Women in Business: Q&A with Donna Josephson Chief Marketing Officer, McAlister's Deli

As chief marketing officer for McAlister's Deli, Donna Josephson leads all strategy development, brand management, national and local initiatives as well as R&D and menu innovation. Donna has extensive experience in the restaurant industry where she has led initiatives for several major brands, including Chick-fil-A, Applebee's and Wendy's.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I am very fortunate to have great parents and family support growing up. They have always supported me through school and in my professional career. As I was beginning my career with two small children, my parents and husband were my greatest supporters. They were there for me 100 percent, when I needed to give a little extra time or travel to make a difference. In addition, I come from a long line of what I call "doers." My parents have always been movers and shakers in their professional and personal lives. I have witnessed from childhood them making communities better, and being there for family. They have a great giving spirit and I believe they make their part of the world better by their efforts. I strive to be like them, by making a positive difference in my personal and professional life.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at McAlister's Deli?
I've worked for some really great brands. Prior to joining McAlister's, I was with Chick-fil-A, Applebee's and Wendy's. These are three pretty iconic brands and each brought a wealth of learning about brand building and how to build and grow great teams. I learned a lot about how to work with operators and how to grow a great brand. Specifically, I was at Wendy's during a struggling time when the brand was trying to reemerge and reinvent itself. This time taught me how to build good relationships with operators and franchisees who are essential to bringing the brand's programming to life.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at McAlister's Deli?
It's really exciting to be part of a brand that is growing tremendously. We now have more than 325 restaurants across 24 states and it's a lot of fun to be a part of that success and see our franchisees being successful, as well. It is a true testament to the quality of this brand. The challenging part of that is you have to look forward. We (leadership) can't just sit and relish the highlights without looking forward and making sure we continue along the same path. Our team is small -- but mighty -- and we truly value and respect our operations partners, so I'm confident McAlister's will continue to experience the success we've seen over the last several years. We just have to keep looking ahead.

What attracted you to work for restaurant chains?
I was recruited by a Chick-fil-A operator when I was working in the community in Dallas. He saw me as a strong community advocate and when I realized how integrated Chick-fil-A was in the community, I was really attracted to that. After getting into the restaurant industry, I saw how dynamic it is. It's constantly changing and there are so many creative opportunities in marketing and product development. It creates a variety of challenges and learning opportunities and I find that energizing. I think once the restaurant industry gets in your blood, you're hooked. You feed off the energy of restaurants and making things happen!

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in marketing?
Jump right in. Always remember you can't be afraid of jobs in marketing that are too big or too small. There are so many aspects of marketing. Wherever you land in the marketing world, always remember it can be a driving engine, but it's also a support function. There's always something someone can teach you, whether they are in marketing or not. Listen to your key business partners and franchisees. Not one marketing idea or program will ever survive without cross-functional support. If you take that advice and always use that as your mantra -- remember you are a support function -- it will keep you in the right mindset and help you be successful as part of a team.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I struggled with that for years, especially when my children were very little. But I finally came to the realization that everyone has to determine what's right for them -- it's individualized. I refused to believe and accept what everyone told me I should be doing. I would only be influenced by what I believed was the proper work/life balance and what made my children, my family and myself happy. My two daughters see me traveling and working in the evening -- sometimes right beside them as they're doing their homework -- but they see me doing this because I love what I do, and it makes me happy. My family knows they are the most important thing to me. For me it is not about what society tells me my work/life balance is supposed to be. It's what works for me. Be true to your own family and your own desires.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I don't really focus too much on the issue of gender in the workplace. There are times when I'm the only woman in the room and most of the time I don't even notice that. If I focused on this constantly, I don't know if I'd be able to focus on trying to do a great job at work. I think that's one of the biggest issues sometimes for women: they're so focused on the gender difference and not as focused on just being great at what they do. I choose to put that aside and work toward what I can learn from everyone regardless of their gender and helping all people move forward in the workplace. That way we all succeed.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have mentors that I still keep in contact with. Some are peers that have progressed in their careers and are still either my advocates or my advisors, we talk and encourage each other. They have always helped me to look at things differently. I'm very thankful for their support, and because of that I want to pay that back by mentoring others. I have several friends that are in early stages of their careers and I love to hear their aspirations and goals. I want to be a mentor for them because mentorship made a big difference in both my professional and personal life and really it is a great joy to watch people accomplish their goals.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
The one female leader in my life that I admire the most is my grandmother. She lost her husband while pregnant with her seventh child. She never remarried and raised her children on her own. She did what it took at work and in the community to make sure she was a great mom. While she may not have been a leader of industry, she was a great leader of her family. She was always there and always positive. So when I look at the qualities of leaders -- female or male -- I look at those who don't let adversity take them down. You wake up the next day, figure out ways to tackle the big problems in life and move on. Those are the types of people I admire. We all hit those walls of difficulty, but you just keep moving forward.

What do you want McAlister's Deli to accomplish in the next year?
We're celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, so I want McAlister's to continue the tremendous growth we've seen in recent years and continue to ramp up our success. Last year, we opened 12 new restaurants and signed 11 development agreements to open 63 future locations. We are expanding in existing markets -- like Indiana and North Carolina -- and in new markets such as New Jersey, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Boise. As we become more of a national brand, I want our awareness to grow and I want McAlister's to continue to be recognized for our great food, service and genuine hospitality.