As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Frederique Leonard.
Frederique Leonard is the CEO of Raleigh, NC based Plenty Hospitality Group, an organization that includes two nationally recognized restaurants: Brewery Bhavana — a dim sum x brewery hybrid, once recognized by Forbes as one of the “Most Beautiful Breweries in the World” and Bida Manda — the first Laotian restaurant in North Carolina and one of the first and only true Laotian restaurants currently open in the United States.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always had a passion for the true sophistication behind the hospitality industry. All the details — the search for perfection — from the moment you walk into a restaurant to moment that you leave. The experience is unparalleled — when done right!
My love for the industry started when I was a child. My father held a high-ranking position within his organization and would often host small business gatherings at our home and when doing so, my mom would essentially cater it. Watching her take such care in making sure all of the details were spot on, was so beautiful to see. It was then that I realized that these gatherings were more than just food — it was about the experience of coming together and connecting over food and drink. It was about creating memories!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’m not sure that there’s one thing that I can pinpoint specifically, but what I will say is that I think there’s a misconception about the restaurant industry as a whole. To the general public, it seems like a pretty straight forward — you pick your favorite restaurant, you come in, eat, drink, laugh and leave. But what happens behind the scenes is so much more. Truly the majority of the work is happening there so that you (as the guest) can come in and have that incredible experience and it feels effortless!
In fact, often times to the general public, our industry isn’t viewed as a profession really. So, when I tell people what I really do, they are immediately fascinated by it and wonder why I choose to do it. But it’s because of those beautiful moments that are created when dining in. The wedding celebrations, the anniversary dinners, birthday parties, reunions or just those special nights that you spend with your significant other; I get to help curate these very special comments in people’s lives and its one of the most rewarding experiences. People often don’t think about it that way, but that’s why I (along with my amazing team) do what we do.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m French and though I’ve been in the states for many years, I still have a pretty strong accent, so sometimes I pronounce words funny. Most of the time, people brush it off, and can understand what I’m trying to say. But it has created some pretty funny (and sometimes awkward) moments in the past. For example, when I’ve said “spread-shit” instead of “spreadsheet” when presenting in a board meeting. Haha!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’d have to say, Luc Pasquier, my former business partner. He and I worked together for 20 years, and he was actually the one that introduced me to the professional side of the industry. As a French MasterChef and one of the Chef judges in the late 90’s of the James Beard Foundation, he saw my potential and he helped me harness it. I truly owe a huge portion of my success to him. He downloaded all of his knowledge to me about the hospitality industry as well as the culture of NYC (where we met and created our company together when I first came to the states) and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
This may sound funny, but it’s true…I sing in my car. It’s my go-to for when I’m feeling stressed, or if I just need to unwind. I listen to different songs and genres based on my mood. Typically, when I want to release some stress, I listen to Country — the joyful, empowering songs. When I’m looking to unwind after a long day/week, its Pink Floyd! Maybe throw in some 80s power ballets if I really want to kick back, haha!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I grew up in New York City, I moved when I was 20 and spend my entire formative years there, so diversity is in my DNA. New York is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. For those in New York, I don’t believe that diversity is even something that’s thought about — it just is.
But in terms of why it’s so important is because it’s a necessity. Diversity provides experience and perspective. In the hospitality industry, our guests come from all walks of life. For us, it would be a complete misstep (to say the least) to exclude anyone because of their race, ethnicity, background, etc.
I personally have such a high respect for humanity that it hurts me very deeply when I see the unequal balance of power and discrimination. I’m very happy to see that we’re having these conversations now more than ever, but it’s not enough. Actions speak louder than words and I hope that society continues to show the importance of this topic by action.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
1. Define Your Culture. Create simple and meaningful values. For me, in order to stay true to who I am, I’m not just going to follow the lead. I’ve chosen to create values for myself and my team that make sense and truly mean something.
2. Define Your Communication Strategy. Once you have your values in place, you must define how you plan to communicate. This is probably the most important step because this is how your stakeholders and team(s) will learn about your actions, missions and culture. Full transparency, leaving no room for error or confusion.
3. Zero Tolerance Policy. Everyone — no matter what level — is treated the same and follows the same rules. If a rule is broken, there are consequences across the board.
