David Novak Leads by Unleashing the Power of Employees

If you trust that your employees can do great things, they will.

By HR Magazine staff May 21, 2014


June Cover​David Novak has a knack for people. He started developing that skill as a child who moved frequently—he lived in 32 trailer parks in 23 states by the time he reached middle school—and honed it as a young man who took on a range of odd jobs, from hotel night clerk to encyclopedia salesman.

Today, his people skills serve him well as chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands Inc., which operates over 40,000 restaurants—including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell—in more than 125 countries and territories. A highly regarded businessman, he has learned invaluable tips from some of America’s top leaders. Above all, trust your employees and celebrate their achievements.

Novak will be a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2014 Annual Conference & Exposition this month in Orlando, Fla. He shares his leadership philosophy in his New York Times best-selling book Taking People with You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen (Penguin Group, 2012).

What lessons did you learn from your upbringing that shaped you as a CEO?

My dad was a government surveyor, so we moved a lot. That mobility has been particularly helpful in a global business where you’re not familiar with the lay of the land. You have to be flexible enough to adapt to other people. I have more empathy, and I’m able to read people very well. That makes me very respectful of other cultures.

What has your experience taught you that can’t be learned in business school?

What I didn’t learn in school I picked up from studying the leaders I most admired—and in many cases, from spending time with them in person. I took Warren Buffett to lunch at a KFC to ask his advice about navigating Wall Street. I shadowed UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden for leadership tips.

In the end, business school is a great education, but it will only take you so far. Then it comes down to “How do you use it?” Over time, I realized I could compete effectively without an MBA.

When a leader wants to drive change in a company that’s resistant to it, how do you get employees on your side?

Gain alignment. You can have the best idea in the world, but it won’t matter if you can’t get people on board to help you make it happen.

Explain the “why” behind your idea in order to engage people. Ask for input and get people involved, or they will never be truly committed to the goal.

What’s the most important thing a business leader can do?

Show you care by taking an active interest in the people working for you and giving them direct feedback. People are starved for that; they want to hear what they can do to improve. Too many leaders don’t provide that. If someone’s smart, talented and driven to learn, your job is to help them become all they can be.

How can business leaders and HR make sure people know they matter?

When you establish an environment where every person feels they have a chance to contribute, people can do great things. Show your employees that you trust in them and their abilities by sharing what you know. The single biggest thing I can do is to develop strong leaders and help people become great coaches. Our ultimate goal is to unleash the power of all our people.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

Everybody is looking for ambition, passion and the ability to inspire. In the best of all worlds, you want someone who is “whole-brained”—that is, analytical but also creative enough to come up with the ideas and galvanize the organization around a new direction.

How do you recommend structuring rewards and recognition for maximum effectiveness?

A leader has to cast the right shadow, and one of the things I’m most proud of is our culture. We really do have fun celebrating the achievements of others. We celebrate success, drive performance and demonstrate that everyone counts. All of our leaders around the world are expected to give out their own individual recognition awards. Mine are an oversized pair of walking teeth for people who “walk the talk” of leadership.

Why do you think a rubber chicken is a more effective reward than a gold watch?

When I became president of KFC at PepsiCo, I started giving away floppy rubber chickens and $100. It ignited performance because people respond to recognition—and it’s fun. When you recognize people, it says that you’re watching them, that what they do matters. It keeps employees motivated and excited to come to work every day. People would sometimes cry when I gave them their chickens.

Yum! operates in more than 125 countries. How can HR help a business succeed in new markets?

We are always investing in training and development for our 1.5 million company and franchise associates worldwide. Equipping our leaders to run great restaurants is essential to our business. I’ve always said, “Show me a great restaurant, and I will show you a great leader.”

How would you advise HR professionals who want to develop leadership skills?

It’s crucial for every leader to know who they are and where they’ve been. The best ones understand that they are like no one else, that they have unique strengths and weaknesses, interests and knowledge, and that they are always going to be a work in progress. They are avid learners. They soak up everything they possibly can so they can become the best possible leaders. Never lose the desire to learn. The minute you stop learning, you start dying. That’s true in business, and it’s true in life.


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