Name: Diana Thomas
Title: Dean of Hamburger University and Vice President of U.S. Training
- Boosted headcount at Hamburger University, the centerpiece of McDonald’s learning programs, by 50 percent in two years.
- Administered extensive metrics using all four levels of the Kirkpatrick measurement model.
- Promoted professional education in leadership as a facilitator at learning and development industry events.
- Centralized learning programs at McDonald’s to better promote organizational culture.
- Developed relationships with the field domestically and internationally to disseminate best practices throughout the organization.
Learning Philosophy: “My overall objective is to develop people that execute at the restaurant level. My whole focus is on doing things that will impact our customers. It has to be about improving that experience with our customer, or at the end of the day, it’s not the right focus for us. It’s all about learning additional knowledge and skills, and motivating people so that they perform better in their work environment. I truly believe we hire great people, and when we create an environment that empowers them and we support them, fabulous things happen.”
After founder Ray Kroc, perhaps no other individual has had as much of an impact in shaping McDonald’s culture and operations as Fred L. Turner. From his position as the restaurant chain’s first “grill man extraordinaire,” Turner rose through the ranks to become McDonald’s CEO. Along the way, he established Hamburger University—McDonald’s first training facility—in the basement of a restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Ill., in 1961. He also pioneered a tradition of homegrown leadership at the company that continues today with current Chief Executive Officer Jim Skinner, President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Roberts, and Diana Thomas, the dean of Hamburger University (HU) and vice president of U.S. training.
Thomas started her career as a crew person in a Baltimore, Md.-area McDonald’s 26 years ago. From there, she moved on to hostess and restaurant manager roles. Eventually, she advanced beyond the restaurant level to the HR department, where she worked in recruiting. After holding a variety of regional positions, she was promoted to head of operations and training for McDonald’s East Coast division. She then proceeded to her current post as dean of Hamburger University and also picked up the vice president of U.S. training responsibility about two years ago. “I have worked with McDonald’s for my whole career,” she said. “When I started at McDonald’s, I was in high school. I was very excited about the opportunity to work for my area McDonald’s restaurant. I have continued to grow with McDonald’s because of the wonderful opportunities.”
In spite of her lofty position, she hasn’t lost touch with her roots. “I personally enjoy going into the restaurants now and making fries, working on the grill or working up front,” Thomas said. “That’s a perspective I never want to lose. I think that by coming up through the system, my gut tells me a lot of times, ‘I’m not sure that’s going to work,’ or ‘That’s an opportunity. We really need to do it.’ It’s much easier if you’ve lived in those positions to get that perspective.”
Today, Hamburger University is located in a 130,000 square-foot facility on the scenic campus of McDonald’s corporate headquarters, strategically placed in Oak Brook, Ill., between Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare airports. More than 75,000 McDonald’s restaurant managers have graduated, and more than 5,000 employees went through the institution’s standard courses last year, said Thomas, adding that the latter figure represents a 50 percent increase from two years prior.
The reason behind the recent upsurge of Hamburger University attendees is due in part to the company’s decision to emphasize the experience as a driver of McDonald’s culture and heritage among its employees. “About three or four years ago, we made the decision that we were going to bring back our core classes to HU,” Thomas said. “We had decentralized to look at how we could bring the classes closer to our customers. What we saw is that by not coming back to HU, which is our center of excellence, we were not able to replicate the cultural experience and the pride in our history derived from coming to this building. Getting the pride and culture back starts with our center of excellence here at HU.”
McDonald’s, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has grown from a single franchised eatery opened in Des Plaines, Ill., by a milkshake mixer salesman, to an immense international network of fast-food restaurants. Today, McDonald’s serves nearly 50 million people in more than 100 countries every day and is arguably the most recognizable brand in the world. Still, some of its employees don’t really appreciate its scale before they come to Hamburger University.
“You don’t get a sense of how big McDonald’s really is until you set foot on this campus,” said Richard P. Hanna Jr., a store manager, next-generation franchisee applicant and Hamburger University attendee from Tuscaloosa, Ala. “Most companies don’t have a university where they train people. It just goes to show how much McDonald’s cares about its employees. That’s why McDonald’s is the powerhouse that it is.”
