People and Strategy

Tawanda Starms and Holistic Talent Strategy

Episode Summary

In this episode of People and Strategy, Tawanda Starms, vice president of talent and culture at Chipotle Mexican Grill, speaks with host Tony Lee on topics including what she loves about the restaurant industry, her perspective on fostering employee engagement and the effectiveness of holistic, multi-armed talent recruitment strategies.

Episode Notes

Tawanda Starms’ career in HR began when she learned that the chief people officer of Taco Bell needed an executive assistant. Today, she’s vice president of talent and culture at Chipotle Mexican Grill, overseeing a wide range of talent strategies, from recruiting to talent development to company culture, DE&I and organizational design. In this episode of People and Strategy, Starms speaks with host Tony Lee on topics including what she loves about the restaurant industry, her perspective on fostering employee engagement and the effectiveness of holistic, multi-armed talent recruitment strategies. 

This episode is sponsored by Cornerstone.

Learn more about the SHRM Executive Network.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1 (00:00):

Cornerstone is reimagining the world of work. Over 75 million people use Cornerstone's AI and skills forward system to help them unite growth with business success and create a work environment that works for everyone. Add the tools, skills, and content you and your people need to power the future ready workforce. Visit today to learn more

Tony Lee (00:30):

Welcome to today's people and strategy podcast. I'm Tony Lee, vice president of content for the society for human resource management and the SHRM executive network, which is the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources. I'm excited to speak today with Tawanda Starms, the vice president of talent and culture at Chipotle Mexican Grill. In her role, Tawanda oversees a wide range of talent strategies from recruiting to talent development, to company culture, DENI and organizational design. Tawanda, thanks so much for joining me.

Tawanda Starms (01:03):

Thank you so much for having me, Tony.

Tony Lee (01:05):

Yeah, it's our pleasure. So let's start at the beginning. You launched your HR career as an HR administrator at Taco Bell 20 years ago. How did you become interested in HR?

Tawanda Starms (01:13):

It's a very intriguing question, Tony. I wasn't is the answer. I was actually an executive assistant in operations, and the head of HR for Taco Bell at the time was looking for someone to be his executive assistant. And I recall thinking to myself, "I've got this really great job where I am. I'm not quite sure that I want to go work in HR," because all I knew about HR at the time was both benefits and payroll, and I wanted to be no part of either, frankly. And after much coaching and conversation, I decided to become the executive assistant to the CPO of Taco Bell and it was the best career move I ever made.

Tony Lee (01:59):

And what did they embed in you that you said, "HR's for me?"

Tawanda Starms (01:59):

You know, it was really I think the idea of investing in individuals. And when I got into the role, again, didn't really know much about HR or what it was, but the individual I reported to was an amazing human being who gave me plenty of opportunity to actually explore different parts of HR, to decide which ones that really resonated with me and where I might do my best work, gave me plenty of opportunities to learn about HR and the business at a macro level, how HR actually impacts the business, if you will, from a strategic perspective. And I really was hooked at that moment in time.

Tony Lee (02:35):

No, that's great. So you've worked in a range of industries, but as we've talked about it, you've started and now have returned to the restaurant sector. I've heard some HR people say it is the most challenging business for HR. What do you think?

Tawanda Starms (02:50):

I don't know that it is the most challenging business for HR. Being in a variety of different industries, I'd say people are people. And I think if you can learn how to navigate the business and you can think about how you create people strategies that really drive business outcomes, I think that's doable in all different industries. What I love about restaurant industry, if you will, is the energy in the building. There's something about a restaurant organization and really being able to feel, if you will, this energy within the culture that really, really motivates me and drove me back to a restaurant company.

Tony Lee (03:25):

Now, it's funny, in conversations with other senior restaurant industry HR professionals, they've talked about turnover and retention and high volume hiring. And I'll never forget one saying to me that they've gotten their turnover rate down to below 400% and other people say, "oh my gosh." What's unique about restaurant for the HR professional that you seem to like?

Tawanda Starms (03:51):

I think that the myriad of opportunities within a restaurant organization. I remember when I started my career at Taco Bell, I just actually graduated with a degree in financial management. And I remember having a conversation with my family, saying, "Hey, I'm going to go work for Taco Bell," and their first thought was, "in a restaurant? You just got a degree. I'm a bit confused." And what I love and find fascinating about the restaurant industry is you have so many opportunities for growth within a company, whether you want to stay in a restaurant and continue to work with our customers, you want to be above restaurant in a field leadership role, or you want to work in a restaurant support center. There's plenty of opportunities, I think, for growth within a restaurant industry that aren't always one visible to a lot of people, but then also are not available, if you will, in some other organizations.

