Episode 371: Evolving the Reputation of HR for the Organization With Jill Waite, CPO at Portillo’s Hot Dogs

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Episode 371: Evolving the Reputation of HR for the Organization With Jill Waite, CPO at Portillo’s Hot Dogs

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The biggest challenge was evolving the reputation of HR for the organization. It had been known as more of a compliance and regulatory or “you only called HR when you were in trouble,” to a strategic partner that was an enabler of our culture and supported the organization in its strategy and growth plans.

Episode 371: Evolving the Reputation of HR for the Organization With Jill Waite, CPO at Portillo’s Hot Dogs


Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:49.83] Welcome to the Workology Podcast powered by Ace The HR Exam and Upskill HR. These are two of the courses I offer for HR certification prep and re-certification for HR leaders. This podcast is part of a series on the Workology Podcast focused on the roles and responsibilities of Chief Human Resources Officers or CHROs. The CHRO is sometimes called the VP of People or the Chief People Officer, and it’s an executive C-level role that deals with managing human resources as well as with organizational development and implementing policies of change to improve the overall efficiency of the company. The CHRO podcast series on Workology is sponsored by HR Benchmark Survey. Share your insights and join our survey by going to HRBenchmarkSurvey.com. One of the reasons I have wanted to do this series and we keep doing this series is because every HR role, head of HR role is different, as you’ll see in the center view. I want aspiring CHROs to know the types of skills and experiences they need to promote into a future CHRO role. Along with hearing from senior HR leaders about how they’re partnering and collaborating with their executive peers. Now, before I introduce our guest, I want to hear from you. Text “PODCAST”, the word “PODCAST” to 512-548-3005, and you can ask me questions, leave comments and make suggestions for future guests. That’s podcast to 512-548-3005. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. Today, I’m joined by Jill Waite. She’s the Chief People Officer at Portillo’s Hot Dogs, a restaurant chain with more than 60 locations headquartered in Oakbrook, Illinois. Prior to joining Portillo’s in 2019, Jill has held several HR and operations roles in retail, grocery and fitness industries with companies such as Sephora and 24-Hour Fitness. Jill was hired to reinvigorate Portillo’s culture for its 6000 team members and is responsible for building the talent pipeline to support the company’s growth. Jill, I’m so excited to have you on the podcast today. Welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Jill Waite: [00:03:03.32] Thank you, Jessica. So it’s such an honor to be here today. Thank you.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:07.28] I am a retail and restaurant person. That’s my background in HR. So I love retention, culture and staffing for, for the hourly workforce, so I can’t wait to dig in and talk more.

Jill Waite: [00:03:20.96] I am as well.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:22.01] Let’s start with some background. How did you get your start in HR and how has your work evolved over time into your current role?

Jill Waite: [00:03:30.20] Yeah, so similar to you. I started off in the retail industry, worked for a company called Circuit City back in the day, the largest consumer electronics retailer that was out there. And I worked in customer service at the time and was taken under the wing of the general manager of the location I worked in. And during that time he really taught me all things business. And as I was going to school at the University of Florida, I still worked full-time both for Circuit City, but also as getting my degree in management. Upon graduation, I was approached by the regional HR manager for Circuit City and said, Hey, would you have any interest in coming into HR? And I said, Absolutely. I love people. I love Circuit City and was really passionate about helping the company grow. And so it was my passion for retail, the organization I was working in, as well as people that I was able to migrate into my career today in HR.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:38.54] I love that and I remember those Circuit City days. It’s dating us a little bit, but that’s okay. So you’ve been in HR for a period of time. You have this amazing role leading, this really growing, fast-moving organization as you were thinking about future CHROs or maybe HR leaders who were thinking about their career paths into that Chief HR position, what skills and experiences do you believe are absolute requirements for a CHRO?

Jill Waite: [00:05:10.91] Yeah, so I think, I think it comes back to the foundation I received early on in my career and that is really understanding the business. I was given advice early on that said, if you want to be a successful Chief People Officer, you have to understand the business because at that point you have to earn the respect of your business partners. And so having curiosity for the business that you’re in the industry by really trying to understand the levers that go along with how to help the company be successful in addition to understanding and having a passion for people when you bring those two things to get together is when I’ve seen the most successful heads of HR really thrive in their organization.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:00.89] I love that. And I agree with you. I feel like. Anyone and I’m biased here, but anyone who works in retail or restaurant and has multiple locations and they have to understand the business and the business acumen of each of those locations. I feel like has a competitive advantage in my mind over other HR leaders, because when you walk into a store or a restaurant, you really have to understand in that little echo chasm of that store or that restaurant what is happening and maybe how the business or the people are impacting the business.

