After numerous presentations littered with tools, processes, models, charts and data, it's always refreshing - not to say a relief - to hear a genuine business leader go back to basics. Many in the corporate world have a tendency to overcomplicate and overengineer what they do, relying on endless PowerPoint slides as a crutch rather than telling a compelling story that their audience can identify with. So once in a while it's good to sit and listen to a CEO talk about the things that really matter in business - great customer service, product and service innovation, and treating your employees with respect, to name but a few.
At the Synergy 2009 conference in Chicago, organised by group purchasing organisation Corporate United, Jim Donald, former CEO of Starbucks, gave just such a presentation. Speaking for an hour mostly without notes and with not a slide in sight, he explained the five principles he has picked up from a long career in the retail sector (which included a spell at the beginning of the 1990s working for the legendary and late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart):
1. Never be bigger than the frontline - just because you are in the corner office doesn't mean you always know better than your shopfloor staff.
2. Go where you've never been before - whether it be stores, offices, suppliers or whatever.
3. Communicate with people daily - let them know what's going on in the organisation and in their language (including the partners of key managers whose home life is likely to be disrupted!)
4. Know your fish story - in other words, what's the "hook" to get people onboard with your plans?
5. Celebrate success - and in doing so enthuse people to perform. "We don't do it enough," he declared.
I won't attempt to recount Donald's many stories of how he learnt and/or sought to implement these principles, but there were plenty, particularly from his time running the struggling US supermarket chain Pathmark prior to his six-year tenure at Starbucks (from which he was fired by founder and chairman Howard Schulz in 2008 - an incident that he explained to the audience as "shit happens!"). But one involved taking 16 female bakery counter workers for a slap-up dinner after they increased sales by 75% in one week at their own initiative; another, giving a fish counter guy called Nelson the right to circumvent central purchasing and buy several hundred pounds of rockfish, which he believed would sell better locally (it did).
Interestingly, Donald revealed that he spent almost four years in charge of indirect procurement earlier in his career, and that he loved the job. He also told the audience of around 150 sourcing professionals that being open and honest with suppliers was essential, and that CPOs and CEOs ought to have a close relationship in good economic times as well as bad. But what impressed me most about him was that rather than turn up 10 minutes before he was due to go on, as most senior executives would, Donald actually spent the previous day sitting in on conference sessions, making notes and talking to attendees. He clearly needs work (he mentioned during his presentation that he'd called the Corp Utd folk several times asking to speak, rather than the other way around). Nevertheless, voluntarily listening to several hours of presentations and looking at hundreds of slides on topics outside of one's usual area of interest has to be commended.