Sometimes it takes someone on the outside looking in to show us our own potential. Just ask Jennifer Rote of TGI Fridays.
As senior vice president and general counsel of the iconic restaurant chain, she strives to create a workplace environment where agency and acknowledgement play a vital role in inspiring employees to be the best versions of themselves. As Rote explains, this is essential given the lean size of her legal team and the immense scope of their work—more than 160 corporate-owned stores with more than a thousand licenses and permits to maintain.
“If you come to me with a question, my question back is, ‘What do you think we should do?’” Rote says. “Nine out of ten times, they know. But they need someone to give them the thumbs up. I try to be that person. It’s important that, as a leader, I’m always trusting and supporting them.”
Rote explains that there are seemingly minor, everyday gestures that can go a long way toward empowering an employee. For instance, if TGI Fridays’ CEO Ray Blanchette comes to Rote with a question and she sends one of her paralegals to find an answer, she makes sure to give them credit when reporting back. Likewise, if she hears one of her team members get praised during a call with TGI Fridays’ executive leadership, she always relays that message to them afterward.
“It’s important that employees hear that their names were said by executive leadership, even in those small group settings,” Rote says. “Recognition alone can be inspiring.”
Rote has experienced the power of recognition and having someone who believes in you firsthand at TGI Fridays. When she first arrived at the company in 2004, she was an attorney focused on real estate matters and would never have believed she could ascend to the position she’s in today. Then she met Leslie Sharman.
“If you come to me with a question, my question back is, ‘What do you think we should do?’ Nine out of ten times, they know.”
“Leslie was the company’s general counsel when I started,” Rote says. “She was also the first strong female boss I’d ever had. At that point, most of our leadership was male, and she was just this really smart and tough presence. She made it clear that there was no difference between her and any of the guys. It was informative for me to see her dynamic with them.”
While Sharman taught Rote how crucial it was to speak up and assert herself in the workplace, it was a second mentor who eventually inspired her to pursue a GC role.
“Kathryn Kotel was my boss from 2009 to 2017,” Rote says. “She’s the mentor who looks at you and says ‘This is what I think you can do, but this is what I know you can do.’”
At the time, Rote had convinced herself that she was satisfied with where she was. She wasn’t even sure if she had the necessary experience or could handle the workload of being general counsel. But Kotel encouraged her to take on new areas of the law and eventually pursue the position.
“She said, ‘I see something in you that I don’t think you see in yourself,’” Rote remembers. “She knew that would help me develop into becoming general counsel, and when she retired, that’s where I ended up.”
There’s one last strong female mentor who Rote credits with helping her to get to where she is today—someone who was actually her first role model.
“It’s mom,” Rote says. “As a kid, she always worked full time, but I didn’t really know what she did. I knew that she went to an office every day, and when she came home, she was there. She didn’t talk about work. She didn’t vent about work. She attended every sports event that my brother, sister, and I had, which was a lot.”
“It’s important that employees hear that their names were said by executive leadership. Recognition alone can be inspiring.”
Rote later found out that, like her own future self, her mother held an integral role at a restaurant company in the Dallas area—she was the chief financial officer for the homestyle cooking chain Grandy’s. Today, Rote credits her with proving that a successful work/life balance is possible, even at the executive level. She’s made it a point to make plenty of time for her own family, whether it’s traveling with her husband or attending her son’s football games at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.
Rote has emphasized the importance of work/life balance to her legal team as well, especially while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic this past year.
“We talk a lot on our team about everyone’s mental and physical health,” Rote says. “It’s all about checking in and asking people how they’re doing. ‘How’s your workload? Can we take anything off your plate?’”
Even in nonpandemic times, a healthy work/life balance is essential, as are the other lessons Rote has learned from the mentors in her life. And at TGI Fridays, the inspiring leaders who helped her get to where she is today have also allowed her to become a leader who’s now focused on empowering others.
Jackson Lewis P.C.:
“Jennifer is not only strategic, smart, and practical, but also creative and has a good sense of humor—everything you could ask for when working with an in-house counsel.”
—Jeffrey Brecher, Principal