Jill Waite: [00:06:37.03] Agreed. Working in the restaurant industry has been extremely inspiring because similar to retail, similar to grocery, there is this connection between our team members as well as the guest experience and being able to see it come to life in each and every moment, both in the restaurants, our support center, the commissaries, it’s really something special and tangible that you can see how we bring to life our purpose and our values. And it’s something that is what gets me excited coming to work every day.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:09.79] We talked about what the size of the company is, 6000 team members, but I wondered about the HR team. How big is the team? What’s the organizational structure in terms of where HR sits and who do you report to?

Jill Waite: [00:07:23.62] Yeah. So I report to the Chief, the CEO, and we have about 25 HR team members that supports our team members across both our restaurant support center, our restaurants, as well as what we call our commissary, where we make our amazing beef. And we are broken out into a couple of different functions. Talent acquisition, talent management, total rewards and operations, people business partners as well as communications and learning and development. Prior to joining Portillo’s and when I came on, the organization didn’t have many of these functions. We did not have talent acquisition in the sense that we have today. We didn’t have communications for our team members, talent management. So, total rewards, that wasn’t something that, that we had. And so building a team of talented individuals who are truly passionate about Portillo’s has been something that has been just a source of pride and excitement for where we’re going.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:32.92] You talked about the organizational structure of HR. What I didn’t hear was payroll, which I know is a lot different in multi-location and restaurant or retail. Can you talk a little bit about that and maybe other departments that you are maybe responsible for or have a dotted line to in terms of the structure of your HR team?

Jill Waite: [00:08:54.37] Yes. So our payroll department reports into our finance team. And one of the things that we have transformed from a people team was moving from paper. So any time someone wanted to transfer or enroll in benefits, they would fax a piece of paper to the support center and we would process it to leveraging systems for automation, which has freed up our managers time in interacting with our guest, as well as training and developing and motivating our team members. So, HRIS services team has, has really worked in making our processes as easy for our restaurants as possible. Second, it has also started with people planning and succession. So with our growth of anywhere between 8 to 10 restaurants a year, we need to ensure we have the right people pipeline to deliver those growth aspirations. And so we’ve created clear interest days through our talent management team where team members can come and explore opportunities of advancement for Portillo. So our, our Head of Marketing, our SVP Marketing off-premise, he started out as a cashier in our Naperville Portillo’s and he spent time here. He ended up leaving for a little bit, went to Google and he came back and now he’s running marketing and off-premise. So we’ve created ways through talent management, talent development to show team members that their career path is not only a, it could be a ladder up through the restaurant, but it also can be a lattice. Individuals also see that they can come here and get the support center. So between talent management, development, HR shared services and technology as well as our learning and development, we, we are really retooling the way of how the people team supports our organization.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:55.95] Now, when we were talking before the call, you also talked a little bit about the HRIS team. Talk to me about where that sits for you.

Jill Waite: [00:11:05.43] Yeah. So that reports into our total rewards in people operations. We are evolving this area to be more of a technology, but also a shared services team for our, for our team members. So we want to create. We want to make the environment in the restaurant as frictionless as possible. And so by having a team that is focusing on simplifying any of the tactical admin tasks that we ask our restaurants to do or team members, this centralized function is working alongside with our operations team to think about how we leverage technology in a way that allows us to do that.

Jessica MillerMerrell: [00:11:52.59] And that is an ever-evolving department for sure. I think about when you said faxing a minute ago and I was like, Oh my God, I remember those days. Wow. That just opens it up for everybody when you can really provide a way for employees to be able to move and transfer request time off, enter in their payroll information paperlessly. It is a game changer for everyone.

Jill Waite: [00:12:20.02] It is and we have a multigenerational workforce. So and primarily Gen, Gen Y and Gen Z. So if we don’t have technology in their hands in some way, they may not look at us as a relevant brand that they want to be a part of. So we also look at technology as a way of being a differentiator for Portillo’s and a place where people see this as a place they want to work.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:43.99] I love it. And let’s talk about when you joined Portillo’s, which was in 2019, so the year before the onset of the global pandemic. Thinking back to those times, those were different days. But what was your biggest challenge in the first months on the job?

