Be More Podcast: Hamburger University with Diana Thomas

In this episode, Diana Thomas joins us with some sizzling insights on the world of Hamburger University.


Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Diana Thomas, with some sizzling insights on the world of Hamburger University.

When Diana Thomas, former vice president, U.S. training, learning, and development at McDonald’s, wanted to learn what millennials expect from companies, she first talked to her daughters.

“A few of the things they’re looking at when they change companies is ‘What are you going to do to invest in me? How will I get developed? How will I get to the next level?’” Diana said. “I don’t know if 20 years ago we would have been asking those questions.”

“When companies and leaders are under pressure, the true values of the company come through.”

Diana Thomas

If you are eager to learn how to build a “followership” and be a resonant leader, then tune in now, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.

Key Takeaways:

  • You can’t do it alone; it takes a team. When you bring a group of great people together, they can do great things. Inspire them to collaborate so they can do more. Attract, hire, and help people that can do phenomenal work aligned around both the company’s vision and a vision they can own. That’s when fabulous things happen.

  • Create relevant value-added experience. When Diana spoke about boosting engagement at Hamburger University, she emphasized the importance of creating an experience that elevates learning for leaders—it can’t be a check-off-the-box thing. The key is figuring out how to engage by pinpointing the biggest needs in an organization and then teaching things that students can then take back with them and start implementing right away. According to Diana, at Hamburger University, they didn’t have learning for the sake of learning—it was there to add value and to make the business better.

  • Employees guide bosses. Diana is confident that the days when bosses were responsible for developing their people are long gone. Employees can’t just wait around for bosses to give them the opportunity to learn. Instead, as an employee, you need to decide where you want to go and how you want to grow. Leaders can then support their team by enabling growth through learning and development. And for leaders, it’s essential to truly acknowledge the importance of development—making cuts in this area is going to hurt the business in the long term.

  • Authenticity and vulnerability as a leader. Leaders need to embrace the paradigm change. The old way of, “I’m the boss, I tell them what to do, I have to look a certain way, and I have to be professional,” is becoming dated. Instead, leaders need to show their employees their authentic self: the challenges they’ve gone through and the mistakes they’ve made. Leaders too can ask for input and advice. You don’t always have to have all the answers.


Diana Thomas: Companies that can’t promote right now, and in many cases they can’t, is how do you keep them engaged? Get to know them, find out what makes them tick, and give them opportunities to learn and grow. I remember, Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, used to say, “If you’re not green and growing, you’re going to rot and you’re going to fall apart and you’re going to leave.”

Patrick Cournoyer: About 10 years ago, I attended a chief learning officer conference in Arizona, and I walked away from that event inspired and energized, primarily because of the keynote presentation by Diana Thomas. Diana was a vice president at McDonald’s and she was responsible for learning and development.

She spoke to us about her journey at McDonald’s, the pride that she had for the organization, and the values and the importance of growth and development for every individual. Diana has continued her focus on leadership development through consulting, with supporting leaders and teams to increase their impact, inspire committed followership and engagement, and also to build strong and diverse teams. She’s also the co-author of a book titled Be More Strategic In Business. Diana, thank you so much for joining me today.

Diana: You’re welcome. What an honor. I’m so excited to have a chance to talk to you, Patrick, and to just continue to talk about growth and leadership, one of my passion points.

Patrick: I’m so excited, it’s crazy to think that it was almost 12 years ago that I was sitting in that audience and hearing you speak and as we were putting together this podcast, I knew that I really wanted to have you on because I was very, like I said, just energized and inspired by what you were talking about. Let’s jump right in and let’s start the conversation off with some of the key learnings that you had at McDonald’s, because you had such a career there and had a lot of responsibility there for learning and development. From your time at McDonald’s, what would you say were your key learnings to success with learning and development within an organization?

