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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.

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 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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