Jill Waite: [00:13:01.54] The biggest challenge was evolving the reputation of HR for the organization. It had been known as more of a compliance and regulatory or “you only called HR when you were in trouble,” to a strategic partner that was an enabler of our culture and supported the organization in its strategy and growth plans. And so creating an environment where it started with our purpose, our values, that it’s about developing our people, that they’re recognized. It was transforming the relationship that we had with our team members and with our guests, for that matter, to one that is truly seen as a partner in how we deliver the guest experience to our guests, but also really trying to create this unrivaled experience for our team members. So it is rebuilding and evolving that relationship that, that we had in the organization.

Break: [00:14:04.18] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you were listening to the Workology Podcast. We are powered by Ace The HR Exam and Upskill HR. These are courses that we offer over on work ology. We’re talking today about the role of the CHRO with Jill Waite. She is the Chief People Officer with Portillo’s. The CHRO podcast series on Workology is sponsored by HR Benchmark Survey. HRBenchmarkSurvey.com. I also want to hear from you. If you have suggestions, ideas, guest ideas, just general comments, give me a text. Send me a text to “PODCAST”. “PODCAST” to the number 512-548-3005. That’s “PODCAST” to 512-548-3005. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. Yes, it’s really me. Send me a text.

Break: [00:14:55.21] Benchmarking and data is crucial to HR leaders. Workology’s HR Benchmark Survey is an always-on survey, and just by taking the survey at HRBenchmarkSurvey.com, you’re signing up to get comprehensive quarterly results, white papers, and other research from the survey right to your inbox. It takes 10 minutes or less to complete. Visit HRBenchmarkSurvey.com.

The Conversations to Have to Make Changes Come to Life


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:21.82] Can you tell us a little bit about your initiatives to reinvigorate your company culture? Maybe what types of conversations you had to have with your cohort and company leadership to kind of make these changes come to life?

Jill Waite: [00:15:37.48] Yeah, so it started literally the month I came onto Portillo’s. Our CEO had already started to partner with Gallup in establishing and articulating our North Star, what we call the heart of Portillo’s. It’s our purpose and our values. And we knew we needed something that we held ourselves to and how we behave and how we make decisions. And so we embarked on a six-month journey in working alongside with our team members, in articulating what is our purpose, why are we here, what gets us excited every single day to get up and come to work and, and our values, our values, our family, greatness, energy, and fun. And these were not values that were established by a bunch of executives sitting around a table. These were established by our 6000+ team members because they are closest to our guests every single day. They work alongside each other every day. And so we wanted to have a purpose and values that reflect who they are, not who we as an executive team thought they should be. And so that journey began and we began to roll them out right before the pandemic, and we leveraged them as a way of how we made all of our decisions, as well as how we showed up every day to, to one another.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:03.97] I love having the employees be part of the conversation and developing the mission, vision and values piece, because, as you said, they’re in the front lines and the ones who are interacting with the customer. And that customer sees that person as the face of the business. They’re not thinking about the CEO or the rest of the executive team or senior leadership when they have an interaction. Good, hopefully, more than bad. They think that that person is the face of the business.

Jill Waite: [00:17:33.70] Absolutely. And one of the, one of our values, family, is, it really resonates with our team members because we have over 30% of our hires come from friends or family members that they, that they know. And so by having this as something that is the foundation to everything that we do, it allows us to ensure that we have restaurants that are staffed and they’re staffed with individuals who have similar values and a desire to deliver the Portillo’s experience. And so by this being their language and what they believe in, it is, in turn, to help us to have great retention, as well as being able to fill our shifts at a time when the environment in many locations is hard to do. But I attribute that to the great culture that our team members have created.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:26.50] What is your strategy to communicate change to restaurant employees? I mean, we have had lots of change. We continue to have change. But when I think about that specifically for the restaurant industry, a lot of employees don’t spend their days on email like we do, so it makes communication incredibly challenging. How do you handle that? What do you do?

