You might know by now that McDonald's fired its chief executive officer Sunday, and tapped the former head of its U.S. operations to the top overall role. 

Details about the sudden change are a bit scarce, except that outgoing CEO Steve Easterbrook was let go after a "recent consensual relationship" that "violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment," according to the company.

I've never met the new CEO, Chris Kempczinski, but I have some empathy for his position. It's a heck of a moment to take over as the head of one of the most important U.S. companies. 

Our first indication of how he plans to lead comes from the 500-word email he apparently sent to all employees just after his surprise promotion. Here's why it reads the way it does.

(I've included the entire email for reference at the end of this article.)

1. The first four words

When you take over as a leader in circumstances like these, you have two choices in your first message to the troops, so to speak:

  • Acknowledge the circumstances that brought you here, and propose how to deal with them together.
  • Forget about the past, drive on 100 percent, and try to overcome yesterday's controversial news with tomorrow's performance.

Kempczinski is definitely pursuing the second option. The subject line of his company wide email--which are thus the first four words that McDonald's employees will hear from him, are "Our Path Forward Together."

I'm aware that this whole email might well have been lawyered and PR'ed within an inch of its life, but it appears over Kempczinski's signature, so I'm going to attribute it to him.

I don't know how McDonald's employees will react to this, but it's 100 percent forward-looking. 

2. The passion paragraphs

Roughly half of the email, starting with its very first line, is dedicated to Kempczinski introducing himself to a group of employees who largely already know him.

He has to walk a fine line here, both expressing passion, but also quite frankly trying not to make news. His language here reflects that:

  • "Some of my fondest childhood memories were of my experiences at a McDonald's...."
  • "I'm happiest when I'm in our restaurants, visiting with franchisees, their crew and our customers...."
  • "Yes, we serve delicious food and offer great experiences, but our brand means so much more...."

I've written a lot about how the head of a big organization really only has one tool available to lead effectively: the design of culture. It's hard to do that if you can't demonstrate your passion as a leader for the organization.

3. The truth-telling paragraphs

I admit I'm a bit of a language geek, but I enjoyed reading between the lines of the next paragraph in Kempczinski's email, beginning below with this sentence: 

"When I joined McDonald's to lead global strategy, business development and innovation, we were in the midst of a critical turnaround...."

As an investor or a franchisee or a high-level employee, this is probably the most important part. It's where Kempczinski basically claims his bona fides as a competent leader, and gives the first indication of what's likely to change--or not--with his promotion.

The point here is to place Kempczinski as a proven leader joining the company, as he puts it, during a "critical turnaround." (To hit this right on the head, you wouldn't need a "critical turnaround" if things were already going well.)

But, Easterbrook and Kempczinski had reportedly worked quite closely on the turnaround plan. As the Wall Street Journal summarized, their traffic-boosting strategy at U.S. restaurants involved new technology investments and "fresher ingredients."

While sales have risen "because of those efforts and price increases," the Journal reported, "traffic in the U.S. has remained largely flat and franchisees have pushed back at the costs of renovating restaurants and changing operations."

Here's the full text of Kempczinski's email to employees:

SUBJECT: Our Path Forward Together

I am excited to take the reins of this incredible company and grateful for the Board's confidence in me. I am particularly fortunate to be surrounded by such a talented team as we take this brand into the future.

I have been a lifelong fan of McDonald's. Like so many of our customers, some of my fondest childhood memories were of my experiences at a McDonald's. Since joining the company in 2015, I've been able to see up-close how all three legs of the stool work together in an incredible partnership to bring our brand to life in the restaurants and communities that we serve.

I'm happiest when I'm in our restaurants, visiting with franchisees, their crew and our customers. Listening to their stories, I'm reminded about the larger purpose that our brand plays in the lives of millions of people around the world. Yes, we serve delicious food and offer great experiences, but our brand means so much more. We stand for opportunity and empowerment for everyone. McDonald's is a special company, and it's my privilege to work with all of you to make a difference in the lives of so many.

When I joined McDonald's to lead global strategy, business development and innovation, we were in the midst of a critical turnaround. Developing a strategic plan was central to harnessing the power and relevance of the brand for our business and customers. We decided to refocus on the customer and met with almost 10,000 of our guests around the world to understand their needs and learn how we could better serve them. This "global listening tour" was the inspiration for our Velocity Growth Plan, and the success we've enjoyed ever since is a powerful reminder to always keep our focus on the customer. I expect that we will continue to use the Velocity Growth Plan as our strategic roadmap, as the retain/regain/convert framework is still highly relevant to the opportunities available to us.

I also want to thank Steve for his many contributions. Steve brought me into McDonald's and he was a patient and helpful mentor. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.

McDonald's has a deep bench of talent and, as one of my first moves as CEO, I'm excited to announce Joe Erlinger as President, McDonald's USA. Joe and I have worked closely together since I first joined the Company. He is a respected leader who is returning to the U.S. after working around the world for McDonald's, most recently as President, International Operated Markets. He has a proven track record of driving strong results through collaboration with franchisees and a relentless focus on the customer. I am confident in all Joe will bring to the U.S. business. We're also working to identify Joe's successor.

Thank you for your commitment to McDonald's and for all you do every day, across more than 100 markets, to drive us forward and help us reach our incredible potential.

Chris Kempczinski

Published on: Nov 5, 2019
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