Corporate leaders continue to speak out on the issue of racial injustice, but not all have backed up those statements with investments in broad diversity initiatives. In the following interview, Denny’s CEO John Miller explains the business case for D&I investment at the restaurant chain—including $2 billion on supplier diversity—and why true progress requires patience and long-term commitment.
Why is diversity and inclusion important to you as a CEO?
We all have a role to play in fighting for equality. I want to live in a world where all people – regardless of background – are treated equally and respectfully. Prioritizing diversity and inclusion makes Denny’s a better business, a better employer and a better member of the diverse communities we serve across the country and abroad.
We want to live in a world united in harmony and peace. This cannot be achieved in a world filled with inequity and injustice.
What is the business case for it, as you see it?
As America’s Diner, we are committed to ensuring we are an inclusive company that reflects our diverse customer base. While diversity and inclusion efforts have long been an important focus for us as a company, we are always open to working with others that can offer valuable perspective and insights that can help us continue to evolve and grow as an organization. It’s important to me that Denny’s internal employee network reflect the customers we’re serving each and every day. Our mission is to be America’s Diner for today’s America, an America that is wonderfully and beautifully diverse.
We pride ourselves on creating a welcoming dining environment for all guests, regardless of their backgrounds. Having diverse voices at every level from our board of directors to our corporate offices to our restaurant teams allows us to do just that.
What efforts have you made at your company to move the needle on diversity?
Effective programs we’ve launched include our unconscious bias trainings, which are available to all franchisees and executives, as well as our Hungry for Education scholarship program through which we help combat childhood hunger and provide scholarships to Black, Hispanic and Asian students to support their dreams of getting a college education. These are in addition to our Supplier Diversity program, through which Denny’s has spent over $2 billion with diverse and disadvantaged suppliers since the program was initiated in 1993. In 2019, diverse and disadvantaged businesses represented 14.1% of Denny’s purchases.
We encourage our leaders to serve in their areas of capabilities and passion. For me personally, this is in the area of education and hunger relief as you may have noted from above. Two of my current assignments are service as Vice Chair on the Wilberforce University Board of Trustees, our nation’s first black private college founded in 1856, and on the Spartanburg Academic Movement Board, a cradle to career movement to improve outcomes in education through early learning, remediation, goal setting and mentorship.
Do you believe all leaders have unconscious bias? If so, how do you compensate for your own?
I believe all leaders, and all people, have unconscious bias. For this reason, I frequently take part in unconscious bias trainings and provide them for our executives and franchisee network as well.
How do you measure the success of your diversity initiatives?
Success in our diversity initiatives is first and foremost measured by how our employees feel about the programs we have to promote diversity. We have an open line of communication between corporate employees and our franchisee network to receive real-time feedback on how we’re doing and where employees would like to see changes. Secondly, we measure diversity through our workforce. About two-thirds of the total Denny’s workforce is made up by minority groups including half of our restaurant management level employees. Our board of directors consists of 44% minorities and 33% women, and we are committed to improving those numbers.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve personally learned on this front?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that being a true leader in diversity, equality and inclusion takes patience and a sustained long-term commitment. You aren’t going to hit a home run every day. But by consistently hitting singles and doubles day in and day out, you’re going to look around one day and realize you’ve been a part of building something truly special. That’s what we have accomplished at Denny’s.
Is it important for CEOs to be vocal on the issue of racism in the U.S.?
I think more than anything it’s important for CEOs to be authentic, especially when talking about race and addressing racism. Being the loudest person in the room means nothing if you don’t have the hard work and proof points to back it up. That’s why I’ve committed our company to making real strides for diversity, equity and inclusion. We take it very seriously and fully support the ongoing fight for racial justice in the U.S. Our work is focused on several key areas we’ve identified including supporting organization that directly address racial inequalities, promoting education, and creating economic opportunities for minority businesses.
Why did you become a signatory of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion?
For decades, Denny’s has taken steps to ensure that our commitment to DE&I is met at every level of the business. We understand that change requires a long-term, sustainable commitment and we joined the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion coalition to help emphasize that. Our company values and mission to drive diversity, equality and inclusion among our employees is very much aligned with CEO Action. Through participation in the coalition, I have had the chance to ideate with other CEOs on what diversity, equality and inclusion look like in the modern workplace. Diversity and inclusion are not something one company can achieve on its own and it’s rewarding to be part of the collective action that CEO Action promotes.
How being a signatory has contributed to D&I progress at your company; what resources has it provided?
The CEO Action for Diversity participation brings a wealth of resources, best practices, practices not to repeat again and a wealth of shared experiences toward successful progress. Being connected to and working alongside other CEOs that prioritize diversity and inclusion has helped Denny’s evolve our own diversity, equality and inclusion programs.
Being a signatory has opened up an important dialogue and started many candid conversations that have helped inform our DE&I strategy. Being a leader in the diversity space means you are constantly learning and seeking counsel from people with different experiences than your own and CEO Action has given me access to some of the brightest minds in the business world.
In particular, the CEO Action Closed-Door Sessions provided a valuable space where business leaders including myself could have an honest talk both progress made and challenged face in driving DE&I forward.