06/01/2015 02:29 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2016

Women in Business Q&A: Wendy Harkness, Chief People Officer, Captain D's

An industry veteran, Wendy Harkness has more than 25 years of rich experience in developing and implementing skillfully designed human resources and communication campaigns, and specializes in building high-performing teams. She joined Captain D's in April 2015 as chief people officer, and in that role is responsible for executing company-wide human resources strategies, including culture development, administration, internal communications and compliance programs.

Harkness holds a bachelor's degree in human resource administration from St. Leo University, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, as well as a J.D. degree from Stetson University College of Law.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm very fortunate to have incredible parents who helped me to be fearless and who let me fail often so that I would appreciate success when I earned it. I figured out early on that all the successful people I knew had three things in common: an incredible work ethic, a deep passion for what they did, and good common sense. I kept to those basic success principles as I developed as a leader over the years. I honed my work ethic for years as a server and I felt truly accomplished when I bought my first car solely from tip money. While I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, my deep passion for foodservice helped me power through long nights as a restaurant manager, which allowed me to earn my Bachelor's degree without taking out a single student loan. And my common sense was never put to greater use than when I was in law school where I discovered the reality of the phrase that "common sense is not so common." I am grateful on a daily basis for my challenging life experiences - they helped me understand what I value and they keep me honest about the kind of leader I aspire to be.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Captain D's?
I have been in foodservice my entire career in some form or fashion. In over 20 years in this business, I have worked in nearly every foodservice position there is--from server to chief people officer--and I have learned valuable lessons in every role. My direct personal experience helps me craft people services and solutions that are both grounded in operational reality and that ignite our employees' passion to fulfill their potential. I am definitely not the first to say it and that doesn't make it any less true - employees who love what they do and who love the company they do it for will always give their best to our Guests.

What do you think is Captain D's biggest strength? What do you see as its biggest challenge?
Our biggest strengths are our heritage and our hospitality. It's about connection and D's connects on a level rarely seen in this industry. We have a long history of sincere hospitality that extends first to our employees and, through them, to our Guests. Our biggest challenge will be maintaining that exceptional connection as we go into a high-growth mode. And the trick to protecting that connection is having high standards in hiring. BOMO Leadership - Be One, Make One.

What attracted you to work for restaurant chains?
This is a very personal thing for me. From my own first-hand experience, I am unwaveringly convinced this is the best industry in the country. It is the only industry I know of that your path can be absolutely anything you want it to be. In restaurants, your paycheck is a direct reflection of your willingness to work hard and to stay focused. To my amazement and dismay, I made more working in restaurants before law school than I did in my first job as an attorney. You can do anything in foodservice.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in leading foodservice brands?
Lead with competence and do not shrink from who you are. When you lead with competence, gender isn't your focus and it shouldn't be. My focus has always been to add value and it has never failed to advance my career. I won't pretend that the road has always been the same for men and women, but more and more I see that dynamic equalizing. We're not there yet, but I have every reason to believe we're heading in the right direction. Not shrinking from who you are means something different to every woman. For me, it means heading into a board meeting wearing high-heels and great lipstick to present our company's stellar people RESULTS. Also, take feedback seriously, not personally.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I married well! Just like work, I have a team at home. My husband, our two sons, and I all work to make sure our bases are covered. I view balance over the course of my career, not over the hours in a day or a work week. I work extremely hard and sometimes that means long hours for certain stretches of time and because of that, I know I am able to take off without guilt when I want to or need to. It works out.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think women suffer from a few things that are mostly rooted in lack. Lack of high expectations of ourselves and others, lack of self-confidence, lack of specific competence, and lack of willingness to do what is needed. The oft-advised phrase urging women to "earn a seat at the table" is like nails on a chalkboard for me. Have you ever heard that advice given to a man? Of course not. Men assume they have a right to be at the proverbial table and belly up to it. Why don't we? If we feel we have to somehow earn that right differently than men, we probably shouldn't be at the table. I was the eight-year-old girl who pulled a chair up to my dad's poker table and when told to scat, put my dime in to ante up and (with a glare) dared them to banish me. You know what? They didn't. And sometimes, I even took their money. Ladies, we belong. Stop second guessing that. Get in the game and play it well.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
I've never had a formal mentor, but I've had plenty of business crushes that have influenced my career. I try to be observant. Always. I learn from everyone around me. I learn what/how/who I don't want to be as often as I learn what/how/who I do want to be. And I listen. I listen to anyone who will give me the time of day. All of that input goes into a giant funnel and I am constantly comparing and contrasting other ideas with my own. Probably the biggest single thing I've learned from my mentors is how and importantly, when, to listen to those in power and those that are not. Like in work/life balance, my professional and personal mentors blend and overlap.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
For vastly different reasons, I admire Indra Nooyi, Kat Cole, Sara Blakely, and Tina Fey. Indra Nooyi indirectly told me I could wear pink and still be taken seriously. Kat Cole is bright and insightful and one of the best industry listeners/observers of our time. Sara Blakely is from my neck of the woods and has unrivaled perseverance. And Tina Fey leads with competence - in her case, humor. She nourishes my inner nerd.

What do you want Captain D's to accomplish in the next year?
I want D's to put foodservice on the map as a deliberate career choice. I want young people to know that a job in foodservice is not the career of last resort; our industry is vibrant and fast and fun. And with hard work, passion, and common sense, their potential is limitless. I will never eschew education. I have loads of it. I choose to be here because it is incredible to work with earnest, honest people who are real-life characters that engage me and humble me every day.