Women Worth Watching 2015

Deborah Roberts

Sodexo’s SVP Is a Dynamic Leader and a Global Success


web Sodexo_RobertsDeborah Roberts, Sodexo’s North America senior vice president of facilities for the health care market, has over 25 years of leadership experience in business operations, sales, and general management. She has lived and worked in Singapore and Shanghai, China, for nearly five years, where she led facility management and OE product businesses. Deborah was responsible for more than 3,000 employees in Asia, and her team in Singapore implemented an innovative and highly successful customer engagement program which led to retention, employee engagement, and growth.

“…expat assignments are life-changing experiences.”

“I believe my greatest career leap was during expat assignments in Asia—three years in Singapore and two in Shanghai,” said Deborah. “Through prior global roles, I thought I had a good foundation with cultural differences. However, expat assignments are life-changing experiences and offer unique insight. From these came my understanding of the significance of diversity as a prerequisite for leading global engagement and growth.”

Deborah and her husband have volunteered with Habitat for Humanity for more than 20 years. They most recently volunteered for two years at the Shanghai Baby Home in Shanghai, China—a nonprofit that helps orphans with correctable medical problems. While in China, they were foster parents for one year to a special needs baby and adopted a 13-year-old girl.

Deborah’s commitment to maintaining the highest standards of care and delivery for customers and teams brings her the most satisfaction. As a mentor to scores of employees, she has been able to help advance the careers of many team members, specifically women and diverse candidates and employees. Many of her mentees have gone on to senior leadership positions. And her One Team approach has resulted in employee engagement, client satisfaction, and business success.



Education: MBA, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; BA, University of North Dakota

First Job: Department Store Clerk, age 15.

What I’m Reading: “Dealing with China” by Henry Paulson

The most important quality a woman leader should have is…

…integrity. Leaders are known for their personal ethics. My actions must solidly align with my words. Integrity forms the foundation of all my relationships. Teams’ performance and dedication to goals is higher when leaders put their integrity first.

The career advice I’d give my former self:

Employees are the best they can be at each point in time. With the right people, in the right roles, you can step away from being a boss and move to collaborate and coach. Next, learn to trust and verify. At this point, work becomes more fun and teams exceed your expectations.

Words I live by:

Take risks, care about others and never give up.

The one thing I would do differently in my career, knowing what I know now, is…

…to recognize solid feedback as a gift. Asking those you respect and trust, for constructive feedback allows you to course-correct, be more engaged and increase successful results.

When I really need to focus on a project, I…

…assemble a team with diverse strengths. Up-front planning is imperative. Ensure all team members understand outcomes and timelines. Then remove distractions and adhere to timelines with pre-determined checkpoints. Encourage creative solutions to roadblocks and acknowledge successes.

My biggest career leap (and what I learned from it) was…

…during expat assignments in Asia, three years in Singapore and two Shanghai. With prior global roles, I thought I had a good foundation with cultural differences. Expat assignments are life-changing experiences, which offer unique insight. From these came my understanding of the significance of diversity required to lead global engagement and growth.

Being a woman in my profession has been…

…challenging and rewarding. Prior to Sodexo, in much less diverse organizations, women’s outstanding accomplishments were often dismissed or overlooked. Mentoring with co-workers helped us develop effective approaches to elevate capable women leaders to positions they deserved. The reward has been seeing these co-workers go on to be exceptionally successful business leaders.

I’ve learned that failure is…

…necessary. Innovation cannot exist without risk. Learning through failure is proven to be a much stronger predictor of success than risk avoidance and guaranteed success. My failures showed my humanity and my team’s failures proved their willingness to strive for higher levels of achievement.

I maintain a healthy personal life by…

…spending time with family and friends, especially my talented and caring husband and our 6 children. Reading and swimming have been life-long pleasures. Reading challenges my thinking and broadens my horizons. Swimming clears my mind and re-invigorates me in the toughest of situations.

I knew my present career was what I wanted to do when…

…my highly engaged and talented teams across Asia and Americas, delivered top performance for our organization. Striving to understand and optimize our organizational and team dynamics has been a wonderful education. Leading businesses in diverse cultures proved to me that no matter where you live and work, diversity makes us stronger.