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For Sodexo’s Lorna Donatone, it’s always a working lunch

An accountant by trade, Lorna Donatone gained years of experience in the airline and tech industries before pivoting to a financial role at Spirit Cruises and finally landing at Sodexo in 1999. Since joining the global food services provider, Donatone has served in several roles for the company, including as COO and president of the company’s education division in the U.S. In 2016, Donatone — who splits her time between her Virginia Beach home and Gaithersburg office — was promoted to Sodexo region chair for North America and CEO for geographic regions.

What first drew you to accounting? I think by nature I’m very black and white. You get to be more comfortable in the gray. That’s how my world is now — very few things are yes or no. But numbers always were. It either was right or wrong, and I kind of liked that.

What was the biggest lesson you learned when you moved into the hospitality world? The beauty of a financial background is that you can move from industry to industry. You just need to learn the smaller differences. What I loved about the airline industry and hospitality — and what I love to this day — is the proximity to the customer. There’s only a couple steps and I’m influencing the customer.

How has the company changed since you started with Sodexo? About 15 years ago, we started down a strategic imperative around diversity and inclusion. This was a recognition that we needed to change not only what we looked like, but how people feel when they come to work. We wanted to attract the best. Our group CEO has set a line in the sand of 40 percent female leadership in the organization by 2025 and we’re over 30 percent now. That took a lot of heavy lifting. Some of my most passionate work is around that, especially around gender.

What areas is Sodexo growing in right now? We’re seeing great growth right now in corporate services. We’re growing a lot in our sports and leisure and just made a big acquisition with Centerplate, which is exciting. Also, the senior services business is seeing great growth. Health care is an interesting segment right now with all the consolidation in the industry, which is leading to opportunities and challenges.

Best business advice you’ve received? If you’re having a bad day, if the craziness of corporate America is getting you down, go to where your customer is. For us, it’s as simple as heading down to the cafeteria.

What’s your leadership style? I believe in transparent leadership. I believe in being visible and being who I am. I have no pretenses about what senior leadership should be. I know I don’t know all the answers.

What’s a business lesson that you’re still learning? I started my career with no technology. Fax machines were new. You could cut off your work. Today, one of the biggest challenges in business is this ability to be connected 24/7. People can burn out very quickly. For me personally, that’s what I have to learn to manage.

You mentioned being tired of getting the ‘work-life balance’ question on panels. What other questions are you tired of answering as a female executive?At a panel about diversity and inclusion, I warned the moderator. It was a non-diverse room, let’s say. And the question was about about the business case for diversity and inclusion. I said, “Let me just tell you, I’m sick about talking about the business case for diversity and inclusion. If you’re sitting in this room and you don’t get it, I feel sorry for you. Your company won’t be here in five years.” I can’t answer that one more time.

Who is a CEO or executive whom you admire? I watch the female CEOs. I think that women CEOs lead differently. Cheryl Bachelder from Popeyes recently stepped down after a sale. She was just an authentic leader who I really, really admire. Another is Dawn Sweeney, the CEO of the National Restaurant Association. I’ve sat on the NRA board and we know each other very well, and I so admire her.

Best travel advice: Learn to sleep on planes and have no expectations.

Favorite travel destination: I just got back from Hawaii over Christmas. I’ve been going there for years and it’s my favorite place to go. I’m kind of a bad tourist. I just like to go and be somewhere and not have an agenda and decompress.

A new habit: I recently started Crossfit. My daughter is a Crossfit coach and she’d been pushing me and telling me, “You’re not going to die.” So in August, I had a couple weeks where I didn’t travel and I went to a class. I was surprised at how much I liked it. I’ve exercised most of my adult life, but it’s humbling. It makes me have to ask questions.

Book you’d recommend: I’m reading a book now that’s from our company leader in Sweden. It’s called “The Immigrants,” by Howard Fast, and it’s about the early immigration from Sweden to the U.S. It’s part fact, part fiction and it’s a series of books. There’s another set of books recommended by our French colleagues that’s called “The Physician,” by Noah Gordon, about the history of medicine and how doctors are created.

On weekends: My goal is to do nothing on the weekends. That helps once Monday comes along. Then I’m ready to go back to the schedule. That weekend to recover is important.

Lorna Donatone

  • Title: CEO for geographic regions and region chair, North America, Sodexo
  • Age: 60
  • Education: Bachelor’s in management, Tulane University; MBA, Texas Christian University
  • Residence: Virginia Beach
  • Family: Husband, the late Stephen Donatone; daughter and two stepchildren


This article was originally published in the Washington Business Journal. PDF | Link