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The former CEO of a US$34 billion company says you should always do two things when starting a new job

Yum Brands' ex-CEO David Novak says to master the basics of a job before trying to make a splash

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 4:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2016, 12:46pm

As the CEO of Yum Brands from 1999 to 2015, David Novak turned a PepsiCo spinoff into a global leader in the fast-food industry through the brands KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut.

When he retired from his position as chairman of Yum in May, he left behind a legacy of 41,000 restaurants across 125 countries and a market capitalisation of about US$34 billion.

Speaking in New York, where we discussed his new book, "O Great One!" Novak shared the greatest lessons from his career.

Novak explained that when he became COO of PepsiCo in 1994, he was coming from a marketing background that may have been distinguished, but he also needed to learn the company's operations from the ground up.

In one of his books, the 2007 business memoir "The Education of an Accidental CEO," Novak wrote that this period of adjustment taught him two fundamental lessons of adapting to a new job that are just as relevant if you're a summer intern or a CEO.

Get the fundamentals down before trying to make an impression

When you take on a new role, whether within your organisation or at a new company, it can be tempting to want to immediately make a splash with an ambitious project. Novak's advice: Relax. Master the basics of the job before you stretch yourself beyond your limits.

"I have been fortunate to the extent that I have always gone into a new job in something of a turnaround situation," he wrote, explaining that his instinct was to immediately embark on an exciting new campaign, but soon realised that he needed a grasp on the fundamentals, "like how to get the trucks out of the warehouse and how to make sure there's enough product on the trucks when they leave."

"New marketing initiatives are sexy, but if you don't have the nuts and bolts of an operation in place and the machinery humming along, then you're not going to drive more sales and make any money," he says.

Learn as much as possible from your colleagues

Novak said that while transitioning from a strictly marketing role to an operations role was difficult, he found all the answers he needed within the company. "Every company is filled with experts," he wrote — it's just a matter of acting without hesitation when you need to know something that you can't figure out on your own.

For example, in his role as COO he learned about the company's history from a 25-year veteran, the customers' wants and needs from the customer service team, and how to solve problems with delivery trucks from the drivers themselves.

"I always tell people that the best thing about being new is that you have carte blanche to ask a ton of questions," he wrote. "(My favorite is 'What would you do if you had my job?') The trick is to be secure enough to keep asking questions after you've been on the job for a while, when some people might be thinking that you should already know the answers."

And this applies to leaders, as well, he explained — perhaps even more so. It's why his latest book, "O Great One!", is solely focused on the power of recognition.

"Asking questions is actually a great way to let people know that they're needed and that you value what they have to say," he wrote in "The Education of an Accidental CEO." '

"And I've learned time and again: the most powerful way to motivate someone is to listen to them."

See Also:

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US$33 billion firm's ex-CEO shares the greatest leadership insight he's ever had

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