Women in Business: Q&A with Laurie Burns, Chief Development Officer for Darden Restaurants

As Chief Development officer for Darden Restaurants, Laurie Burns is responsible for leading all aspects of development for Darden's restaurant brands, which include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, The Capital Grille, Eddie V's Prime Seafood and Yard House.

Laurie joined Darden in 1999 as Vice President of Development for Red Lobster. A year later she was promoted to Senior Vice President of Development for all Darden brands. Then in 2003 she was named President of Bahama Breeze, where she led a successful turnaround of the Caribbean-inspired brand.

Prior to joining Darden, Laurie spent 13 years in real estate development in the restaurant/hospitality industry. She received both her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and M.B.A. from the University of Florida. Laurie is currently Chair of the Board of Directors of the Women's Foodservice Forum (WFF).

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up playing golf, I learned to capitalize on my strengths on the course...playing smart, keeping it in the fairway, and leveraging my short game. As a leader I've learned to play to these same strengths. "Playing smart" is creating and communicating a clear strategy... and bringing people along. "Keeping it in the fairway" means always acting with integrity and doing exactly what I say I will do. And "leveraging my short game" is developing strong relationships to garner the support and influence necessary to get things done.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Darden?
By far the biggest challenge and most rewarding experience in my 15 years with Darden was moving from leading the development function to a general management role as President of Bahama Breeze. The brand was struggling at the time and I had to learn a much broader job. I was no longer the functional expert. I learned how to lead people in business areas that I knew very little about. I also learned the importance of building relationships and tapping into all the smart people across the enterprise. Now I'm excited to leverage what I learned in the general management role at Bahama Breeze in my role as Chief Development Officer for Darden.

How have you learned from these challenges and successes?
I learned to always be prepared (and willing) to take on opportunities that arise - a promotion, special assignment or a new area of responsibility. And to consistently do things to make myself smarter about the business - in my own area of expertise and beyond.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I plan my vacations with as much discipline as I plan my work calendar, planning months in advance and then protecting that time once it's booked. Taking the time to recharge by doing things I enjoy outside of work is critical to being effective at work. For me, I love spending time with friends and family, cycling, traveling and supporting my University of Florida teams, "Go Gators!"

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
While we have made significant progress, the fact is that we are still significantly underrepresented in senior management and on boards. Recent research suggests that a contributing factor is that women often don't have the necessary sponsors in the room advocating for them for these jobs. The WFF is working to change this by focusing on our mission to advance women leaders. In addition to our leadership development content focused on twelve leadership competencies critical for success, we are focused on ensuring that women understand the importance of making the necessary connections to advance their careers, like having sponsors to ensure they get that next opportunity.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I was fortunate to have an amazing boss and mentor, John Mitchell, early in my career. He went out of his way to make sure I had the experiences and challenges I needed to advance my career; from honing my presentation skills to networking to taking assignments beyond my job responsibilities. He helped me lay a solid foundation for my career. Later on, I have relied on my own personal "board of directors," these friends, family and advisors are there for me to lean on...to get honest feedback, support and encouragement when I need it.

Which female leaders do you admire and why?
As a sports fan, I quickly go to people like Althea Gibson and Billy Jean King who broke down huge barriers, and Pat Summit, who with determination and discipline took excellence to a new level.

What is one word that sums up where you are today in your career?