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Business Observer Friday, May 26, 2017 1 year ago

First look

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Want to find and retain top talent? Look for one factor above all else, says a top HR executive: true grit.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

It makes sense that Laura Sorensen has built a career helping big companies, in retail and hospitality, find the best people to work at a host of jobs.

Sorensen herself never shied away from work. As a teenager outside Syracuse, N.Y., she worked everywhere from a health club to Kaufmann's Department Store, where she sold men's suits. “I always had a few jobs growing up,” says Sorensen. “My parents always wanted me to get out of the house.”

Sorensen has turned that ethic into a career that recently landed her a plum spot: chief people officer at breakfast-brunch-lunch chain First Watch Restaurants, one of the fastest-growing restaurant companies nationwide.

Sorensen comes to east Manatee County-based First Watch from Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, where she oversaw human resources for the LongHorn Steakhouse brand. (Sorensen says she loved that gig despite one significant oddity: She doesn't eat meat.) Prior to Darden, Sorensen was the director of human resources at Fort Myers-based women's retailer Chico's FAS.

Sorensen joined First Watch in September — the first-ever companywide human resources executive post. She recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about her career and her new role. Edited excerpts follow:

Career

Lifelong leaner: Sorensen went for her MBA at the University of Miami right after she graduated from the school in 1994 with a degree in marketing. She was a college kid in shorts and flip-flops in a sea of mostly men in suits holding briefcases in her MBA classes. But the experience, beyond education, built her confidence and taught her tenacity. Sorensen paid her own way for the MBA. “You paid by the semester, so I knew I had to finish in one year,” says Sorensen.

Starting out: Armed with her MBA, Sorensen thought her first job would be with a “big office and a window.” Instead she started out as a store manager at Federated Department Stores, working for the Burdines unit based in Miami. She had a staff of 18 people she recalls, and no one spoke English as their first language. But Sorensen says the experience helped teach her how to work well with others, and she eventually became one of the top managers in the company. One key lesson there: By conforming to others, she earned her staff's trust and loyalty.

Take a shot: Fort Myers-based Chico's FAS executives reached out to Sorensen in 2003 for an HR spot. Her experience was mostly in operations, she says, “but they wanted to take a shot on me, so I gave it a chance.” The chain grew from 300 to 1,000 stores in Sorensen's seven-year tenure. It also launched new lines, acquired brands and introduced new products. Says Sorenson: “I had the opportunity to work with so many new things.”

People person: The First Watch opportunity, like Chico's, and later Darden, caught Sorensen off guard. At the urging of a headhunter, she met with longtime First Watch executive Ken Pendery. Sorensen was familiar with the brand, having frequented an Orlando location with her family while with Darden. Meeting Pendery persuaded her to take another career chance. “He's a sharp and astute businessman,” says Sorensen, “and he really cares about people.”

Role

Fill up: Sorenson's chief role at First Watch is to make sure the company has top managers and a bench of young up-and-comers who can rise to new roles. The chain has more than 300 restaurants in 26 states, including 95 locations under the Egg & I brand.

Good finds: Sorensen often conducts behavior-based interviews. She asks candidates to tell stories from situations at past or current jobs, with the idea that the most accurate window into future performance comes from previous work in similar circumstances. Sorensen also puts a premium on grit. “It's a combination of talent and perseverance,” Sorensen says. “It's the person who will stick with something to see it through.”

Industry

On the train: Sorensen's HR philosophy is centered on a quote from famed entrepreneur Richard Branson: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to.”

No rest: The HR industry is in a technology-infused flux, especially in using social media to find and retain people. First Watch, for instance, recently launched a Twitter campaign that changes job ads every seven minutes.

“In the past, you just had to hang up a help-wanted sign,” Sorensen says. “Now it's about leveraging technology to reach folks. You have to constantly have a pipeline of talent. In this industry you can never sit back on your laurels.”

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