Jill Waite: [00:18:46.45] Yeah. So this, we came up and when I say we, we being our team members, when I came on there was it was identified that communication was a challenge across all of our restaurants and here at the support center. And we connected with many of our general managers and say, how do you do communication well? What are your best practices? And what was identified is a communications board, and we took the best practices from those general managers and we scaled it across the entire organization. And so we have a centralized communications team that ensures that what we provide to our team members makes sense. And then it is cascaded down to our GMs and they go ahead and put it on our communication board. In addition, we have daily check-ins with our team members. Think of them as huddles. And so prior to a team member coming on shift, they know part of their rhythm is to take a look at the communications board and then they have a pre-meal with their managers to hear what are the things that are most important in the restaurant that day. So our communications are built from the field and from general managers who have shown that this is a way of how to communicate things effectively.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:10.42] I’m not sure that everybody caught that kind of at the beginning of our conversation when you said that communications is part of the people team. Can, can you talk to us a little bit more about the rationale for moving communications underneath the People team?

Jill Waite: [00:20:26.61] Yeah, so communications is a strategic enabler to the organization, both internally and externally. So our message is that we share with our team members, we also believe that are shared externally to candidates as well as our guests. And so in making sure that it is all one message under the same umbrella across both our support center, our commissary and our restaurants, and really creates an environment where we’re aligned under one purpose or values as well as what we’re trying to accomplish as an organization. It doesn’t mean that we don’t work with the other departments because we absolutely do. But we ensure that it is under a cohesive umbrella that is speaking to the different audiences in a way that makes sense.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:18.41] I think this is so smart and I have often said that I feel like so much of what we do in human resources is internal communication. But with the increase of importance in employer branding as part of the talent attraction strategies for organization, making sure that your communication is consistent internally and externally is so important. And I think there are so many bad examples of this right now. When I see organizations having layoff communications or their CEO goes rogue and does something, it makes sense to have the communications department underneath people. So everything is in alignment in terms of engagement and messaging.

Jill Waite: [00:22:00.31] Agreed. One of the things I have found that can create a great culture or it can derail it is if your language, your rituals and your recognition are not aligned with your purpose and values. And what I’ve seen is when communications may fall in different departments and not under one umbrella, the language becomes inconsistent and it is reflective of what is important to that department at the time, versus language is a reflective of our culture. Every word has an impact to an individual. And so our, our head of comms, Sara Wirth, she, she spends the right amount of time making sure that the words we use and how we use it really resonates with our team members, because it’s not just our word, it is our culture.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:48.53] I love it. I think it’s, it’s a great strategy and something that I feel like more companies, employers need to be doing is either a dotted line or having communications be part of the people team. It’s something that we should all be considering.

Jill Waite: [00:23:03.26] Sara, our talent acquisition works really closely, too, with our, with our marketing team. So whether that be on social, we have a field marketing team that works in each of our communities. And so between Sara, our talent acquisition and marketing, they absolutely work in sync to ensure that our internal messaging, as well as our external, are all aligned.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:27.05] Perfect. I want to talk also about how your initiatives for reskilling and career development are tying into cultural change. Because I feel like right now making sure that we don’t lose too many people in our organizations to other competitors in all industries, but especially the restaurant industry. How are you looking at reskilling and training as not only a retention tool but a cultural tool?

Jill Waite: [00:23:57.26] Yeah. So one of the things that, that we’ve learned is that our culture is a reflective of the behaviors that each of us live and act each and every day. And so we’ve taken a very specific approach to ensuring that the behaviors that we expect of our team members, whether that be with how they interact with our guests, with how they interact with one another, as well as how our leaders show up each and every day is integrated into all of our development programs. And this includes from a new hire that comes on board to new executives as we onboard them into, into Portillo’s. And so the behaviors that we desire out of each and every team member at first starts with hiring. So we look to make sure that we hire individuals who want to deliver our purpose and live our values. But as they come on and they grow with Portillo’s, that they are absolutely learning the skills, but also the soft skills that we need and that they desire to deliver the best experience to both our team members and our into our guest.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:20.68] You mentioned a talent development team earlier in the podcast interview. How are they involved in this reskilling and career development initiative?

Jill Waite: [00:25:31.09] Yeah, so the talent development team works in conjunction with our operations partners and they spend time monthly reviewing the talent across all of our restaurants, identifying the skills that are our strengths as well as the areas that we still need to, to grow and develop. From those conversations, they effectively succession plan not only the restaurants that may have needs immediately but more for our future. So we have a decent understanding of what our pipeline of new restaurants will look like into 2023 and even into 24. And so our talent development team has already started to succession plan, along alongside with our partners in determining who’s going to go. What experiences or skills do they need in order to be ready to fulfill these, these restaurants? In addition, they work alongside learning and development to identify new resources that we may not have today, such as a recent partnership with LinkedIn, learning to give access to resources for individuals to own their own development, as well as coaching opportunities such as professional coaching, to help our general managers with their ever-growing team member base, as well as the amount of guests that they get to serve each and every day.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:02.79] I love that. And I love the focus on, on the talent development piece. And especially you’re opening new locations, you’re growing. It’s such a great way to retain and really not hold on to, but like help grow those individuals that are really enthusiastic about Portillo’s. They love the culture and the scheduling and the flexibility and the excitement that comes from working in a restaurant. You don’t want to lose those people to other places or other industries. So succession and development is is so key, especially when somebody really identifies with the culture of, of your organization.