One of the key benefits Thomas gets from her role as the dean of Hamburger University is the frequent interaction with the company’s worldwide team. Because McDonald’s has approximately 31,000 restaurants in 119 countries, as well as international HU sites in places like London, Munich and Sydney, there is plenty of knowledge to go around. “I try to share best practices with them, and I get wonderful best practices from them. McDonald’s is set up so that whenever we can share, we do share,” Thomas said. “When you need something, the first thing we try to do is reach out to others (in McDonald’s) because it’s probably been developed someplace else. It’s a time-saving tool, and it helps us create even more synergy and more time to focus on achieving results.”
As vice president of U.S. training for McDonald’s, Thomas also handles learning programs for McDonald’s entire domestic workforce. In her tenure, she and her team have leveraged technology at the restaurant level by implementing interactive modules that help employees brush up on foundational restaurant knowledge, as well as station procedures. “You can go into a restaurant and pull up how to make French fries, and you can do it in English or in Spanish,” she explained. “It’s done in a fun, interactive way, where they can go back and continue to review it. There is knowledge and skills verification as part of that training. They actually have to assemble products: They have to make a hamburger and know the right way to put the ketchup and the mustard on the bun.
“We’ve piloted (e-learning) in several other countries. We’ve got the rest of the world embracing the method, and we’re getting to the point where some of it’s getting translated and modules are being developed for that,” Thomas added. “I don’t believe it will ever take the place of classroom training at McDonald’s, but it’s a great way to supplement it. If you look at our crew level, it’s a great way to build a foundation along with the shoulder-to-shoulder training and coaching at the stations.”
Thomas emphasizes that interactive approach for all learning programs at McDonald’s. “Our focus is definitely on facilitation instead of presentation,” she said. “The environment is very interactive. We use visuals and interactive goal-based scenarios to bring learning to life.” A good example of this is “Hot Hamburgers,” a game in the mold of Family Feud. “They compete against their peers on the nuts and bolts of running the business. There’s huge enthusiasm for that. I can’t book anything on either side of the room when we’re running that because the noise level is so high and the energy is just phenomenal.”
This involved, collaborative methodology is effective because of the life experiences and learning preferences of the students and instructors, she added. “We really focus on the students. We have taken more of a flexible approach to training and are really looking at what our learners need instead of (delivering learning) in one way that’s geared toward a lecture format. Look at Generation X and Y: They don’t want to sit in a classroom and listen to somebody speak. They want to be involved and experience the learning, which is what our instructors—who are from those generations as well—enjoy doing.”
Anecdotal and statistics-based measurements back up those claims. “I really feel like what we’re teaching is making an impact. Our bosses are telling us that, our customers are saying that, and our business results show that. I’m extremely proud of our scores around Level 1, because they have stayed in the 4.7-to-4.8 range on a five-point scale. On our Level 1 reaction evals, they’ll consistently say, ‘This is exciting. We’ve had so much fun learning. The day went by so fast.’ I attribute that to two things. One is the quality of instructors. They have to be the best performers as far as operational knowledge and execution, and the best communicators. They have to have that passion to inspire and teach other individuals. We’ve also made the content as relevant as possible so that managers can take it back and replicate it in their restaurants.”
Thomas has played an important part in the sustained success of McDonald’s, even as people’s social, consumer and dietary habits have changed over time. Of course, one person can’t do it alone, and Thomas is quick to talk about how fortunate she is to be surrounded by enthusiastic and capable people such as Randy Vest, McDonald’s senior director of U.S. training. Vest, a 31-year McDonald’s employee, said that he and Thomas usually discuss Hamburger University and other learning and development programs prior to 6 a.m. every workday. Why does he do it? “The people,” Vest said. “It’s very easy to get up in the morning, and I get up at 4:30 a.m. every day. Some folks hate putting in eight hours, much less 12, but I don’t think anything of it.”
“I have a fabulous team that I work with every day that continues to build the brand and brings so much passion and energy to what they do” Thomas said. “I’m very proud to talk about my successes and how we’re impacting the business. It really comes to life because of the people we have on our team.”
—Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org
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