Rising from rural West Virginia, the accomplished attorney, GC, and Head of HR talks about perseverance, tenacity, and staying true to your roots.

By Tamer Abouras

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(September 6, 2014, Charlotte, North Carolina) – Among the various inherent sentiments woven deeply into American character and culture, perhaps none is as valued as the concept of the self-made man or woman. People from coast to coast and all walks of life love few things so much as a good from-the-bootstraps narrative to embrace.

Although secondhand accounts passed by word of mouth are inspiring in their own right, hearing the perspective of someone who, through perseverance, has risen up the rungs of the American social and socioeconomic ladder is an experience unique unto itself. There’s a humility displayed by those whose achievements are heroic and a relatable trait that belies the regality of their executive office titles. Genuine and generous of spirit, they are those who learned leadership through safeguarding their indomitable dreams—and there are few who embody this better than Ovation Brands’ Michelle Gessner.

Drive & Degrees

The daughter of a single mother raising two children often passed over for work, Gessner grew up in blue-collar West Virginia in an environment that from a young age instilled in her work ethic, drive and fiscal consciousness. Unwilling to incur massive debts in her pursuit of the first college degree in her family, she worked as an Executive Assistant by day and attended exclusively night school throughout her undergraduate education at Mountain State University.

The day job, because it was affiliated with her school, waived her tuition and books. Through this work, Gessner graduated with a degree in Business Administration debt free and came to understand the necessity of an advanced degree in today’s economy.

“I was in a position where I was doing some human resources (HR) work, and I saw a lot of people getting passed over for jobs due to socioeconomics,” Gessner said. “They might have been very bright, but if they lacked a bachelor’s or even a master’s, it often led to them not being hired. The job I had as an undergrad spurred me to go on to grad school afterward.”

Since earning a JD/MBA from West Virginia University, concentrating on Industrial Labor Relations and Employment Law, Gessner has worked at Family Dollar (2001 to 2011), Darden (2011 to 2013) and Ovation Brands (for the past year). She gave a simpler reason than one might expect as to why she pursued labor and employment-focused advanced degrees: “People working, or needing work, is something that just never goes away.”

While someone whose parents had to move around between jobs might have further exposure to the potential difficulties of job hunting, Gessner notes, “In good economies and in bad ones, people need jobs.”

Life’s Training

The legal end of that process, she added, is one of the steadier subsections within the larger law market. Furthermore, she explained how her background and her first professional jobs all coalesced into a “blend” of experiential knowledge and a position at Ovation that she has been “training her whole life for.” Gessner extrapolated on these points, highlighting the crossover clientele that have frequented each of the businesses for which she has worked and how working for a smaller company has helped her take on greater responsibilities and the multiple hats she now wears.

“The guests that we had walking through the doors of Family Dollar are also going to [Ovation Brands’] Old Country Buffet and Ryan’s. These are young families who don’t necessarily have cars and certainly are living paycheck to paycheck. We’ve worked to not only provide affordability for these guests, but to also reinvent the brand and offer fresh, scratch-made food of tremendous quality to them. In terms of past experiences, it’s really just a matter of having seen so many of the curveballs before. There might be more on my plate here than there was at those Fortune 300 companies [Family Dollar and Darden], but the time spent both in legal counsel and in HR through the years has helped me to prepare for just about whatever comes my way these days. All my life, I’ve grown up around our customers and guests and have spent all of my professional life working in much of what I do now with HR and labor and employment law. So in that regard, this is certainly a role I’ve been training for my whole life.”

Working for what her Chief Executive Officer Anthony Wedo has referred to as a “billion-dollar startup” with a fairly lean legal team and corporate HR department, Gessner stresses having transparency and vulnerability and starting meetings with what is known as a “Thorns and Roses” exercise.

“I like to begin meetings with, ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘How was your week?’ and have everyone air out something good that’s been happening, a rose, and then something bad, a thorn,” she said. “The main thing is to emphasize that we never want people to be afraid of asking why or how what they’re doing fits into the bigger picture. I want everyone to feel like they have input. I believe people then take greater ownership of their work and are more connected with the business if they understand the ‘why.’ We always want team members talking to each other and asking, ‘How is this going to benefit the store?’ We do our best to invert the pyramid, putting managers in the chairman seat, because the reality is we exist because of the restaurants and managers and these days businesses with employees who stay in silos just do not succeed.”

Jim Snyder, General Counsel at Family Dollar since 2008, emphasized to Gessner this idea of thinking beyond one’s own station, and it helped her bring those transferable skills to her work at Darden and now at Ovation.

“[Snyder] always stressed looking at things in a metrics-driven away,” Gessner said, “being more business-oriented as a lawyer, and working in concert with the executives who were looking at things more in terms of profitability. Working with him was often like a crash MBA course, even after already earning one myself, and I gained so much from the three years I worked alongside him.”

A mother of three, Gessner strives to balance her various responsibilities with life at home through a combination of flex time, working remotely and absolutely prioritizing her role as Mom first and foremost.

“I know people are always saying how much they hate them, but I’ve learned to be really thankful for my iPhone and the flexibility to work remotely when possible, taking care of work that doesn’t have to be done behind my desk,” Gessner said. “Studies have even bore out that those who are given flex time and the ability to work remotely, assuming they’ve been given it after they’ve shown they are trustworthy of such a privilege, are actually more productive, and I know that’s the case for me. Being pretty Type A, the hardest thing sometimes can be shutting it all off, but I try and take at least an evening a week to spend with my kids because that time with them as they’re growing up is short and priceless.”

Lastly, Gessner offers advice to young professionals and recent college graduates. Understanding that so many become pigeonholed because they are grateful just to be employed in continually challenging economic times, she suggests keeping one’s collegiate mindset alive after graduation.

“I understand needing to work and needing a paycheck,” Gessner said, “but that shouldn’t supersede your dreams. Make three-, five- [and] 10-year plans for where you’d like to be, and pretend you’re in college until you get your dream job. Take the stretch assignments. Don’t kill yourself, but try not to say no, and if there’s a side job or an internship that’s closer to your dream than what you have to do full-time, go after it.”

As a student, a professional and a mother, Gessner always has kept myriad plates spinning in the air without complaint or qualification. In that time, she has risen to become the first person in her family to earn a college degree—not to mention two advanced degrees—and has carried integrity, hard work and rationality with her every place she’s gone.

Gessner is not off base when she says, “If I had a book, it’d be titled ‘Perseverance.’” Given her ongoing work, it may be wise to keep watch for a complementary title, too: “Standing Ovation.”