Jill Waite: [00:27:47.16] It is. And we’ve seen such success from the career conversations we have with team members and leaders on what is it that you want to do? What are the experiences that you want to be able to experience? And it’s a, it’s allowed us to have individuals move from restaurant positions to support center back into the field or to the commissary. So really a career with Portillo’s isn’t just in the restaurants. It is in our new restaurant opening team. It is at our support center. There are a variety of different paths that they can choose, and we are here to, to help and enable them with that.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:30.30] Well, Jill, I so appreciate you taking the time to come and talk with us today. I know that everybody listening has probably a million questions and they’ve gotten so much in the short time that we have been together. I wanted to ask where people can go to learn more about Portillo’s, or maybe they’re interested in applying for a job opportunity.

Jill Waite: [00:28:54.32] Yeah. So Portillos.com is a great resource of information about Portillo’s and Portillo’s. Backslash careers is a place where if someone has an interest in working for this amazing company, they can research the different positions that we have available.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:29:13.25] Awesome. We’ll also link to your LinkedIn profile, too, in the transcript of this resource as well as the careers website, too, so that people can connect and hear more about what you and your team and Portillo’s are doing as you are growing and evolving. I mean, there’s a lot of new openings and change happening on the horizon for, for you as well.

Jill Waite: [00:29:35.06] Agreed. We’re opening another five restaurants this year and we’re excited for us to, to continue to grow not only our restaurant count but our team members into leadership positions or even grow to what other additional skills they want to learn.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:29:51.98] Perfect. Thank you again so much.

Jill Waite: [00:29:54.11] Thank you, Jessica.

Closing: [00:29:55.67] I love the restaurant industry. These HR leaders are some of the most progressive in the entire human resources space. They are interacting, hiring and working with our younger generations. They have to be flexible and engaging. I mean, you heard Jill. I think hearing from Chief People Officers like Jill in the restaurant and retail industry are such a great way for us as HR and business leaders to see what is coming for us next in terms of our workforce. I also love hearing about all the innovation and things happening. I will tell you that when Jill said the word faxing, I think I had some PTSD and my whole body cringed because I remember those days and I do not want to go back. Even companies, regardless of the size or their growth, they all have places to go and things to work on when it comes to their people strategies. I love hearing how Portillo’s is focused on talent development programs. I feel like when you work in restaurant, it really speaks to the employee or it can and you want to focus as the HR leader on that employee’s personal development and growth plans in a way, because the schedule, the culture and that flexibility already works for them.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:10.43] It’s so invigorating to see how the role of the Chief People Officer is evolving and changing. HR isn’t just a leader within the company. That company depends on their leadership role to set standards and benchmarks from everything from company culture to learning and talent development, and in Jill’s case, communications, too. I appreciate for Jill taking the time to talk with us today. The CHRO Podcast Series on Workology is sponsored by HR Benchmark Survey. Take your survey at HRBenchmarkSurvey.com.

Closing: [00:31:42.32] Before I leave you, I do want to hear from you, too. If you have a guest suggestion or idea or just want to let me know your thoughts or ideas, send me a text. Text the word “PODCAST” to 512-548-3005. That’s 512-548-3005. This is my community text number. It’s really me and I want to hear from you. Thank you also for joining the Workology Podcast and listening to us. It’s powered by Upskill HR and Ace The HR Exam. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previously published Workology Podcast episodes. We are going on 400 episodes. You have a great day.

Connect with Jill Waite.



– Jill Waite on LinkedIn

– Careers | Portillo’s

– CHRO Job Description

– Episode 367: A Head for Business and a Heart for People With Cindy Strong, VP of People for Outdoorsy

– Episode 359: Being the Supplement to Communication With John Reeves Whitaker, CHRO at NPH

– Episode 299: The Role of the CHRO in the Restaurant Industry

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