Building Bridges On The Border

Diane Sanford ensures empathy from top to bottom at the casual restaurant chain

Diane Sanford, On The Border

Diane Sanford is someone who employees hope to talk to when it comes to human resources. The chief people officer at Mexican casual dining chain On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina has a way of making people feel at ease. Although more than twenty years of experience managing and motivating in the restaurant industry has provided her with ample training in the business of people, Sanford says that one lesson in particular has helped form her approach to her work: “It was watching and learning how much people truly care about what they do and coming to the realization that nobody shows up with the intention of doing a bad job,” she says.

Now, Sanford is bringing that approach to On The Border, where she has worked to redefine workplace culture in the restaurant industry by combining On The Border’s past with forward-thinking emphasis on all members of the team.

Working to redefine and re-emphasize culture at On The Border was one of the factors that first attracted Sanford to the company. On The Border’s commitment to building a culture of what Sanford calls “fairness and fun” reflected her own beliefs in what creates long-term success. “Being part of a leadership team that creates an environment where that is important was really appealing,” Sanford says. “So much research has shown the importance of good culture and how that drives business results.”

On The Border’s president and CEO Ward Whitworth credits Sanford with helping to craft that culture by walking the walk and leading by example. “Diane is a great example of a leader with a people-first attitude and was an integral part of building out our culture together,” Whitworth says. “Diane has been a true partner in the business.”

Cultivating that culture meant considering the company’s history and highlighting what made On The Border great in the first place. “Defining it meant that we put a focus on people, trust, teamwork, and hospitality,” she says. “To bring it to life, we believed strongly in having a recognition culture.”

Sanford and her team have now created a framework of recognition cards and they practice what she calls “finding someone to celebrate.” Team members in restaurants are highlighted within the company by both interdepartmental emails and recognition cards (written in both English and Spanish) that are physically placed in the restaurants.

That recognition culture also includes starting meetings by celebrating team members. Sanford believes that recognition from a peer-to-peer perspective can be as important as coming from the top. “It helps accelerate good stories,” she says. “And that’s how a culture grows.”

Sanford sees the renewed focus on team members as an imperative step in an admittedly challenging time for all casual dining restaurants. Although the pragmatic reasons for focusing on employee retention remain fairly evident, Sanford also quotes Maya Angelou when describing her emphasis on making team members feel valued and appreciated: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” Sanford says.

Sanford believes that understanding team members’ motivations and incentives isn’t just an exercise in empathy. It’s a sound business decision that helps motivate those at all levels to be their very best. “It’s everyone rowing in the same direction,” Sanford explains. “Wouldn’t it be so much easier to engage an army of brand ambassadors who saw the importance of delivering a great guest experience?”

If the workforce is encouraged and excited, then Sanford believes that will result in a positive guest experience. In fact, she sees the way the company interacts with its team members as the epitome of what restaurant culture should be about. “Our guests will never have a greater experience than the one we create for our team members,” she says.

While seeking new talent continues to be priority, Sanford says that one of her most salient initiatives is remembering those who are already part of the team. “You have to continue to re-recruit the people who work for you,” Sanford says. “It’s as important to stay connected to the people who work with you now as how you’re going to strategically attract people to come work for you in the future.”

With retention in mind, Sanford says On The Border continues to expand its list of programs and tools to prepare future restaurant managers and those looking to expand their horizons within the organization. The brand’s Women’s Leadership Forum celebrated its inaugural year providing support for women restaurant managers in a historically male-dominated field. Sanford says many of the participants have already been promoted and recognized as general managers of the year.

Sanford also headed up creating a safety ambassador program, which educates team members in food handling practices and workplace safety. From a practical perspective, it has reduced incident reporting time by about 75 percent. From a cultural perspective, Sanford says the video skits and pictures she’s received from excited participants are worth more than a thousand words.

All of these programs aim at letting team members know their value to On The Border, and Sanford continues to work to make the company a place where they want to work, grow, and stay. “They should walk away learning something about themselves and learning something professionally, or at least look back thinking—as one team member told me—‘that was a pretty chill experience,’” she says.

Photo: Nicole Klein/Legacy Event Productions


Congratulations Diane Sanford for this well-deserved recognition of your leadership and innovation in Human Resources. Shankman Leone, P.A. is proud of our longstanding relationship with you and On the Border, and we look forward to our continued partnership and your continued success.