Diana: Well, I kind of grew up in McDonald’s because I started off very young and worked my way up to the position of leading Learning and Development in a global Training Center for McDonald’s Corporation and I think one of the things, when I reflect back on my career, is you can’t do it alone, it takes a team. You’ve got to be able to bring groups of people together and really inspire them to do more and work together. I think that’s been the key to my success is just really attract, hire and help great people get even better and then they do phenomenal things. It wasn’t me, I had wonderful team members throughout my career and when you can bring them together, great people and motivate them and get them aligned around the vision that they own, that aligns with where the company needs to go, fabulous things happen.

Patrick: I 100% agree with that and the idea of inspiring leaders to greatness, and to then have them inspire their teams is very, very powerful. While you were at McDonald’s, you were the Dean of Hamburger University, and you had a lot of success with driving engagement with the team and over a couple of years, you were able to significantly increase the engagement. Can you tell us a bit about that process and how you were able to do that?

Diana: Well, through the decade or so that I led Learning and Development as the learning leader, we really revamped everything, but I would say, starting with the HQ experience because that’s that pivotal piece that employees would come and operators, employees would come and get certified and learn what they need to do to actually run their own McDonald’s. A pivotal point in their career, and in the ability for McDonald’s to continue to be successful. What had happened before I came in, is it wasn’t the most robust experience and it was thought of something I have to do, I have to do this training before I can run a restaurant, I have to send people before I can expand my organization and pick up new restaurants.

What we changed it to is something that people were super excited about, they wanted to go because it was a relevant value-added experience and I think that’s so important for learning leaders is, it can’t be a check off the box, you’ve got to figure out how to engage, not only people coming so they talk about it, but the people that are sending those people, those bosses, those people that are writing the check. We really focused on, what are the biggest needs in the organization? What are the biggest needs in our operator organizations? How can we make sure that when those students, those employees of those leaders come to our class, they’re learning relevant things that they can take back and that next day, make a change, and show the impact of learning? We don’t have learning just for the sake of learning, we have learning to add value, to make the business better, to make our employees more engaged, more productive.

We really focused on revamping the experience so it was the most relevant, based on what the learners needed. You’ve got to make sure you’re meeting the learner’s needs so that they can go back and meet the customer needs and the business needs. We really made sure that everything we were teaching was very relevant, and it was applicable, they could go back and apply it right away to make changes and encourage those bosses to be really involved. Many of the bosses were sending people to classes they had never been to. We started educating the bosses on what we were teaching and why it was critical and then we’d really start to market what was happening so that people get excited about the experience.

We had people who would talk to us years before they were even ready to come and say, “Hey, I can’t wait, this is going to be something I do, hopefully in the next year and a half, what can I do to get prepared?” It’s really making an event and not teaching things that the students could get someplace else. It was just foundational skills, we’re not going to teach that, we’re going to send that out to more of a distance learning, but the in-person experience had to be something that was so unique and different, and engaging, that it was a wow experience. That’s what we really built and implemented and was able to change the culture and go back to something that was really special for employees, and for our leaders as well.

Patrick: You also clearly had a lot of success with that, because you were able to increase engagement by 50% over a two year period, which is incredibly successful. You mentioned something that I want to spend a little bit of time on, which is about that idea that people were looking forward to being able to be part of that experience, that they were thinking about their growth and development plans a year, two years in advance, and being able to see a clear path for themselves because as we are transitioning into this new world of work today, that is an area that I feel that so many people are very focused on and organizations are struggling with is, how do I have an individualized growth and development path that’s unique to me, and on the flip side, empowering leaders to be able to drive those growth plans with their teams, because as you know, I mean the world of work is just significantly changing, we’re all moving into this new chapter of our businesses and the focus on employees has never been greater than it is today.

The way how organizations are going to retain employees is if employees feel that they have a strong future, an individualized future. Now the work that you’re doing is around helping teams at organizations, helping leaders, leadership development, building strong and diverse teams. Let’s talk just a little bit about your perspective on how we’re moving into this new world of work, Learning and Development has always been critical, it’s probably even more important today than it ever has been. How do you see organizations prioritizing Learning and Development in this new world of work that we’re in? Where do you see success with organizations today?

