SHRM Orlando Day 3: A Little Leadership Advice From the Yum Brands Chief

It’s great to hear a cheerleader for great leadership.

David Novak, the chairman and CEO of Yum Brands and the keynote speaker on Day 3 of the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management’s 66th annual Conference & Exhibition Tuesday in Orlando, is just that — an over-the-top, one-man cheering section for leadership excellence.

I had never heard Novak speak before, but he’s a top-tier businessman who leads the world’s largest restaurant company, one with more than 37,000 KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants in 125 countries, and, 1.4 million associates.

An early morning jolt of leadership

He’s also a self-described “evangelist on the power of motivation and management,” and that’s exactly what he preached, Billy Graham-style, to the SHRM faithful.

I’ll say this about Novak’s presentation: he’s quite a jolt to get early on a Tuesday morning after what surely was a late night for many SHRM attendees. He even had the audience on their feet and doing the Yum cheer, and that’s not easy to do with a somewhat sleep-deprived group of HR pros who may have partied a little too hard on Monday night.

Novak talked for 45 minutes about the power of leadership and recognition, and despite all he covered, he still didn’t get to his complete presentation and urged the audience to “go buy the book” (Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen) to get the rest of what he was going to talk about

You must get people aligned to the mission

The bio of Novak on SHRM’s conference website covers a lot of this. It says:

Novak learned long ago that you can’t lead a great organization of any size — from a tiny startup to a global giant — without getting your people aligned, enthusiastic, and focused relentlessly on the mission. But how do you accomplish that? As Yum’s chairman and CEO … Novak has personally trained thousands of managers with his leadership guide — which has been 15 years in the making and tested on more than 4,000 managers — and is an action plan that challenges leaders to rise to higher levels of performance.

Novak knows that managers in the trenches don’t need leadership platitudes or business theories. With a focus on corporate culture, customer relations and employee empowerment that enabled him to grow Yum! Brands globally, Novak cuts right to the chase and shares the secrets of the unique leadership program he’s developed in easy-to-follow steps: setting big goals, getting your people on board, blowing past your targets, celebrating together after you shock the skeptics, and doing it again and again until consistent excellence becomes a core element of your culture.”

I thought Novak did all of this — and more. Plus, he wove his twin themes of leadership and employee recognition throughout his entire presentation.

Article Continues Below

Casting a particular leadership shadow

Here are some of the highlights:

  • On the importance of  leadership — A leader has to cast a particular shadow and show to everyone the leadership they want their people to emulate.  A leader must lift up people, Novak said, and he asked the SHRM audience, “How many of you can get done what needs to be done by yourself?” When no hands went up, he added, “You can’t get things done without taking people with you.”
  • On developing leaders throughout the organization — If you can get your people capability right, you make customers happy, and if you make customers happy, you make more money. So, if you get your people capability right, your results will follow. “That why developing leaders is my No. 1 priority,” Novak said, “because you can’t succeed without great leaders.” If you can take people with you to get things done, it has the biggest payoff of anything you can possibly do.
  • On recognizing great employee performance — Novak told a story about when he became president of KFC, and having a meeting where everyone identified one of the guys in the room as the one person they felt had the biggest impact on the company’s success. When Novak asked him to stand up, the guy cried, telling him that he was a 47-year veteran of KFC and that he had never, ever been recognized for what he did for the company. Novak said that incident convinced him to “make recognition the biggest thing I do.” He then went on to relate how he had recognized employees at KFC and Pizza Hut, and how he continues to do it in his role as CEO of Yum brands. He said, “It wouldn’t mean anything if I were the only one giving away recognition awards, but every leader at Yum has their own recognition awards that they give out.”
  • On managing people — “At least 99 percent of people want to be good and be part of something big. … You have got to trust people and believe that they want to go and do great things. … the first role of leadership is to get everybody on the same page, get their thinking lined up with the reality of things, and then focus on building a better reality.”

Something SHRM members can take home with them

This is just a slice of what Novak talked about Tuesday in Orlando, but his talk was a welcome respite from the other speakers who may have great perspectives but didn’t focus their presentations on the kinds of things that HR can absorb, take home, and utilize to improve their own organizations.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: SHRM needs more general session keynote speakers like David Novak.

I’m all for presentations that force people to think deeper or that inspire them in the broad sense of the word, but a few more David Novack’s with specific, useful talent management advice would go a long way towards helping SHRM members develop the influence that so many people say they need to truly make a difference.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

Topics