Tony Lee (04:39):

Yeah. It's a very unique situation, but of course you're faced with the same talent shortages that every industry is faced with, right?

Tawanda Starms (04:47):

That's correct.

Tony Lee (04:48):

So do you think employers are investing enough in their talent acquisition efforts or is that part of the issue?

Tawanda Starms (04:56):

I think that's a great question in terms of whether or not they're investing enough in their talent acquisition efforts. You know, I think it's different by industry, to be honest with you. I think when I think Chipotle specifically, I think that we spend a lot of energy around talent attraction, but we do so in a way that's unique to us. And so perhaps in other organizations they are not, but I know in ours, as an example, we do in fact focus on what's going to attract the talent that we are looking for within our restaurants, whether that's continuing to build like an always on national recruitment marketing program, whether or not we use data to actually drive and understand what our marketing is saying. Our marketing staffing strategies are what our areas of opportunity are in terms of staffing. And the other thing that we utilize at Chipotle are talent partnerships. And so those things I think are very unique to us in terms of how we look to attract talent.

Tony Lee (05:51):

I mean, there's been a lot written and said about recruiter burnout over the last couple of years, just because there's so much recruiting going on. Are there steps that HR should be taking to prevent that? Is it just basically hiring more recruiters?

Tawanda Starms (06:05):

I don't believe it's hiring more recruiters. I do believe that we sometimes in the space of what we call "people experience" or HR, is we forget that our recruiters are employees as well and have an experience. And I think that if we continue to keep them motivated and we continue to invest in them and help them find solutions for their issues or their problems that they're facing as it relates to attraction, then I don't know necessarily that you have a revolving door of recruiters. There's a lot of volume, especially within the restaurant industry, if you will. But I think what I find value added, especially here at Chipotle is that we look holistically at our talent strategy. So while attraction is definitely one of those pillars, another piece of our talent strategy is internal promotion. And so that lift isn't as heavy, if you will, always on our recruiting partners or our talent attraction partners because we do look at talent strategies more holistically.

Tony Lee (07:00):

No, it makes perfect sense. So let's talk about that a little bit. So employee referrals has always been a top tool. Is that something that you leverage as well?

Tawanda Starms (07:11):

You know, we do have employee referrals in the restaurants to attract talent. We find value in making sure that employees bring with them, if you will, their friends and families. If they love their experience at Chipotle, they're more likely to find more people like them that do amazing work and want to serve our guests. And so I do know that employee referrals is an amazing tool to be able to use one of many tools to be able to use to attract talent.

Tony Lee (07:39):

And how about AI? I mean, we've seen a lot of companies embracing AI as part of the talent acquisition proposition. What do you think about that?

Tawanda Starms (07:48):

I think that it's an amazing opportunity for organizations to really start to think about how you use AI to really hire within the organization. We are, in fact, exploring the opportunity to bring in AI, especially as it relates to our hourly hiring population.

Tony Lee (08:03):

Yeah, no, it makes perfect to chat bots and all of that good stuff seems to take the load off recruiters and let them do what they do best, right?

Tawanda Starms (08:11):

Correct. Yes, it absolutely does because it makes it a seamless process as it relates to having candidates move through the process quite quickly. And especially in roles, such as in the restaurant industry, you're right in the restaurant themselves, you find that candidates, if you will get turned off, if you cannot get them from time of selection, all the way to hire quickly. And that is one of the areas of opportunity. I think when you think about recruiting and hiring, is the fact that there's so many opportunities available to a candidate. That company that is quickest to be able to get them from identification to selection to onboarding are the ones that are actually going to win.

Tony Lee (08:48):

Yeah, well said. So you mentioned internal employee promotion. Employee engagement is suffering across many industries. What do you think is the most important when striving to improve employee retention and engagement?

Tawanda Starms (09:04):

You say most important. I think that there is a combination of things that are important. I think first and foremost is the leader that the employee actually is going to report to and spend time with. Making sure that they have meaningful opportunities for advancement, making sure that they have investment in the talent that you have in the organization. I think that all of those collectively do wonders for retention.

Tony Lee (09:28):

And the opportunity for promotion from within, do you think that makes a big difference?