The words you choose are going to serve the culture you define, and your team is going to trust and believe in you as a leader by the actions will take when a situation arises.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
That’s interesting question and one that I think varies based on the industry, but generally speaking, to me, the job of an executive is to set an example for their team and to protect them, along with the business — at all costs. It’s an extremely challenging job, but when done well has the ability to really make an impact on the respective industry as a whole, as well as the people within it.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the biggest myths out there about CEOs or anyone in a higher-level position is — the higher the position, the smaller the workload. That is absolutely not the case. In fact, it’s furthest thing from it! In addition to overseeing your team(s), there are so many other things that only a person at that level has to manage. The truth of the matter is — the higher the position, the greater level of responsibility, which means a greater workload.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women executives have come a long way in the past decade or so, which is both empowering and exciting to see. That said, I think we still have a look way to go when it comes to equality at the table. I do believe that in this time, unlike men, women get one shot to get it right. So, it’s imperative that we stay focused, grounded and driven so that we’re able to make the best of the opportunities that are presented.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
It’s actually a lot more fun and much less lonely than I thought it would be … or maybe I just make it that way! Either way — it’s a great thing! With power comes great responsibility, as they say, and it’s true. At times, it can feel a little isolating at the executive level, but it’s always been important for me to make sure that I’m enjoying the journey and enabling everyone around me to as well.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
No, I don’t believe that everyone is cut out to be an executive. And when it comes to success — it really all depends on what you define as “success”. If success is money and power, then frankly, I can’t answer the question. But if success is leading by example and leaving behind a legacy of strong leadership, then humility, empathy and ethics are the keys to success. While that may sound simple to some, it’s what I truly believe a successful executive should be/have. Not everyone has those kinds of qualities however, therefore not everyone is cut for the role.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice would be — always say what you will do (clearly) and always do what you say. If you’re not clear with your expectations and you don’t deliver on your promises, your staff will not follow you and in turn will lose faith and trust in you as a leader.
And don’t forget to be yourself! Act with grace and humor.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I work every day to ensure that I’m able to give my team every opportunity to feel safe, secure and happy at work so that they can translate that to our guests and at home. Work/life balance is more important than ever now and if you’re happy at work, it’s one less thing to worry about in your personal life and at home.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story/ example for each.)
- It’s OK to put yourself first and you should. Just like the airline tells you, put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. This is especially true when running a company. You need to make sure to take of yourself properly so that you don’t burn out and can be of support to your team.
- Trust your own instincts. Listen to those around you and be open to advice, but ultimately be the one to take the decision. Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It makes us stronger.
- Be patient. Don’t expect results right away. The longer the results, the stronger it’ll last. Your foundation will be stronger, and your results will be longer lasting.
- Always have a Plan B. It happens and it happens often — expectations aren’t met and you need to pivot. Be prepared. You have to be adaptable at every level! Which leads me to my next point…
- Keep your personal expectations reasonable and your professional goals high. Make sure that your professional goals aren’t linked to your personal expectation of the recognition you hope for and your overall wellbeing. While this may be hard to do sometimes, when you keep your expectations reasonable, any disappointment that may come along with it won’t affect your goals. As they often say, business is business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a bit of a misconception when it comes to this industry — it’s often viewed as backup plan and not a real profession. I’d like to change that, because it’s simply not true. Over the years, I’ve met some of the most hard-working, humble people that I’ve ever come across that are working in restaurants. So, if I was able to inspire a movement, it would be to create a professional education program designed specifically for the hospitality industry that would prepare people for what this industry is really all about it — and that’s true professionalism, etiquette and outstanding service. With that, my hope is that it would empower those working in restaurants to be proud of what they do and the work that they put in to create amazing experiences for guests every single day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote that I like to live by is “Patience and length of time do more than strength or rage”. Whether you apply to your professional life or your personal life, the meaning behind it is incredibly powerful.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!
A few of them have already passed away, but if I were to choose one woman that I’d love to sit down with 1:1, it would be Meryl Streep. I actually met her once a long time ago. We were in an elevator with Anthony Hopkins and just observing their relationship and conversation, I saw what a beautiful soul she had. I deeply admire her personality and perseverance. She’s the epitome of a strong, powerful woman that was able to balance motherhood and a successful career so seamlessly.