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John Mackey: Learn to See the Big Picture

The founder of Whole Foods says the kind of intelligence that's helped him most in business is systems intelligence. Here's why.
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John Mackey is the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, a national supermarket chain based in Austin, Texas, which puts an emphasis on natural and organic foods. His latest book is Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. He spoke with Inc. editor Eric Schurenberg.


There are all kinds of intelligence, but the one that helped me most is systems intelligence, what I call SyQ. It refers to the ability to see the big picture, how different parts of a system interconnect. With a high SyQ, you can see the impact that a decision has on all stakeholders.

Business schools don't teach SyQ; they teach analytical intelligence. In my experience, that breeds arrogance.

Remember when auto-industry executives wanted to get loans from Washington and flew there on their private jets? They never considered how that would look to voters--who just happen to be key stakeholders when you want a government loan. That's a systems-intelligence failure.

SyQ is something you have to learn, usually the hard way.

Twelve years ago, for example, I got caught up in the dot-com mania and created a website called WholePeople.com. It collapsed, of course, and dragged our stock down with it. But I didn't have the systems intelligence to see how the site's failure would affect Whole Foods's board--and my own job security.

"You have to develop a feeling for who your stakeholders are and figure out how to make them all winners."

I thought: Hey, I founded the company. I never saw the board as a stakeholder, even though members have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. Let me tell you: Almost getting fired from Whole Foods was a big wake-up call.

So my advice to entrepreneurs is to think about your business and all the relationships it has. You have to develop a feeling for who your stakeholders are and figure out how to make them all winners. At Whole Foods, whenever we make a decision, we want it to work for all stakeholders--employees, customers, investors, suppliers, the community, the environment.

If it doesn't, we go back to the drawing board.

 




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