The “Chicken” That Saved KFC - 3 Lessons on Employee Recognition from David Novak


3 Lessons on Employee Recognition from David Novak

There’s a war for talent, of that there’s no question.  Yet, the weapons we employ in this war to keep and find the best and brightest need not be so sophisticated.  Speaking at SHRM’s Talent Management Conference and Exposition in Chicago former Chief Executive magazine "CEO of the Year” David Novak reminded attendees that in some cases the most powerful tool in a leader’s arsenal can be of all things- a rubber chicken.  

Novak, former CEO of Yum Brands, has had a remarkable career as a business leader CEO - rated as one of the world’s “30 Best CEOs” by Barron’s, one of the “Top People in Business” by FORTUNE and one of the “100 Best-Performing CEOs in the World” by Harvard Business Review.  Yet, as I listened to his inspirational key note session the one thing that struck me was that in this age of big data, and technology-driven recruiting Novak turned around an entire brand’s fortunes through a simple, yet hard to achieve, principle:  Make people feel valued!  Novak shared that when he took over as president of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) things were terrible- acknowledging that folks were reminiscing about the days of Colonel Sanders and “he’d been dead for more than twenty years.”  Applying his natural abilities, serving as what he called the “Chief People Officer” he got to work by focusing on what he knew best- People. Here are three of take-aways from his session that helped him turnaround KFC: 

-          Build Your People Ability- Novak reminded attendees at the conference that leaders- at all levels- must constantly engage in techniques that will foster self-improvement.  One of these he calls his “3 x 5 Exercise.” This is where the leader takes a 3 x 5 card and writes what they think they are doing well on one side (strengths) and what they need to improve on the other (weaknesses).  Then, and here’s the trick, you then share it with those you lead and get their honest take on your self-assessment.   Sure, there’s sophisticated tools to do this but David’s plan was part of what he called a regular exercise in getting his “people capability right.” 

-          Recognition Gets Your People Working Together- During a time where employees, franchise owners, and the overall KFC Brand were all suffering David realized that he needed to create a meaningful program to recognize employees- and fast!  The “rubber chicken” became the gold-standard within the organization- something that touched employees, and sent a cascade of appreciation from the top down.  Novak reminds all of us that “new attitudes” are as, if not more, important than “new products”, and recognition is a “universal value.”

-          Don’t Tolerate Bad Behavior from Leadership-   As important as it is to recognize and call-out well-earned praise it’s equally important to recognize “bad-behavior” on the part of your leaders.  David shared a story of the boss who takes the air out of the team’s good ideas- and how important it was to quickly correct such behavior and ensure that everyone knew that bad behavior would not be tolerated. 

David Novak didn’t become one of the world’s most successful CEOs by simply giving away catchy “toys.”  He applied a “take people with you to get things done” mentality to all that he’s done and it’s refreshing to see that in this age of analytics and data that the honest and earnest employee recognition is still the most powerful weapon in the war for talent. 


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