Tawanda Starms (09:33):

I think so. You know, we promoted 19,000 people last year. 80 to 90 percent of our workforce we look to actually promote internally. What we find, and we have a program Guild, which is our debt free degree program. What we find is that those who take advantage of the Guild program are 7.5% more likely to be promoted within an organization. They're 3.5% more likely to be retained within an organization. So when you can find ways to grow talent internally and you can connect them to opportunities within your organization, your retention, I believe, does go up. And it also feeds with, if you will, the culture of the organization.

Tony Lee (10:13):

Does that require special training of line managers so that they're supporting their employees, encouraging them to apply for other positions? I mean, what's the role of the manager here?

Tawanda Starms (10:26):

You know, I think the role of the manager is critical. We have what we call four by four conversations at our restaurant and above. And we have four by two conversations within our restaurants. And those conversations happen either two times a year, or they happen four times a year, but they're really focused on what goals are we trying to accomplish. And in addition to what goals we're trying to accomplish, what values did you embody this particular quarter or at this point in time during the year? And then the other piece that we look at is the development of the employee. So things that you want to do in order to grow your career, where you want to go and how, as a leader, I can help and support that growth. And so we invest in our employee and we invest in those conversations throughout the year so that we can make sure that at any moment in time we know what the employee is driving for as it relates to their career aspirations and helping with those.

Tony Lee (11:19):

Now I'm sure that has a big impact on engagement.

Tawanda Starms (11:22):

Yes, it does.

Tony Lee (11:24):

That's great. So let's pivot a little bit. We've seen greater attention paid to DENI efforts since George Floyd's murder, and we're over two years since then, but many experts say it's still falling short. What do you think?

Tawanda Starms (11:38):

I think there's still work to be done in the space of DENI. I think that there's a piece around really looking for the talent, but I also think that there's a piece around inclusion that in a lot of organization is missing. I think that we can identify talent that is diverse. We can recruit talent that is diverse, but I think we're all short is really understanding the lived experience of people who may not be the majority. And even if you are the majority, being heard because you may still represent kind of a minority point of view. And so I think inclusion is really an important thing. And then having leaders truly understand the lived experience of their employee in order to really understand how you reach them and make sure they feel like they belong and that they're part of the organization that they work for.

Tony Lee (12:25):

An HR professional who's listening to this, what steps would you recommend they take to achieve that?

Tawanda Starms (12:33):

You know what I think what's important is having an organization that has a DENI strategy that aligns with their purpose and their values. So when I think about Chipotle as an example, our purpose is to cultivate a better world. And we think about that, not just from a food with integrity perspective, but we also think about that in terms of the employees that we have working for us. We also think that kind of rolls into, if you will, our values and two of our values, authenticity lives here, our food is real and so are we, and the movement is real. We do what's right even when it's hard. And so we lean on both of those values when we think about diversity, equity and inclusion, in order to ensure that we're having the right conversations, that we're putting in place the right programs that are not just, if you will, created by HR, if you will. They're created by our employees for our employees.


We have employee resource groups that really are advocates for employees in partnership with our centers of expertise, whether in people experience or other parts of the organization. I think a DENI strategy that encompasses the entire organization is created cross-functionally, that's not just created by, if you will, someone within HR, but also looks at holistically what is it that the business is driving from a DENI perspective, what are our leaders telling us in order to be able to really create a strategy that moves an organization or a culture?


And the last thing I'll say is it's not cookie cutter. I think you've got to look at your culture. You've got to look at your organization. And based on that, and based on the individuals in your organization, you've got to listen to them and hear what it is that they are needing in terms of support to feel included. And you've got to be willing and open to actually address or implement what they're suggesting.

Tony Lee (14:18):

Yeah, well, that's great advice. Now, I think you know, SHRM has long advocated that employers tap into untapped talent and non-traditional talent when recruiting, as well as recognizing alternative credentials rather than requiring college degrees. Chipotle's had some success in that area, correct?

Tawanda Starms (14:36):

Yeah, absolutely. So when we think about looking at non-traditional, if you will, we have partnerships whether with community colleges or we do partnerships, talent partnerships, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, where we're looking at investing in organizations that are like-minded to us and our values and our culture in order to make sure that we're going into either communities of color or we're going into areas of untapped resources to be able to give them opportunity within Chipotle. So whether it's our partnerships with technology organizations or our partnerships with organizations, such as job core, we're looking at opportunities to really give opportunities within opportunities for those who might not otherwise have opportunities.


