Maria Hollandsworth’s title at Jack in the Box Inc. is an impressive mouthful: vice president of strategic initiatives and operations services. But on meeting her, your first impression is simply that you’d like to count her among your friends.

She’s warm and personable, and easy to talk to. Clearly, too, she’s eager to discuss “Whatever It Takes” for women to get ahead in the corporate world.

The concept is well-known to Maria, whose parents taught her early on to work hard if you want something.

They taught by example: When political unrest in their native Philippines became untenable, her parents took a leap of faith, uprooting the family in 1988 to start all over again in a brand-new country. Whatever it takes.

Maria, who had a bachelor’s degree in public health from the University of the Philippines, accepted a job at Carl’s Jr. – and discovered she liked the collegial aspect of the fast-food industry, working in teams to achieve short-term goals.

It wasn’t long before she began managing several restaurants. But Maria knew she wanted to climb higher – she wanted to be a multi-area manager. For that, she was told, she’d need an American education. So for two grueling years – including summers – she simultaneously ran three Carl’s Jr. restaurants and pursued her MBA. Her life, she recalls, was limited to “work, school, home.” Whatever it takes. Her company bonuses paid for tuition. And to this day, she considers that MBA her proudest accomplishment.

She joined Jack in the Box in 1995. How does she like working for Jack? “It’s fun, innovative and full of surprises,” she says. She is surrounded by people she enjoys working with – and is proud to be associated with. She sees a lot of opportunity for women at Jack in the Box, which has had a diversity team since 2005. Maria is one of its founding members. She called it a low-key team that prefers to show, rather than tell.

In her role as vice president, Maria oversees all initiatives, making certain they are tested completely before implementation. “If you don’t test it, there’s a lot of risk,” she says. Testing means the project leader spends a lot of time in the test restaurants, listening to feedback from employees, franchise operators and guests alike. That way, she says, “When it’s executed, it’s executed flawlessly.” Whatever it takes.

Maria traces her success as a leader to her composure. Described by others as a quiet leader, she doesn’t get rattled. In a tense situation, she steps in, calms people down, and helps them take a step back and sets them back on course.

Composure is also important when taking on a risky project with an uncertain outcome. In those cases, Maria focuses on teamwork – allowing everyone to weigh in and participate in the outcome, while she keeps the team moving forward toward its goal.

Doing whatever it takes doesn’t necessarily require grand gestures, though. It can be a simple thing, such as investing the time to get to know people you thought you wouldn’t like – and discovering that you can get along and work together well.

Maria says she has to be constantly challenged to keep her engaged. “Fortunately, my bosses know this about me,” she says. Because of that, they typically hand her a new challenge before she has to ask.

What are the lessons she’s learned in her 20 years at Jack in the Box?

1. “That I don’t know everything and that I’m not always right.” Maria says she is quick to acknowledge her mistakes – and that doing so has earned her the respect of both colleagues and her subordinates.

2. She says she recently had an “aha” moment surrounding a problematic project. When she gathered her team, essentially promising to do “whatever it takes” to make the project a success, she discovered how much people are willing to help. “People who know your work ethic will come to you and say, ‘let me help you,’ “ she says. “When you put in your investment over the years, people actually watch you. They’ll be there to help you.”

3. After taking her parents back to the Philippines last year, Maria spent several days in Japan on her own. Alone and unable to speak the language, she nevertheless managed to ask their help as she navigated her way around town. As an avid baseball fan, she’s proud that she accomplished whatever it takes to attend a Japanese baseball game. That included finding and purchasing the tickets, securing a map, taking public transit to the stadium, locating the right stop – and taking her place in the standing-room only crowd to experience the differences between an American audience and a Japanese audience. “People want to help. But you have to ask,” she says.

Maria believes that growing up in the Philippines colors her world view. Although her family was neither rich nor poor, poverty surrounded her on the island, making her appreciate and value what she’s been able to achieve here in the U.S.

It’s also taught her to give back. For the past five years, on trips to the Philippines with her family, she’s brought items such as soap, shampoo and lotion with her, to give to people who, she says, have barely have enough to eat. She’s humbled by how much they appreciate her small efforts.

Maria, who has a personal trainer, works out at the gym seven days a week. She says it’s necessary “to sustain energy and stay alert throughout the day.” As she puts it, “when your team is waiting for a decision, you can’t not be present.” Whatever it takes.

Besides leaving a legacy as a top-flight leader at Jack in the Box, Maria’s hoped-for legacy as a human being is just as ambitious: “I want to be seen as an example of what authentic is, and what a person is like when she’s present and living in the moment.”

Her advice to those who’d like to follow her up the corporate ladder:

1. Invest in your personal brand. Be authentic and true to yourself. Be cognizant of what people will say about you after you leave the room.

2. Find a mentor. Jack in the Box encourages mentorship for both men and women, she says.

3. Find work/life balance. “When I’m off, I’m off,” Maria says. She doesn’t expect to receive late-night emails or weekend phone calls. A typical workday lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. She says she used to work longer hours, but realized a couple of years ago that she needed to achieve better life balance. She spends leisure time with her husband, enjoys swimming and golf, and appreciates both a good book and good music.

4. “Kindness goes a long way.” “Treat people with respect,” she says, then adds, “Small gestures make people fell valued and worthy.” Whatever it takes.

5. “If you want to be an eagle, soar like an eagle and hang with the eagles.” In other words, she elaborates, “surround yourself with people you can learn from.” That’s advice she received from a former mentor, and she takes it to heart.

6. From the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, “Greatness is a choice.”

“I keep that in mind,” says Maria, who wants to be remembered as one of the best leaders Jack in the Box ever had.

By Eve Gumpel
Photo by Stephanie Blue

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