We have known Pamela for a while but just recently had the chance to hear her speak on a panel for Talent in the Balance in St. Louis. After that incredible session, we knew we wanted to catch up with her and share what she is up to at Panera Bread with our audience.  Let’s start with her background.

Tell us about your career journey and what brought you to Panera.

It all started with admiring the work my mom did for so many years. She is retired now but she was a special educator in Saint Louis public schools. I observed her tireless her service to children who were either diagnosed behaviorally or with some form of learning disability and that really sparked that interest of helping people in me.  I admired the compassion that she had always shown towards these children that weren’t her own, but she cared for them just the same.

As I went off to college, that desire to help inspired me to become a job coach at MERS Goodwill. They had a department that was specifically for head injured patients where they were being reintroduced back into society through employment. In that role I was assigned as a job coach to many who were highly skilled but were slowly adapting and recovering through therapy, gaining their independence back. My role was to make sure that they were really being supported through the transition back to work and ensuring that all their needs were met. 

At MERs Goodwill, I was introduced to the HR functions of organizations like Walmart and other local businesses. I was preparing to graduate with my undergraduate degree in speech pathology and realized that I wanted to be at the HR table coaching, guiding and supporting others. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to shape my career by supplementing my undergraduate degree with a master’s degree in human resource management.

During that time, I interviewed for a role with the Department of Mental Health. They knew that I was coming out of school with a degree in speech pathology but that going into HR was my passion. They offered me the choice of two different roles — a speech clinician role or an HR specialist role. I enthusiastically accepted the HR specialist role to start my HR journey.

The week that I joined, the team roles changed as many pursued new assignments within the department. Those changes left me with eight direct reports and responsibilities including time keeping, employee relations, compensation and benefits, workers comp, and so much more!  I was 23 years old, and I loved it! I was learning by day the application of the theory that I was learning in the evening with my master’s program. While it was certainly challenging, it was like a real-life capstone project. It was the absolute best experience to help me grow and learn as an HR professional and leader.  

How did you get to Panera from there? Were there other roles in between?

There were a few roles in between the Department of Mental Health and Panera Bread. I first transitioned to Graybar in a benefits role. This was another conscious decision that I made to grow in the HR field. When I thought about HR and all the specific disciplines, the one that probably has the biggest impact on a P&L is compensation and benefits. Even though the benefits team had reported to me in my previous role, I wanted to understand it in detail. I wanted to understand a complete benefit design and what people really want from a benefits standpoint.  

At Graybar, I had a great relationship with the HR director who in turn transitioned to become the VP of HR at Panera. Through that relationship, I interviewed with Panera and loved it.

From that first day, it’s really been progressive scopes of responsibility and I’m quickly approaching my 15-year anniversary!  It’s the longest place I’ve ever stayed, and the difference maker here is our focus on people! The Panera culture is rare because people really do care about each other both inside and outside of work. This is my Panera family!

A good culture is hard to find, and I’m not going to say that we get it right every single time but it’s really inspiring when your organization’s mission and purpose aligns very closely with your own. That’s when you know you have something special.  In my role I not only feel it in my heart, but I’m also able to shape it and influence it for the organization.

Let’s talk more about the focus on people.

We have a visual for our HR strategic framework and it’s a three-part pyramid. On the bottom it is about strengthening the base. We spend time identifying and delivering on the things that are going to be foundational or core to our business and our teams. It’s here that we define our culture, our comp and benefits strategy and how we incorporate DEI into everything from talent acquisition to culture. This foundation is all about the team member experience ensuring we have what we need to attract the best talent.

The second part the pyramid is about building loyalty. This area is focused on what happens after a team member walks through the door.  How do you continue to develop and stretch them through growth and development opportunities? The key focus is around talent management – both managing current performance and helping team members to determine where they want to go in their careers and to help them navigate those career paths.

The top layer of the pyramid is focused on inspiring passion and that’s where a lot of the work that I do lives. It’s giving associates a sense that they are part of something that’s greater than themselves. That they can connect on a deeper level to their work and provide purpose, meaning, and value to the organization. This sense of belonging and being part of making a difference is a critical part of our DEI work.

Well-being is interwoven throughout all three layers because it speaks to meeting people where they are in their personal and professional journey. What we need to offer people has changed drastically post pandemic and we are listening to our associates and taking all the right cues from them to tell us what they need to stay engaged and highly productive.

And we ask them often, because their needs evolve constantly.  It must be an open dialogue to gauge associates’ sentiments, interests, issues and concerns. Hearing what they like, what they don’t like and understand what you’re offering to ensure that you’re meeting their needs.

Like others, we conduct an annual associate survey that is focused on engagement and the drivers of engagement. However, we are also doing a more curated inclusion survey that is acutely focused on the associate experience. We asked a series of questions to better understand the engagement questions one level deeper and dial into how connected do you feel and why? Are you really feeling a sense of belonging? Are you feeling included? If not, what are behaviors that make you feel excluded? Additionally, we have pulse surveys that serve as associate checkpoints throughout the year.

