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EXCLUSIVE PFM scoops last interview with Debbie White, outgoing CEO of Sodexo UK & Ireland

Author : David Strydom

01 October 2015

Debbie White
Debbie White

PFM magazine has scooped the final interview given by outgoing CEO of Sodexo UK & Ireland. After a very successful stint at the helm, Debbie White explains how she brought the best out of the outsourcer. The wide-ranging interview will be published in the November print edition. Below is an excerpt.

Sodexo recently announces changes to its UK&I leadership team. Neil Murray has been appointed Region Chair for Sodexo UK & Ireland and will succeed Debbie White who has been appointed CEO for Healthcare worldwide in addtion to her recently acquired role of CEO for Government and Agencies worldwide which includes responsibility for justice, defence and government services globally.

White has led the business in the UK and Ireland for the past three and a half years and achieved successful and sustained growth over that time.

White said, "It has been a pleasure to lead the UK and Ireland over the last three years and I am very proud of what has been achieved during that time. I am excited about my new global roles and wish Neil every success in his new role."

EXCERPT FROM AN INTERVIEW GIVEN BY WHITE, DAYS BEFORE THE NEW CHANGES WERE ANNOUNCED:

“I’m really sorry Debbie, but you can’t come into the kitchen,” the chef said to his CEO. It was one of those moments where you didn’t have to be there to appreciate its impact. Debbie White, head of Sodexo UK & Ireland, was visiting an oil-and-gas site in Humber, where her company performs a range of services including catering, when one of her employees scolded her for walking into a restricted area.

While relaying the anecdote – which White does to illustrate a point about the professionalism of Sodexo employees – she imitates the quizzical, almost offended expression she gave the chef. “Why not?” she asked. His reply: “You’re not wearing the right safety footwear.”

“It was my ‘aha’ moment on health and safety,” White says. “One of our chefs was willing and brave enough to let me know nobody is going to walk into his kitchen unless they’re wearing rubber-sole shoes. That’s the culture I want to see across the organisation – that people can say anything they want to say to me.”

Say anything you want to your CEO? It sounds like a suicidal request to be despatched down the moon-door (for those who aren't devotees of the HBO sci-fi fantasy series Game of Thrones, to fly down the moon-door is to be unceremoniously shoved through a hole in the sky to one’s certain death).

But White means it. She doesn't hesitate to speak her mind and appears to have a grudging respect for those who retaliate in kind. Would I like to test that theory? No. But there are many Sodexo employees who have – and who’ve lived to tell the tale. “I spend a lot of time ‘in the field’,” White says. “I’m paid to ensure I know what’s going on ‘down there’, so to speak. I hold CEO roadshows where I listen to the staff. They know they can say pretty much whatever they like to me.”

Are they really that forthright, though? Is any subject up for debate? “Yes. They want to know why they can’t, for instance, order gym mats. Or whether I’m doing everything I can to improve their lives.”

Have they ever been so forthright as to be rude? “Our employees are professional – they generally wouldn’t be rude. Nonetheless, we have robust conversations where people can say what they need to say. On my last roadshow in Scotland, for instance, people were quite direct. One said: ‘I was told bread would be delivered at such-and-such a time, and it hasn’t happened. What are you going to do about it?’”

White says she often can’t solve such issues on the spot, but asks the complainants for their contact details so she can deal with their queries as soon as possible. “As long as I demonstrate we can solve their problems together, it improves our frontline engagement. People feel like we’re taking their quality of life seriously. We can’t say we’re here to improve our customers’ quality of life if we’re not doing it for our own employees.”


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