Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons Learned from the Trailer Park to the Corner Office by David Novak








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It doesn’t take many pages of David Novak’s book, The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons Learned from the Trailer Park to the Corner Office, to conclude that this is a real likeable guy with whom it would be easy to spend a lot of time. There’s a chasm between the David Novak who doesn’t take himself too seriously and the image of an imperious CEO. Novak comes across on these pages as being very comfortable with who he is, and while he is proud to share his wisdom with readers, he’s never very far from understanding how much he doesn’t know. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 114-7:

Reward and Recognize, Part 2

While I was COO of Pepsi East, I was holding a round­table sales meeting early one morning at our St. Louis plant. There were ten or so route salesmen there, and when I asked a question about merchandising someone said, "Ask Bob about that. He really knows how to paint the store Pepsi." Someone else said, "Yeah, Bob showed me more in one afternoon than I learned my first year." And so on around the room: "Bob showed me this," "Bob showed me that," "Bob knows all about that." I looked over at Bob, who was a route salesman like everyone else in the room, and saw tears streaming down his face. "You :j know," Bob said, "I've been at this company for forty-two years, and I never knew anybody felt that way about me."

Forty-two years and completely unappreciated and overlooked. At Pizza Hut I had seen the positive effect of the Traveling Pan and the Million-Dollar Manager coats, but it wasn't until that morning in St. Louis that I fully realized the essential, even lifetime significance of constantly recognizing the efforts of the people around you.

Pete Harman, whose mantra was "Always be giving back," was not only Colonel Sanders's very first franchisee, he was also the one who provided the business acu­men that allowed the company to evolve and grow. I would later learn that all these smart things I thought I was figuring out about leadership were the mirror image of 'what Pete had been practicing fifty years earlier.

Pete was a great student of human behavior. He'd sit around just watching his customers and pick up all sorts of '`things. Pete noticed that people would probably buy a lot more chicken, particularly for Sunday family dinners, if they had an easier way to carry it out. So he came up with the KFC bucket, which, with the possible exception of the Chinese-food container, is surely the most famous take­out container ever invented.

In my third week at KFC, I toured Pete's stores with him. He knew all the people who worked there and rec­ognized every one of them by bragging to me about them.  When we went back to his office afterward, he disappeared for a minute and then came back with a pin. This was back when I was still wearing ties to work, and he said to me, "It's good to have you here, David. I know you're going to be great. Here, you need one of these. I've got to ruin your tie."

With that Pete took one of his little Harman Pins, which he would give to his employees to recognize their good work, and stuck it in my tie.

You know what? It made me feel great. It was just this dumb little pin, okay? But that was the whole point. Since most of us go about our days rarely feeling appreciated, it doesn't take much to make an impression. (I have a Yum! I give out today when I tour our restaurants.)

I was also a little taken by surprise, which is another thing about recognition that I learned from Pete. When recognition is spontaneous, it has even more of an impact. There's a real power in spontaneity. You don't have to wait for a special event. Find an event every day. I'd much rather catch people by surprise. I love to see the look on their faces.

I hadn't been at KFC that long when I learned that our head of information technology was recognizing people in his department by handing out those floppy rubber chickens you see in old comedy sketches. I liked the idea so much that, in true presidential fashion, I stole it from him! I'd carry some around in my briefcase, and then I'd go up to someone in one of our restaurants, let's say, a cook, and introduce myself. Then I'd say, "The restaurant general manager tells me you're doing a great job, that you're a great team member. I've got to give you one of my floppy chickens." I'd then pull a floppy chicken out of my briefcase, write a personalized message on it, sign it, and number it (I gave away about a hundred a year) . Then I'd have someone take a picture of the two of us, and I'd say, "We'll send you a copy, but the next time you're in Louisville, I want you to stop by so we can show you where your picture is hanging in my office." Finally, be- cause you can't eat a rubber chicken, I'd hand the recipi­ent a crisp hundred-dollar bill. The looks on their faces are Priceless. But they can't enjoy it any more than I do. As Pete Harman taught me, the getting is in the giving.

When Chuck Grant, a great engineer of ours, passed away, I went to the funeral home and saw his floppy chicken at his side in his coffin. His wife told me that before her husband died, he had said that the one item he wanted placed in his coffin to take with him to eternity was his prized floppy chicken. Of course, she had com­plied. If that doesn't drive home the power of recogni­tion, nothing will.


The Education of an Accidental CEO is a fell good book, packed with lessons that may or may not be useful or usable for every reader. Nonetheless, it’s a delight to read, and Novak seems like an authentic and sincere guy, well worth reading.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


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