At MU event, former Yum! Brands CEO promotes power of recognition

Be your best self, connect with others and create a team environment where everyone counts. Those are the inspirational tidbits at the heart of David Novak’s leadership philosophy of “taking people with you.”

Novak delivered a talk Wednesday afternoon as part of the inaugural Novak Leadership Series in front of a full house at the University of Missouri’s Jesse Auditorium. An MU alumnus, Novak is the retired chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands, which runs Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell, and he is the founder of oGoLead, a company that provides leadership development training.

“A leader casts a shadow,” Novak said. “There’s no way you could make big things by yourself. You have to take people with you.”

Novak encouraged the audience to practice what he preaches.

“The best leaders I know go to work every day focused on being their best self,” Novak said.

This entails visualizing the day’s outcome and success by planning the night before. Draft a plan, determine who you need to meet with and what impact you want to have, Novak said.

In order to make an impact, you have to be self-aware, Novak said.

“The most important thing you can do is be vulnerable and be open,” he said.

Novak worked his way up the leadership ladder at PepsiCo. He served as chief operating officer of the company, and then he became president of KFC and then Pizza Hut before becoming chairman of Yum! Brands.

When he became COO, Novak said he knew nothing about operations, but he filled the gap by bringing every internal operations expert to the table to understand the problems that he’d need to fix.

On a trip to St. Louis, Novak asked his salespeople what was working and what wasn’t working for the company. Everyone pointed him to an employee, Bob, who they all said was the person leading the efforts that were working.

Bob started tearing up, and Novak asked why.

In his 47 years at the company, Bob said, he had never received the recognition he did that day.

From that moment on, Novak prioritized recognition as the main value he’d emphasize anywhere he worked.

In his next role, as president of KFC, Novak had the opportunity to teach the value of recognition.

KFC at the time was known as the “graveyards of executives,” he said. When Novak stepped into the position, franchisee owners didn’t have a good relationship with the prior KFC president and vice versa.

“The bullet had been fired, you just didn’t know when it’d hit you,” Novak said.

So, he started putting himself in the minds of the people needed to move the company forward.

He began giving out awards of recognition. The physical award: a floppy plastic chicken. Novak would take a photograph of each person who received the award and place it in his office.

“And, you know what, people started crying when they got this floppy chicken,” Novak said, as he held up a floppy chicken.

To demonstrate his recognition-giving mentality, Novak invited MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright on stage to give him a token of recognition for his passion and for “developing world leaders.”

Novak donated $21.6 million to MU last fall and created the Novak Leadership Institute, which has taught approximately 150 MU journalism students, thus far.

The institute is quickly expanding, Novak said. The program will soon become a multidisciplinary collaboration on campus and will spread across the state.


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