Not Just a Food Chain: Len Jillard Talks Leadership and Employee Appreciation at McDonald's Canada

Len Jillard

McDonald’s Canada is not just an excellent brand. The company also recognizes its number one resource—it’s people. Len Jillard has seen this first hand. When he joined McDonald’s Canada as the Senior Vice President of People Resources and Chief People Officer in 2005, he brought with him a wealth of knowledge that he developed from working through all levels of McDonald’s management. e-BIM speaks with Jillard about how the company built its brand, cares for its employees and carries out the promises it makes every day.

You've worked everywhere in McDonald's Canada, from behind the counters to the top of the company. What have you learned about leadership and management?

I think it begins with the realization that our restaurant employees, or crew people, are the face of McDonald’s. They will either make or break a customer’s experience. That’s why we have such a deep respect for our crew—the front-line ambassadors who represent our brand.

That’s also why it’s so important to view—and treat—them as an investment and dedicate time and resources in their training, development and growth. We can have the best business plan around, but if it’s not well-executed by our people, it becomes meaningless.

Over the years, I’ve learned that we have to make sure that our customers’ expectations and actual experiences are one and the same.

Are there any experiences you've had, whether personal or professional, that have shaped your vision?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution anymore. If you think there is, you’ll lose people.

I’m a perfect example of that. When I began as a crewperson at McDonald’s 36 years ago, I was a student employee looking to play more hockey and have some cash in my pocket.

Over the years, my needs changed, but I stayed at McDonald’s for so long because they could flex to meet my needs and were more than willing to offer the training and support required to expand my skills.

When I talk to people I’ve just met, they’re often amazed that I’ve only worked for one company my entire career. The truth is, I’ve had several different jobs spanning different disciplines within the same career.

As the Chief People Officer for McDonald’s Canada, I take my overall experience and perspective of the business and bring it to the human resources function. It’s a unique vantage point that helps me relate to all levels of the organization.

What tools are in place for your employees to map out their own career paths?

At McDonald’s, the growth opportunities are there for the taking.

Everyone—at all levels—is able to participate in training and development opportunities, from crew people to managers, owner/operators and corporate employees. We conduct talent round tables twice a year for both succession and professional development planning.

We have invested more than $1.2 billion in worldwide training and development for our people, and that number continues to grow. We have eight global Hamburger Universities that have received college accreditation from many well-known and highly-regarded institutions.

When you consider that more than 50 percent of our owners and operators began as crew people—employees who work at the front counters, kitchens and drive-thrus in our restaurants—it speaks volumes about growth opportunities at McDonald’s.

As critical for those who go on to pursue other careers outside of McDonald’s, we believe we offer a solid training ground that can take you anywhere.


The McDonald’s People Promise states that you will value each and every employee, their growth and their contribution—every day in every way. Which of your initiatives support this promise?

Our employment brand isn’t about promising the world, it’s about delivering on the promises we make. We created our employment brand with a solid understanding of employee needs by doing in-depth research, from surveys to focus groups and interviews with current and prospective employees.

The goal was to make our employment brand more relevant and tailored for our people, because a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work. We have defined six areas (wages, benefits, opportunity, respect, work-life balance and flexibility) that matter most to our employees in an effort to create the most valuable and dynamic work experience to not only help us find, but also retain the right people.

For example, beyond formal training and development, we are investing in innovative reward and recognition programs. As a top global sponsor of the Olympic Games, we send our best crew to experience the excitement of the Games, represent the brand and serve the athletes.

We created our employment brand knowing that it would need to evolve over time, but we know it’s working. Our people are feeling well-trained, respected, engaged and excited. Employees are choosing to work at McDonald’s—and they’re having fun doing it!

In the recruiting process, it's important to create an employment brand. What is your process for employment branding, and how do you communicate it effectively?

Approaching our Employment Value Proposition as an employment brand, we were able to apply the same high standards as we do with the marketing of our company’s brand.

For instance, we take a lot of time to communicate the total compensation package to our people, made up of a variety of incentives and rewards. We want our employees to think beyond their paycheck and understand they're part of a bigger picture.

We conduct internal surveys with current and prospective employees to gauge how we’re doing in terms of wages and benefits and go through regular reviews to make sure that we’re offering innovative benefits that set us apart from our competitors.

However, when you ask for feedback, you’d better be ready to act because that shows you’re serious about addressing your employees’ concerns. You’ve got to walk the talk to be credible.

With that in mind, we created an employment Web site——which in addition to being an avenue to apply for a job at your local McDonald’s, also showcases the benefits of employment in a fun and relevant way.

It’s no surprise that we are in a talent war during this labor shortage. What is your talent strategy to recruit and retain the top employees?

Our company’s founder, Ray Kroc, often said, "You’re only as good as the people you hire."

Canadians today have more choice about where they work and they have high expectations about what their experience should be.

For us, it’s about giving employees something that motivates them to represent the brand and the business and provide our customers with an exceptional experience. It’s about giving people who choose to work for us a promise…then following through.

It goes back to the importance of respect, which is critically important and doesn’t cost a thing. How do we show respect? We recognize and acknowledge good work. We invest in our people. We give them the opportunity to grow and achieve their goals. And we create an open culture where people can challenge the norm, innovate and share new ideas.

How do you incorporate flexible work arrangements into your talent strategy to attract employees?

This topic is of growing importance to today’s employees and it isn’t only sought by moms, students and retirees, as some might believe. It is widely expected among most employees, but it’s a complicated issue because different generations in the workplace have different expectations of what constitutes balance and flexibility.

With baby boomers, Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers, it makes for a wide range of talent with an equally wide range of needs and expectations. The simple fact is that employees will find work elsewhere if they feel they are being pulled in too many directions.

At McDonald’s, we provide options so that our people can find tailored solutions that fit their needs, namely through flexible scheduling, work-sharing and better use of technology.

In the end, the key to addressing definitions of balance and flexibility lies in being flexible ourselves.

How has the culture at McDonald’s Canada shape your employees' work experiences?

From managers working shoulder to shoulders with crew to open lines of communication from restaurant staff to senior management through e-mail, voicemail and our crew Web site—StationM—we make it a priority to ensure that our people are heard, taken seriously and rewarded.

It’s also about fun, excellence and innovation. We have a great time at work while continuing to push ourselves to be better at meeting the evolving needs of our people and our customers.

You've worked hard over the years to create a top-notch talent process and initiative. When not working, how do you spend your free time?

I enjoy all types of sports. Being outdoors and camping are both high on the list. Enjoy reading books and volunteer work. The most important though is I appreciate and value the time with my wife and children. Although all three of our children are adults living away from home, we are all very close and have a lot of fun with each other. The relationships are quite special.

What is your number one philosophy that you try to teach your employees on a daily basis?

We care about our people and we provide them with a world of opportunity.

Interview by Katherine Mehr, editor