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Leadership Lessons From the Man Behind the World's Biggest Restaurant Company

David Novak of Yum Brands isn't just known for creating Cool Ranch Doritos: he's a renowned leader in charge of overseeing a company of 1.4 million employees at KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell worldwide.
david novak, ceo of Yum Brands

Courtesy Company

David Novak, CEO of Yum Brands.

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As CEO of Yum Brands, David Novak oversees the restaurant company with the most locations in the world. That puts him in charge of 1.4 million employees in every KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell in 117 countries. He held several positions inside PepsiCo before the company spun off its restaurants, including the chief operating officer for Pepsi in the '90s. Some of his greatest achievements happened on the restaurant level: he's responsible for creating cultural (and menu) mainstays such as KFC's Crispy Strips, the Meat Lovers' pizza at Pizza Hut, Cool Ranch Doritos, and Crystal Pepsi. His efforts helped turn around struggling franchises, and came through collaboration with his team members on every level. Novak's new book, Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen, debuts today. It lays out his vision for egalitarian leadership strategies, something that has won him praise from Warren Buffett and many other business leaders. Novak says more CEOs—and some politicians—could benefit from the lessons in the book. He spoke with Inc.com about his leadership principles, why he creates a safe haven for employee-dissent, and answers the burning question: Will Crystal Pepsi ever return?

Why did you want to write this book, and why now?
I've been teaching this leadership program inside Yum Brands since 1998. I'm constantly evolving it, updating it, interviewing different leaders that can help amplify the points I'm trying to make. One of the responsibilities of leadership, I like to call it the privilege of leadership, is to be able to share with others what you've learned.  I've taught this program to 4,000 people in Yum Brands. We have 1.4 million people associated with our brands across the world, so by writing the book, I can make it available much broader to our organization, so we're actually taking the principle in the book—which is basically "What's the single biggest thing you're working on that you can drive performance and change your business and change your life?" There will be 38,000 restaurant managers who will be using the principles in the book to make the single biggest thing that will improve the operations in their restaurant.

So it's like a to-go version of your leadership style?
Absolutely. One of our passions is to be a company with a huge heart and that means corporate social responsibility. We do a major fundraising awareness-building effort with the United Nations World Food Program to really attack the issue of global hunger. So all the proceeds that come from the book will go to the World Food Program.

You talk in the book about an employee named Bob who went unappreciated at the Pepsi bottling plant. Was there a time starting out when you felt like one of the Bobs of the world?
I have been so enormously blessed by the leaders that I've worked with. So I've learned more on the positive side than on the negative side. I have witnessed situations that people have not recognized others and that's only motivated me to reinforce what I've learned from others and what I've felt deep down in my soul really matters to people, which is recognition.

We hear a lot of talk right now about the squeezing of the middle class and economic inequality in this country. Do you think CEOs pay enough attention to what's happening on the ground floor of their businesses?
I actually think the really good leaders in the world get people involved. There's a rule that I believe very strongly in: If you have no involvement, you have no commitment. So if you try to do things yourself without getting people engaged, you're not likely going to be very successful. There isn't any real message to the rest of the world or the political situation that we happen to face right now. But I do think that what the United States needs is a good healthy dose of "take people with you." Getting people involved and getting people on the same team would I think be very beneficial to our country right now. Right now we have way too many Democrats and way too many Republicans and not enough Americans; people working together, pulling together to really try to find the common ground to try and take the country forward.

You advocate employees stand up for themselves and voice their opinions. Is it hard to get that mindset across when people are worried about their job security?
First of all, it’s a leader's job to create a safe haven that allows people to raise issues without the fear of losing their jobs. The real natural leaders do it. They can't wait to tell you what you're missing, because they're trying to move the business forward and they're looking for growth and they're really trying to identify the unfinished business.

The book documents your habit of making unannounced visits to your restaurants. What do you do when you're there? 
No. 1, I'm there to see the business the way the customer sees it so you're really there to see the world the way that it is, not necessarily the way you'd like to think it is. The second thing is, once you see that and you understand what the reality is, then I think you pass that on and you provide coaching to the organization on the things I think we can do better. Third thing, a lots of times you go in, you get a great experience, you get the opportunity to recognize people and say, "hey, that was really terrific. I had a great experience and way to go."

As the man behind Crystal Pepsi, you probably know that it now goes for about $100 a bottle on eBay. Is there ever hope of seeing more Crystal Pepsi? Is there a secret stash somewhere?
I've understood that it was actually in the pipeline as one of the ideas that may come back. But I can't say for certain.

The "Combination Pizza Hut Taco Bell" by Das Racist was quite popular a couple years ago. Have you heard it?
Oh yeah.

What did you think of it?
I think anything that gets you in the vernacular is a little bit of fun, as long as it's in good taste. And this was. We want to be in popular culture, in the vernacular and we want our marketing to always create a little bit of buzz. The good news is our brands are so well-recognized and fun it's not that hard to do. 

IMAGE: Rameshng;30003019; Michael Baird/Flickr
Last updated: Jan 9, 2012

TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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