How Rocky and Bullwinkle inspired KFC’s Chief Operating Officer

Thanks to that famous cartoon, Monica Rothgery used her passion for simplification to fuel her career journey from managing a Taco Bell to the c-suite of KFC.

Monica Rothgery, KFC’s Chief Operating Officer

If you ask Monica Rothgery about the hardest job she’s ever worked, she’ll tell you without hesitation that it was her role as a Restaurant General Manager (RGM) for a Taco Bell in Chicago, Illinois. It was more difficult, she says, than the time she spent serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, more difficult than working in Thailand despite never acquiring a full grasp of the language and more difficult than her current role as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the KFC U.S. division for Yum! Brands. It also turned out to be just the springboard Rothgery needed for launching a storied and impressive career focused on empowering restaurant team members to deliver a world-class customer experience.

Despite day-to-day challenges, the five years Rothgery spent at Taco Bell proved to be one of the best possible training grounds for various roles in multiple Yum! divisions over the next two decades. After one particularly rough night spent putting together a complex Rocky and Bullwinkle marketing kit at 2 a.m. in her restaurant in Chicago, Rothgery vowed, “If I ever get promoted, I’ll do everything possible to make things easier and better for restaurant managers,”—and she did.

Rothgery saw a clear need in the organization for updating and streamlining training materials for restaurant team members. She pushed for improvement and landed a role developing new training programs for RGMs and their staff. From there, she spent the next several years working in HR and Organizational Development for Yum! Brands with Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. In these roles, Rothgery gained hands-on experience in coaching, training and operations.

Ready for a change, Rothgery joined KFC Thailand in 2014. She went initially to oversee restaurant excellence, but within about six weeks of being there, she was asked to take over as COO. Rothgery was hesitant, especially about the language barrier that would make it difficult to communicate with restaurant managers or read operations reports. But Waewkanee Assoratgoon, General Manager of Thailand Business, saw a relentless drive for meaningful improvement in Rothgery—a clear advocate not just for the company as a whole, but for everyone who worked there.

With the help of a translator, Rothgery rolled up her sleeves and got to work. “No matter what culture you’re in, people need to be seen,” she says. “They want to be valued and validated. Once we got momentum going, we did some really amazing things in Thailand.” During her four-year tenure there, she helped grow the brand from 350 to 700 restaurants, including providing operational support for more than 200 new restaurants. She notes, “We modernized their entire operating system, and I’m really proud of that work.” Rothgery has never forgotten how pivotal it was to have a superior who saw and trusted in her capabilities.

She brings that same attitude to her new role now that she’s back in the U.S. division working as the Chief Operating Officer. “It’s always about helping people fulfill their potential and about making life easier for restaurant managers,” she says.

In many ways, this comes down to practical changes—even minor ones. “Any time we can make a new process take three steps instead of seven or introduce a new piece of software that makes things easier or find a way for a program to be fun instead of hard, that’s the goal.”

This also includes ensuring there are opportunities and clear paths of upward mobility for team members, especially women, working in the industry. This may look like helping someone become a regional coach or working with employees to build their confidence about strategic advancements within the company.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for women in restaurant operations,” Rothgery explains. KFC U.S. is taking their commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace seriously as they work to help close the gender gap. In alignment with the Paradigm for Parity coalition, Yum! Brands is advancing more women into senior roles—40 percent of KFC U.S.’s c-suite leadership is now represented by women.

For diversity initiatives to see success, they need support and implementation at every level. In response to this need, Yum! operates an employee-led resource group, Women in Network (WIN), at their Restaurant Support Center in Louisville. The group is focused specifically on developing women within the organization.

Rothgery points to another critical component—internal support. “Tricia White at Pizza Hut was the first person at Yum! who ever said to me, ‘Trust your gut, you already know the answer.’ I’d go to her and say, ‘I’m not sure what to do in this situation,’ and she was so affirming that I couldn’t help but grow from that. She was definitely a huge influence in my success.”

As a result of these experiences, Rothgery has been intentional about promoting a supportive culture across the board. “I think it’s really important that women support women, in whatever form and shape that takes. A lot of times women need to know they have someone who has their back.” Rothgery knows firsthand just how much this one key detail can impact someone’s career.

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