt like we were acting the way we were supposed to. The next day, I get a call from my boss and he asked me to share about the store visit with him. He told me that my role is to show appreciation and collaborate and that we all work together. He said I can give constructive feedback but it’s not “us versus them”. I take that with me to this day. I thought I was doing the right thing and I had to go back to the district manager to share my learnings on this.

People were surprised at how vulnerable I was by saying I didn’t know and I made a mistake. They appreciated me being human, listening and not as a know it all.

Last time I saw you, you had just performed Thriller at a mall on Halloween. What did you learn about yourself from this experience?

There were 300 of us dressed up like zombies and danced at the same time. It was so much fun and I realized how much I missed dancing. I used to dance competitively in my 20s and then I started teaching in my 30s. Then, as the jobs got bigger and the time got less, and I took classes on occasion, but it got to a point where I wasn’t dancing at all and I missed it.

After the Thriller performance, I started taking dance classes twice a week and when I moved to Maryland right before the pandemic happened. My dance studio started doing Zoom classes and I’m still doing them to this day virtually.

I found my love again and I think this is a great role model for my son.

Last question. What are you focusing your learning on these days?

I just had my entire division on a call to go through Franklin Covey content on how to lead through others. I’ve been leading teams for over 25 years but there are always new things to learn or apply. It’s a 12-week course of six critical practices and now we are about to embark on another 12-week course called Speed to Trust which focuses on feedback.

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