Diana: Well, first of all, I thought you did a beautiful job of just laying out some of the components of what I think successful companies are doing and companies that want to be successful need to do as what you said has never been more critical, we have to focus on the employee. The employee has so many choices right now, working at home, in many cases, being remote, being connected to other means of finding employment. As I coach leaders today, one of their challenges, some of their best employees are leaving, and I’m like, “Why?” If you are not engaged with your employees, you’re going to lose them because there are other companies out there that are doing it really well. This generation of employees, they want to continue to learn and grow and they’ve kind of figured out they need to keep growing and learning if they want to keep being successful. Bosses that support their people and helping them grow are going to be the ones that are successful today. You mentioned this individual learning path, that is so critical, is I coach my leaders, not just, my focus right now is coaching executive. I coach executives that run learning, I coach the CEO, I coach the C suite. One of the biggest things we focused on is making sure you’ve got the right employees and then keeping them engaged. How do you do that? It can’t be one size fits all, you need to learn what are the interests of your employees? Makes sure that they feel connected because we’ve said it for years that employees don’t leave companies, they leave their boss, they leave where they don’t feel like they’re adding value to their experience, they don’t feel appreciated.

I think especially now, how can bosses reach out and make sure that their employees see that there is a path for development? It needs to be shared. Gone are the days that bosses are responsible for developing their people. If you’re an employee waiting for your boss to come, give you the next thing for you to learn, you’re going to maybe be waiting a long time, well, hope is not a very good business strategy. That’s what I say. Don’t hope that your boss is going to help you. You need to decide, “Where do I want to go? What do I need to learn to get there and who can help support me?” I hope one of those people are the bosses.

In the past, it used to be bosses saying, “I’m not sure I really want to develop that person to that next level because they’re really good at where they are, and they’re helping me and adding value.” You know what? If you don’t develop them, you’re going to lose them. I think this partnership that if bosses can be more like coaches and help their people get developed and know where they want to go and be there supportive and be a cheerleader and an inspiration for them, that’s the key to success. That’s where companies are going to have strong futures and strong successes. If they don’t, they’re going to lose some really good talent.

I think the companies, I know the companies, there’s great companies out there doing a lot to invest in their people because this is a challenging time. Sales, revenues, profits are not up in a lot of companies. The first thing that companies want to do is cut back and that could really hurt them because of their cutting back. I know they have to cut back but be careful about where you cut back because if you’re cutting back in developing your most important asset being your employees, in the long run, you’re going to lose, and not only lose with the employees that you have today, but your future employees.

I have two millennial daughters. One of the things they’re looking at when they change companies, or they get a job is, “What are you going to do to invest in me? It’s like, “Wow, those are different questions.” I don’t know if 20, 30 years ago we would have been asking those questions, we were just happy to have a job and if they were paying us more money than what we anticipated or we had in our last job, we were like, “Yes, we’re in.” Now they’re saying, employee’s like, “What investment do you make in me? How will I get developed? Do you promote from within? How will I get to the next level?”

It’s like, “You haven’t even been hired and you’re already thinking about that next job.” It’s the real world. Companies that invest in, and I say smartly invest, you don’t need these elaborate programs. There’s so much money that could be spent in learning and development, but spend it where it matters and that’s where I coach my learning leaders is, “Just because you’ve always done these things doesn’t mean you need to continue.” Find out what your learners really need and excited and get engaged in and you collect all those things that are going to add value.

Do the things that will help your employees go back and do something better. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all the bells and whistles, maybe it’s more of a authentic exchange like you’re doing right now as far as with leaders. Having leaders talk about what inspires them or where the company is going, so that people feel like they have a stake in the future of the company. Do things that will really help your employees want to be engaged, support where the company’s going. Values have never ever been more important right now, is to live the values of the company because, in tough times, the true values really come out through people’s behavior.

