A Culture of Excellence: An Interview with Melissa Strait

In these challenging times, Melissa Strait, Chief People Officer at Inspire Brands, is making a herculean effort to build on the advantages of a values-driven corporate culture. In a conversation with The HR Digest, she explains why a culture of excellence plays a dominant role in motivating employees at the world’s second-largest restaurant company.

Melissa Strait Inspire Brands

The HR Digest: What is Inspire Brands’ secret sauce for being recognized as a “Great Place to Work?” Do you still see room for improvement in Inspire Brands employment practices?

Melissa Strait: When we founded Inspire in February 2018, our leadership team spent time developing a clear purpose and set of behaviors that could align our organization and our brands.​ While each individual brand maintains its own brand purpose and values, Inspire provides the foundation to unite all of our team members towards an aligned culture. ​That purpose – to Ignite and Nourish Flavorful Experiences – is at the core of how our team members work together, serve our guests, and strengthen our communities.

We’re focused on building a culture of innovation that enables good ideas to thrive at any level of the organization, not just at the top. We empower our team members to take risks, test, and learn in ways that not only support the business, but further their professional growth. We continue to seek new ways to foster that culture, from Ignite Sessions between teams to share best practices and key learnings, to building a culture of recognition that encourages team members to recognize their peers for living our behaviors and delivering on our business objectives. These efforts will remain a key focus for Inspire in the years to come.

Employee-led resource groups (ERGs) are one of Inspire Brands core strengths. Can you tell The HR Digest readers more about these programs and how they promote change within the company in practical terms?

Inspire’s Business Resource Groups (“BRGs”) are company-sponsored, but team member-formed and led, with a mission to strengthen the leadership skills of their members, provide networking opportunities, and serve as resources for our diverse teams. From Champions of Women Leaders to Black Voices at Inspire, our five BRGs provide team members an opportunity to share their perspectives, experiences, and ideas in order to educate, inspire, and develop one another. They also provide an important internal support system for our team members to create new relationships with peers and mentors. BRGs play a key role in the Career Path Opportunities pillar of our recently-launched People First @ Inspire program, an action-oriented inclusion and diversity initiative that strives to provide an inclusive work environment where team members of all backgrounds can succeed.

As one of the world’s largest employers with workforce all across the globe, what’s Inspire Brands’ best practices during crisis to ensure productivity and transparency?

Clear and consistent communication has been a priority for Inspire as we’ve navigated the challenges of the past year. That commitment to communication extends to every level of the organization. We conduct monthly All-Team meetings where our leaders share updates on the state of our business and brands with all our Support Center and Field team members. We have also implemented leader-focused meetings like roundtable Q&A sessions with our company’s directors and senior directors, and a specific monthly meeting for our top leaders to align on business strategy and goals. We have developed a regular cadence of transparent communication that helps to ensure our team members and franchisees to deliver on our company’s purpose and vision, driving the strong business results we realized in 2020.

At Inspire Brands, how do you see a changing HR landscape, and what does Inspire Brands do to stay ahead of the curve?

The Human Resources field has been profoundly changed by the emergence of digital solutions, and Inspire is investing in a best-in-class technology function that will unlock tremendous opportunities across our family of brands. We are focused on developing an HR technology platform that enables finding, hiring, onboarding and developing the best talent. For example, our Talent Acquisition teams are leveraging investments in digital technology to enhance the way we source candidates whose skills align with our open roles, as well as streamlining the application process to be mobile-friendly, thereby removing barriers for entry.

While technology enhances the ways we can reach potential new team members and engage our current workforce, company culture remains an essential focus. Over the last few years, we’ve fostered a culture of recognition ­– one that celebrates team members for how they deliver on our purpose and live out our core behaviors. Through formal and informal channels, team members and leaders are actively encouraged to recognize each other for their achievements. Our recognition culture is a fundamental part of the way we operate and something that truly differentiates Inspire as a company. 

What do you consider your most rewarding experience in professional life?

I began my career with Arby’s as a restaurant team member in my hometown of Muskegon, Michigan; 35 years later, I am honored to still be a part of this organization as the Chief People Officer of Inspire Brands. Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to work in so many aspects of our business, from day-to-day restaurant operations and training to operating the business as a small franchisee. Those experiences and challenges helped me grow as a professional and, more importantly, gain a better understanding of the knowledge and skills our 650,000+ company and franchise team members need to succeed.

At Inspire, we truly believe that the restaurant industry is not just the best place for a first job, but for a career. Whether through proprietary team member training programs like Brand Champ or informal mentoring moments, empowering others to develop their careers across an organization they love is what makes my career so rewarding to me.

How are you going to shake things up next?

Right now, our teams are focused on integrating the Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins brands into the Inspire family. These are two iconic brands with strong talent, and I have enjoyed every opportunity to meet with and learn from their teams over the last few months.  

I am so proud of everything we have built at Inspire in just over three years, and I cannot wait to continue growing and evolving our company’s approach to HR in 2021 and beyond.

Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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