Listening sessions are also a critical part our strategy to understand associate sentiments in real time. Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking one question and creating a safe space for dialogue. The one brave team member that responds first is the catalyst for a fuller dialogue on what people are thinking and feeling. One listening session was led by our business resource groups and was focused on inclusion of the LGBTQ community. They asked what the Panera experience is like for you as a member of this community? What are some of the things that we are doing well? What are some of the things that we should be focused on that we are not? How can we better respond to the needs of our associates? We also did a listening session after the recent Supreme Court decision through our Panera Women’s Network that was focused on women’s reproductive rights and health. While the focus was on listening and understanding, this also gave us an opportunity to share how Panera Bread is planning to support our teams. It was a brave move as there was so much, we didn’t know (then and now) and there are people on both sides of this issue.

We don’t ignore the tough conversations from George Floyd to Stop Asian Hate, as there is richness in listening and understanding. We’ve grown our muscle around having open dialogue around some of the tough questions and issues that are impacting our associates externally and that has an impact internally. This is the spirit of one of our cultural values: bold thoughts and brave actions.

We have heard you talk about the DREAM project at Panera. Tell us more.

After the death of George Floyd, our CEO and I discussed at length what can we do to help break the cycle of people not being able to pursue their dreams because of many of the societal barriers that they were experiencing. And he challenged us to create something that was powerful and uniquely Panera, something that we could drive, something that we could own to make a real impact. We wrestled with many ideas and factors such as do we focus first internally or extend into our communities. And through that ideation, we developed The Dream Project, a leadership accelerator program that is focused on unlocking the dreams of our underserved and under-resourced associates by providing access to education, experience and ownership.

This program has three distinct tracks to create opportunities where they did not exist before. Track one is unlocking dreams through education. We launched a scholarship program this year and dispersed over $280,000 to 37 incredibly talented associates. Their area of study doesn’t have to be related to a role at Panera—we hope that it is, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be business or nursing, aeronautical engineering — that’s OK as long as you can go do good in the world and live out your dream.

The 2nd track under development is a job rotation program for our diverse high potential, high performing general managers. This accelerated track to multi-unit management is a 6-to-12-month immersion into our business where they get to experience critical and core functions of our business such as finance, accounting, and R&D.  They learn the business strategy behind the bakery cafe: learning how culinary innovation happens, how new menu items become integrated into our menu, understanding the buying and the sourcing of the products that get delivered to their back door. This gives them a deeper understanding of how the full business works and exposes them to career opportunities throughout the organization.

The third track is ownership. We have a very strong point of view that creating opportunities for ownership can create not just short-term financial success but also the possibility for intergenerational wealth. In support of this, we are developing a program for high performing, high potential cafe leaders to pursue cafe ownership. So, The Dream Project is three distinct tracks, each focused on overcoming barriers to achieve personal and professional dreams,

Let’s circle back on well-being and what this looks like at Panera.

We are able to chat today because my calendar is free on Friday afternoons!  Support Center team members get to choose how to spend their four-and-a-half-hour block of time on Fridays. It’s up to you so you can use it to catch up on e-mail or you can use it to take a walk.  I walked earlier this morning during a few calls and that’s an offering across the entire work week, not just on Friday afternoons.

Prioritizing well-being takes time and we are training the organization now.  We want to make sure that the leadership team is modeling the right behavior and that our team actually sees that we’re serious about this. So, we encourage everybody to take that time for yourself and do what you need to do, whether it’s getting caught up on email or if you need to go to the grocery store or yoga, whatever it may, that’s your time.  This is a commitment that the executive team made.

Another exciting thing we did was carving out some extra days for time off around holidays such as Memorial Day and Labor Day. We extend those holidays to be four-day weekends for our teams.  We stumbled upon this idea. We originally thought that people simply wanted more vacation. However, with cafes operating around the clock across the nation, we work around that clock, with meetings and emails from early morning and into evenings.   Being on vacation didn’t stop the emails and It didn’t stop people from thinking, I need to respond even if I’m on vacation.

We discovered that the organization was the most ‘silent’ when we were all off at the same time. So even though we all have different vacation schedules, what we found is these extended holidays when everybody’s off together that’s where people can enjoy their vacation, enjoy their time off, enjoy their families, enjoy plans that they may have and really recharge. Because if you’re constantly responding on vacation, then you don’t ever really disconnect.

What else should we know about the good work happening at Panera?

I wanted to share more about our well-being focus. Alongside our personal business goals, we established well-being goals this year. To further underscore the importance of well-being and to hold ourselves accountable, we share these goals with our leaders. We want our associates to see the connection between their professional goals and outcomes to their own wellness and to help them commit to what they’re doing with their free time. The organization has made space for you to do these things. So now it’s up to you to really carve out how you want to live into your well-being goals.  Sometimes we get asked how we have gotten leaders comfortable with asking questions like this? I believe it’s a journey. I don’t know that everybody is comfortable yet but during each review session it opens up a space to have a real conversation about work life balance and connect with your manager.