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Portillo’s CPO Jill Waite on Transforming Leadership with Program Ignite

Jill Waite

Jill Waite

23 minutes

May 26, 2024

Portillo’s CPO Jill Waite on Transforming Leadership with Program Ignite
Interview Highlights

Hey there, foodies and future leaders! Today, let's dive into a story that's as savory as Portillo's famous Chicago-style hot dogs. We're talking about the Ignite program, a special initiative cooked up by none other than Portillo's Chief People Officer, Jill Waite.

Picture this: Portillo's, a beloved name in the restaurant biz, faced a challenge as it expanded beyond its Chicago roots. To keep the flame burning bright across all its locations, Jill Waite crafted the Ignite program, a recipe for developing the next generation of Portillo's leaders.

Now, you might wonder, why the fuss about leadership? Well, it's not just about filling positions. It's about ensuring that every bite of a Portillo's experience, whether in Chicago or beyond, tastes just as delicious. So, what's cooking in the Ignite program?

Let's find out from the horse’s mouth.


The Background

Jill Waite spilled the beans on how the Ignite program came to be. It all started with recognizing a key ingredient: retention. Portillo's noticed that keeping external managers onboard was a bit like trying to hold onto a slippery hot dog. Through data analysis and boots-on-the-ground research, they pinpointed the problem: external leaders lacked some essential skills for serving up Portillo's magic.


From Hourly Hero to Leadership Legend

Here's where the Ignite program steps in. Instead of just seasoning up existing managers, Portillo's decided to groom leaders from within. According to Waite, they looked for folks who already had a taste for Portillo's purpose and values, often starting as hourly team members.

These internal gems knew the ins and outs of Portillo's kitchen and had a knack for teamwork, communication, and accountability—the secret sauce for leadership success.


Cooking Up the Ignite Program

But how did Portillo's whip up the Ignite program? Well, it wasn't a solo effort. Waite said that they teamed up with experts to design a blend of learning experiences. From webinars to hands-on restaurant sessions to in-person classes at the Support Center, Ignite was like culinary school for future Portillo's leaders. And just like in a kitchen, they learned alongside their peers, building a sense of camaraderie and support.


Savoring Success

Talking about the success of the Ignite program, Waite unveiled that new Portillo's restaurants opened with a bang. Retention rates shot up, and Portillo's became the place to be for career-hungry team members. With 80% of leaders internally grown and engagement scores on the rise, it's clear that Ignite is more than just a flash in the pan—it's a recipe for success.


Continuous Learning: The Secret Ingredient

But the journey doesn't end there. At Portillo's, learning is like a bottomless cup of coffee—it never runs dry. Ignite is just the appetizer; continuous learning is the main course. As Portillo's expands its menu of offerings and locations, the focus remains on sharpening skills and nurturing talent at every level of the organization.


Final Thoughts from Jill Waite

As our culinary adventure comes to a close, let's raise a toast to Jill Waite and the Ignite program. With a dash of vision, a pinch of perseverance, and a whole lot of passion, Portillo's is cooking up success, one leadership lesson at a time. So, whether you're serving hot dogs in Chicago or chocolate cake shakes in California, remember: the recipe for greatness starts with great leadership.

That's all for now, folks! Stay tuned for more tasty tales from the world of food and leadership. Until next time, keep stirring things up and savoring every moment. Bon appétit!

Official Transcript

This week, we're focusing on a delicious slice of the restaurant industry, inspired by tales like the gripping TV series, "The Bear," which portrays the gritty battles behind running a beloved sandwich spot in Chicago.

Our spotlight is on Portillo's, a cherished name that like many before it faced significant hurdles as it ventured beyond its Chicago heartland. In response, their chief people officer Jill Waite, cooked up ignite a leadership development program designed to equip their future leaders. This strategic initiative wasn't just about filling positions. It was about fostering leaders who could embody and spread Portillo's distinct culture and values, ensuring every customer at every location got a taste of what makes Portillo's special, no matter how far from Chicago they are.

Jill, thank you so much for being here.


Jill Waite: Thank you, Felicia for having me. It's an honor to be here today.

Jill, for our listeners who are not familiar with Portillo's, can you share some general context about the business?

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