Executive and 2020 WFF Board Chair Salli Setta Shares Leadership Insights

From advice on how to advocate for your own advancement to providing opportunities (and coaching) for team members to shine, learning from missteps and making conscious choices about work-life priorities, 2020 Chair of the WFF Board and former President and Chief Concept Officer for Red Lobster, Salli Setta, responded to WFF members in a recent Connect Live Executive Q&A. One thing she knows for sure: “Success isn’t about perfection. It’s about being the best possible you and working at that every day in all aspects of your life.” 
  
When Salli Setta, former President and Chief Concept Officer for Red Lobster and 2020 Chair of the WFF Board of Directors, talks about success, she goes both deep and wide. With nearly 30 years creating shareholder value for iconic national casual dining brands, her extensive expertise includes marketing, P&L management, product innovation, operations innovation, corporate social responsibility, human resources and restaurant experience design. Still, she defines success more broadly than strictly driving financial results.
 
“When people ask for advice on being successful, they are sometimes looking for a silver bullet,” she says. “But success requires personal introspection that enables you to uncover the areas where you excel and enjoy most. When you tap into those, the journey is highly rewarding.”
 
Direct your destiny
Setta suggests putting new opportunities through that same filter. “Think about when you are smiling and doing your best in your professional life, at home and even in leisure activities. Those feelings and activities provide clues about when and where you are most engaged and effective.”
 
You must also be willing to say no to opportunities that don’t fit. When you do, be clear about whether it’s the role or just the timing, and what experiences you are seeking. “The clearer you can be, the more doors it will open.”
 
“Each of us is responsible for managing our own career and that includes asking for what you want,” Setta advises. “If you don’t ask, you leave the direction of your career up to others and miss opportunities. Don’t let others assume what you want.”  She urges women who are working hard, contributing and getting positive feedback to have frank conversations with their managers about their future, willingness to relocate and desire to pursue new growth areas. “Then ask for input on how best to prepare for those roles.”   
 
Build confidence
Mentors can help women gain a better understanding of strengths others see in them and build confidence to advocate for themselves. Setta remembers being tapped for a promotion early in her career and waiting patiently to transition to her new role while the organization struggled to fill her previous position. “It took a mentor giving me a push for me to finally say I had been patient long enough and it was time to move on,” Setta remembers.
 
She also strives to put team members in situations that show her trust and enable them to demonstrate their skills. For an emerging leader who served as the organization’s liaison to WFF, Setta provided exposure to senior executives. “I asked her to review our engagement with WFF with our CEO on her own and then coached her on how to prepare for that meeting. And she did great, of course. You need to pair exposure to new opportunities with the support to help someone succeed.”
 
“Women, especially, also need to understand that you don’t have to be 100% ready before you step up for a new opportunity,” Setta cautions. “Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you are good enough or be afraid to move into new areas where people might not expect you.”
When she moved from marketing into culinary, Setta grew her knowledge of supply chain, operations, menu development, international business, procurement and strategic planning and had new opportunities to interact with senior leaders.
 
For emerging leaders transitioning into management, Setta advises focusing on where you can add the most value. “Your job shifts from doing the work yourself to helping other people be successful. Get to know the people you work with, the challenges they face and where they want to go. Ask for their feedback about how you can support them more effectively. The more you can help them excel, the more success you will have.”
 
Valuable lessons
Most senior leaders have experienced — and learned from — their share of challenging situations. Setta strives not to view results as total failure or total success but rather to learn both from what did and didn’t work, incorporate that new information and move on. Recalling a specific experience at Red Lobster, she remembers a missed opportunity to engage quickly on Twitter when Beyoncé released a new song with a shout out to the restaurant.
 
“We learned the hard way that we didn’t have a strong enough social media response plan in place and we got caught flat footed,” she recalls. “It was embarrassing, but we used that moment to create new social media protocols and empower team members to respond 24 hours a day.”   
 
Of course, positive experiences also fuel learning. One of Setta’s proudest career achievements is her leadership role in Red Lobster’s spin off from Darden. “We were able to reduce fear and increase excitement throughout the organization by articulating why this was a good thing for the company and for all of us working there,” she says. “Together, we became the co-founders of the new Red Lobster and that excitement translated into strong results.”
 
Life balance
The question Setta is asked most is how to balance personal and professional life. “It’s not about work/life balance, it’s about work/life choices,” she says. “And a lot of planning.”
 
When her daughter was in school, Setta would plan out the year to block times she needed to be off from work or could not travel due to family commitments. “I schedule my life first and have made some practical choices through the years. I knew I could not be president of the PTA or volunteer at my daughter’s school when she was young, but I could take a vacation day to chaperone a trip, or not travel on the day of my daughter’s play. If you are able to do enough of the things that matter, you will feel engaged and fulfilled.”
 
Managing during COVID
Setta sees unique opportunity in the disruption created by COVID-19. “People who provide new perspectives and show resilience in this environment are going to get promoted,” she advises
 
“You can demonstrate leadership by bringing solutions that may never have been considered in a more predictable business environment,” she adds.  She advises looking to other industries for inspiration and asking yourself how the customer has changed over the past year.
 
Support for the journey
Finally, Setta urges protégés to build a diverse network to help you grow and maintain perspective in the midst of competing demands. She has tapped into many male and female mentors in her career but sees a special value in connecting with fellow women on the journey.
 
“WFF has played a major role in helping me develop that network and joining this powerful organization is always among my first pieces of career advice to women, and men,” she shares. She also recommends the extensive online resources available through the members-only portal, WFF Connect, including on-demand access to Setta’s and other WFF Connect Live Executive Q&A sessions.  Setta has served on the Board of Directors since 2016 and served as both Chair and head of the Executive Committee in 2020. 

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