You may have all these fancy things on the wall or send out or give out in new hire orientations, but when a company and leaders are under pressure, the true values of the company come through. I think that’s so critical is to understand as a leader what shadow you’re casting? Is it the shadow you want to cast? Is it the shadow that is going to create followership?

Patrick: Let’s talk about followership a bit because I think that is an area that is becoming more and more relevant because, as you said, there is younger generations in the workforce. I think this is a good thing where they have much higher expectations. I think we both agree on that that you’re right. As soon as employees start, they’re looking at what’s happening in three months from now, not three years from now. Going through a time where organizations are probably not going to be expanding over the next year, some organizations will, but obviously, we have quite some time before we get to a stabilization in many economies around the world. There might be some stagnancy with promotions in organizations or this driving forward of career by title or by promotion.

As you said, organizations need to become really smart and very agile about how they are developing employees. That can be in a way of personal development, learning new skills, learning new abilities, but maybe not associated with a promotion in a year from now. You work with these CEOs, senior leaderships of organizations, how would you suggest one or two ways that an organization can make the concept of followership be really attractive to a group of employees?

Diana: I think it starts with the leader. I love this term that’s been coined, “Resonant leader.” Be a leader that really resonates with your employees. I think it starts with that. If you don’t know what your interests are of your employees, you need to find out, you need to find out what makes them tick? What gets them jazzed up? What are some of their hidden talents? How can you incorporate those things into their current job? You are absolutely right. Gone are the days that we’re going to keep having this hierarchical continuation.

Many companies are realizing that they need to flatten, not only for economic reasons, just also it makes sense to have organizations that are more agile.

When you have so many different layers, that takes too long to get things done. That’s what I loved about watching the younger generations come in. They are not set in this old way of, “I need to go last, these three layers.” It’s like, “This is a need, I’m going to do it, I can do it. Or even if I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to figure out how to do it.” I love, love that. As a leader, the teams that I led, I would say almost half of them were younger generations and I purposely did that. It would drive some of the older generations a little crazy at times because they think and do things differently. If you can come together around a common vision and purpose, you can appreciate both sides what they would bring into this.

I think it really is about engaging and finding how to get your employees to want to follow. One we already know, they’re not going to follow you if you are not authentic. If you’re phony, and you care more about yourself and the company than them, they’re not going to follow you. That’s where I try to coach my leaders, “Even if they’re doing a video, how can it be about what the employees need, not about what you want to tell them?” Make it employee-centric. Companies that can’t promote right now, and in many cases they can’t, is how do you keep them engaged?

Get to know them. Find out what makes them tick. Give them opportunities to learn and grow. If you’re not learning and growing, and remember, Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s used to say, “If you’re not green and growing, you’re going to rot, and you’re going to fall apart and you’re going to leave.” How do you keep them engaged? It’s individualized. You have to get to know them, but offering different learning opportunities. It doesn’t have to be formal training. It could be working with someone else that has a skill set that you want to learn or a job that you want to learn.

These matrix organizations are cross-functional teams. How can you get people to work together on things that help them learn and grow? Then the company benefits by having fresh eyes looking at a project or more engaged, productive people, so when they do go back to maybe their regular job, they’re even more energized because they’ve learned something else and they feel valued. I think this piece is probably one of the most hardest things for leaders to do because you have to step out of, sometimes, this older mode of or model of being the learner is, “I’m the boss, I tell them what to do. I have to look this way. I have to be so professional.” I’m telling them, “No. Let them see your authentic self. Let them see that you’ve had challenges. Let them learn from some of the mistakes that you’ve made, and ask them for input, and advice, you don’t have to have all the answers.

I think the leaders that bring people in and say, “What could we be doing better?” Get great feedback and then they get the respect and the connection of their employees. Those employees will do anything for those leaders. I think that’s the piece is, how can you as a leader resonate with your employees so that they are so engaged to support the current vision and mission of your company and the future one because things are changing. If you don’t have employees and companies that can be more agile and change to the current environment and the new environment that’s coming, you’re going to be left behind.