The other thing that we're looking at, as I mentioned the Guild program, or just our organization in general as it relates to our internal promotion, is we want to go into our restaurants and identify individuals who want field leadership roles, who want roles within the RSDs that may have non-traditional backgrounds and/or credentials, and give them an opportunity to find their way through our organization and navigate their career to where they want to be in our organization. So we're really looking to do that in a multi-prong approach.

Tony Lee (15:46):

Yeah. Very thorough approach, it sounds like. Candidates with criminal histories, what's your approach when those folks are interested in working for Chipotle?

Tawanda Starms (15:55):

I'd say we're exploring. And the reason why I say that is because we are in partnership with our asset protection team to truly understand what our opportunities are to really lean into this space. I recognize, and I think the organization recognizes that there could be opportunities for individuals with criminal histories to join our organization. I think it's making sure that we find the right opportunity for them and the right opportunity for Chipotle, because when you mix the two of those together, then you'll find success.

Tony Lee (16:25):

New college grads. In your situation, you didn't know about HR, it sounds like, until you kind of got into it and got offered an opportunity. What guidance would you offer a new college grad who may not be sure where they want to go and might be thinking about HR as a career path?

Tawanda Starms (16:41):

You know, what helped me most, Tony, is job shadowing. So when I think about this question, I think about being able to experience, if you will, an opportunity and be able to understand what you like and don't like about the different parts of HR. What I find fascinating is, like me, many people think of HR as transactional. Many people think of HR as your benefits or your payroll department. And there's so many more opportunities, if you will, to touch individuals within an organization and help grow them and grow the organization and create a sustainable organization through people experience or through HR.


And so I think definitely giving an opportunity for individuals to explore jobs, whether it's informational interviewing, whether it's internships within HR, or whether I go back to informational interviews, I've had several conversations with recent college grads, as a matter of fact, who have said, "Hey, I'm interested in HR, but I don't know a lot about it." So sitting down with someone today that's in a space of HR and asking all of the relevant questions and then making sure that as the person or mentor, if you will, that's giving the information, that you're sharing all of the information that they may not be asking is also I think imperative.

Tony Lee (17:53):

Yeah, no, that makes perfect sense, Tawanda. And it's funny because I had an experience not that long ago where I was talking to an HR leader who said that they started talking to college students in math programs about the importance of data analytics in HR, trying to convince them and telling them that they're going to be extremely well paid and have a long career.

Tawanda Starms (18:12):

Oh yeah.

Tony Lee (18:14):

You know, data analytics has become so critical in HR, right?

Tawanda Starms (18:18):

Data analytics has become the crux, if you will, of a lot of different decisions within HR. I think about here at Chipotle as an example, we have an entire team that's partnering with our BI analytics team to help us create a dashboard, not just for people experience, but for the rest of the organization. At the end of the day, on your PNL, one of the biggest assets, if not the biggest asset, is people. And so really trying to figure out how you leverage and get the most out of that asset, I think is super important within an organization.


And I say "asset" is in some sort of non-tangible thing, but at the end of the day, I think if you really invest in your people, it really drives business results. And so data, using data to be able to do that feeds so many things from data in terms of where you go and figure out where your problem areas are in terms of attraction data, in terms of what your employees are telling you from an engagement perspective, data in terms of who's being promoted within your organization, whether DENI or demographic information that you're using, or just percentages or numbers of individuals.


I think all of that is relevant information for an HR professional to know and use in order to create effective business strategies that truly drive business results.

Tony Lee (19:27):

And you've become a right hand to the CFO when you have that kind of data, right?

Tawanda Starms (19:32):

Right hand to the CFO. It's funny that you say that. My mentor and individual who I reported to the CPO of Taco Bell said that the two most important organizations are finance and people experience, the people who actually support the people as well as the individuals that help support the money pieces of the business.

Tony Lee (19:51):

Yeah. There you go. Well, Tawanda, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. It's much appreciated. You can follow the people and strategy podcast wherever you listen to your podcast, and you can learn more about the SHRM executive network at Also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast visibility. So if you enjoy today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening and have a great day.

Speaker 1 (20:28):

The future of work, it's an untamed wilderness. That's why Cornerstone is committed to reimagining the modern day workforce. Over 75 million people use Cornerstone's AI and skills forward system every day to help them unite growth with business success. It's time to personalize the learning experience at work, to accelerate talent and career mobility, to empower people to be their most extraordinary and to create a workplace that works for everyone. Add the tools, skills, and learning content you and your people need to power the future ready workforce. Visit today. That's to learn more.