Growing up in a household where business and family were one, Cal Turner Jr. learned a lot from his dad. Turner served for 37 years as CEO of Dollar General, the company founded by his father and grandfather. His book, My Father's Business (Center Street, 2018), co-written with Rob Simbeck, shares how the small-town values with which he was raised helped him guide Dollar General from a family business to a professionally managed public corporation with more than 14,000 stores today.
He recently spoke to the HR Magazine Book Blog.
Why did you write this book?
I was mentored by many wonderful people, and I wanted to gather the guidance I received and the principles I learned from my family and colleagues growing up and during my years with Dollar General. My years with the company changed me a great deal. Among other things, they made me a passionate believer in human development. I've learned about how all of us can flourish and how we can best work together for the good of organizations, communities and our world.
In the book, you describe something your father did as "the step that changed everything." What was it?
My father knew what small-town customers needed and wanted—no-frills, low-priced shopping. They knew the value of a dollar. So, as he studied the big department stores in Nashville and Louisville, he kept coming back to the Dollar Days sales. He thought, "Why couldn't we simplify all of our operations by opening a store with only one price—a dollar?" Every day could be Dollar Days! His colleagues thought it would never work. My dad knew better.
Your grandfather had quite the story. What were some leadership lessons you learned from him?
Of the many lessons I learned from my grandfather, there are two I consider key. The first is that there is something to learn from everybody. My grandfather had a third-grade education because he was forced to drop out of school at 11 when his dad died to help support the family. He always assumed everyone knew more than he did, and he made it his business to learn from them. Second, always save something from every paycheck. Doing so meant he had resources, which gave him freedom to move forward during the darkest days of the Depression. Both are valuable lessons I've always tried to practice.
What was your greatest challenge when you took over the reins at Dollar General?
Surprisingly, it was learning how to be the boss' son rather than my own man. Everyone assumed that as the boss' son, I would have answers and power. Frankly, when I came on board, I had neither! If I succeeded, people would assume it was because I was the boss' son. If I failed, they would assume it was my fault. So my job was to manage my own ego, develop a healthy sense of humor about my situation and let people know I wasn't qualified for any of the jobs they were doing so well in the company. I needed their help. I let them know that I valued them, and they, in turn, helped me to learn my role.
What was your approach to leadership?
There are several aspects. One is, leadership is something you share. Empower the right people and let them do their jobs. Overcome the "boss mentality." A boss gets results. A leader gets development. Draw on the knowledge of the people on the front lines. The best place to solve problems is where they occur, and those who deal with customers every day know their needs and wants best. Then, for us, it was a matter of getting all our key company leaders on the same page about who we were and what we were doing, train them as well as possible, and set them to work on a clearly defined mission. Finally, don't use blame and guilt. Separate the problem from the person, and work together to solve it.
Over the years, Dollar General had operating principles called "Sacred Cals," such as "Don't describe labor pains—show me the baby." How were those principles embedded in the company culture, and what role did they play in the development of the company?
"Sacred Cals" were originally my father's viewpoints and his ways of doing business, boiled down to pithy phrases. As I came into my leadership role, I added some of my own, such as "Always 'cube out' the trucks," meaning make sure each one is filled so we're not hauling air. Those Sacred Cals summed up the company culture, but, as with any truism, some were no longer useful. Some never were! So I came up with the concept of Slaughtering Sacred Cals. We would look at every one and make sure it justified itself and was still relevant and useful. If it wasn't, out it went. It was my way of making clear my commitment to change and letting everyone know I was excited by it. No one was immune, including the founder or the CEO. And when it came to those trucks, cubing them out sometimes meant driving a lot of extra miles for a partial delivery that didn't make economic sense. That particular Sacred Cal was slaughtered, too.
What was the primary characteristic of Dollar General's culture that made the company so successful?
I believe it's that we stuck to our small-town roots and values. For a time, the company was run by what was in my dad's gut—he was the classic entrepreneur. Gradually, and sometimes painfully, we moved to established leadership principles and an independent board. Through it all, we never lost sight of the fact that we were serving—and that is the key word—customers who were often struggling. We were bringing them basic merchandise at the best possible prices. We avoided froufrou. We drew our employees from our customer base, further ensuring that we remained in touch with them. Word-of-mouth was our best recruitment tool because once people saw what we had for them, they were happy to spread the word.
Originally posted on SHRM.org.