Patrick: Your point around authenticity and vulnerability as a leader is so critical because if a leader can make that step and be comfortable with themselves and be comfortable with showing that vulnerability, then that is where teams and people start to connect at a more deeper level. In this new world of work, I do feel it’s going to be, as you say, where leaders that are going to have the most success are going to be the ones that can make personal connections with their teams because their fragmented workforces now, as you said, people are working from home for the foreseeable future. I was just talking to a colleague of mine, his organization today said that their offices will be closed through September of 2021.

He’s a leader and he’s thinking, “Okay, so now, I have a full year ahead of me of a fragmented workforce and keeping my team engaged, keeping them excited, keeping them agile to what the future is going to be because I know our organization is going to change.” That suggestion and best practice from your personal experience around authentic and vulnerable leadership is incredibly useful and impactful.

Diana: Yes, and it’s not easy. I mean, I think doing this virtually, I coach a couple of leaders and they have really big teams. It’s like Diana, how can I get connected because I used to be able to walk down the hallway and see people and now I can’t? The other thing is people are getting really saturated with Zoom, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, my day is eight hours of Zoom and I’m so sick of it. I just want some personal interaction.” That’s tough. How do you create those things where I have one leader that I coach and he’s like, “You know, once a week, I just eat lunch with my employees. We turn on Zoom but I come in and we just talk about whatever they want to talk about.”

There’s a meeting, I coach the leaders, “Get on there a little early and stay a few minutes later because that’s that real connection time.” Or can you text five or 10 employees a day or a couple of times a week just to say, “Hey, I just wanted to check-in and see how you’re doing,” or call people. I have one leader say, “I wrote like five notes this morning and sent him out, not emails, but real notes.” That wowed those people I sent them to. How can you be creative to reach out and make this connection when it can’t be done in live situations right now? That’s the challenge. We’ve got great leaders that are figuring it out and empowering.

What I love to see is now you’re starting to see some of the leaders underneath of the leaders really come to the surface. I was coaching one leader, it’s like, you don’t have to touch all 700 employees, how many top leaders do you have? You started, Patrick, by saying this is, how the leaders engage their leaders so that they engage their people and then you get the end result but they don’t need to have that personal connection with you as the top leader but they do need to have it with their boss. How do you do that and role model it with your direct reports and then expect them and hold them accountable to do it with their people?

Patrick: Diana, thank you for another inspirational chat with you. I just have to say on a personal note, truly the keynote address that you gave at that conference years ago inspired me. I’ve thought of that over the past 12 years of my career. It’s very exciting to talk with you today and to hear your passion, your enthusiasm for leadership, if not more than it was 12 years ago. I am walking away from this conversation like I did the last conversation that we had, inspired, energized, and I’m sure that our audience is feeling the same way. A very personal thank you for joining me for the conversation. This has been incredibly enjoyable. How can the audience get in touch with you, Diana?

Diana: I’d love that. A couple of ways is my website is Winning Results LLC and it goes through what I do and a little bit about my personal stories and I try to give resources. Even in my book, the Be More Strategic in Business, it’s not about, “Here’s a few things and call me and I’ll give you my advice.” It’s everything I learned and a lot of the mistakes I made so it’s laid out as a to-do book so you can always pick up that book or you could reach out directly on my email, it’s and listen to my podcast. I have a podcast similar to yours, intend to solely just to give back to an industry that’s been so wonderful to me. Talent Champions, you can go to and I bring in some fabulous leaders that are also very excited about just sharing their knowledge.

Patrick: Brilliant. All right, we’re going to wrap up. Diana. Honestly, a heart a heartfelt thank you again, it’s been a great conversation and we’ll talk soon.

Diana: Thank you, Patrick. It’s been lovely to talk to you and you are one of those authentic leaders that gifts that I can tell. Thank you for being who you are.

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