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Yum! Brands’ Former CEO on Why You Should Never Stop Learning

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

I’ll confess when I hear someone say, “That person has a lot to learn,” I picture someone in over their head or maybe new in their career just starting out in a corporate job or green in their dream role at a nonprofit. I don’t picture someone at the top of the organization, the executive director or CEO. But our guest today does picture that person, because our guest today was that person, a longtime executive who fundamentally believes that the best leaders recognize the need to learn continually, and they actively pursue the best ways to do that.

David Novak is the former chair and CEO of Yum! Brands, where he scaled KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell into one of the globe’s biggest restaurant companies. He didn’t have the education and pedigree you might expect, but he attributes his success to the fact that he’s always been hungry to learn.

Novak wrote the new book, How Leaders Learn: Master the Habits of the World’s Most Successful People. David, thanks for coming on the show to share what you’ve learned.

DAVID NOVAK: Curt, it’s my honor. I look forward to the conversation.

CURT NICKISCH: Why is learning so important to you?

DAVID NOVAK: I can tell you that learning has been the single biggest skill that’s helped me succeed in life and in my career. I’ve always been a person that just took the opportunity to learn from new experiences, my environment, from other people, from ways to become more curious from the experiences that I’ve had, that I’ve always taken the time to learn.

And it became very important to me because as I was developing and growing Yum! Brands, I’ve always had to really try to identify the high potential talent or hire great people that could come in and make our company better. And I realized that the very best people we had in our company were avid learners.

And then when I moved on from Yum! Brands and I focused on my passion, which is developing leaders, helping people become the best leaders that they can possibly be. But what I wanted to do, Curt, was basically share everything that I’ve learned about learning and help people master that skill because I believe it defines the most successful leader.

CURT NICKISCH: How do you define learning? Or how do you think of it, yourself?

DAVID NOVAK: Well, I think learning is the capacity to build know-how that helps you develop as a person, helps you grow your business, helps you move up in your career. And as I wrote this book, How Leaders Learn, I focused in on three aspects of learning. One is to learn from the people and environments and the experiences that are available to you right now. This would be like, how can you learn from your upbringing? How can you learn from new environments? How can you learn from people that are already in your network that you can just access? So I really honed in on that.

The second thing is I think that you have to learn how to really be curious and open-minded and make that a habit. So I wanted to help people get the learning that would help them develop the thinking skills to be really successful. And that’s like learning to listen, which is so fundamental, but a lot of people just don’t do it. Learning how to ask better questions, learning to see reality, see the world the way it really is not the way you want it to be. Learning to take the time to reflect so that you can really understand who you are and what you need to become.

And then the third aspect of learning that I really tried to hone in is by learning from the experiences that you have in your life. And this leads to the insights that I think really drive action. And that’d be things like learning to recognize on purpose, which was the key to my success in building the culture that we had that I think really drove results. Learning to prepare. That’s really, really important. And learn by reflecting and taking the time to seek new knowledge.

CURT NICKISCH: What is your advice to somebody maybe earlier in the career or a leader who is trying to choose the environment for them to become the best senior leader they can be? How do you advise people to put themselves into a place where they’re going to get the most learning and have the best chance at being successful

DAVID NOVAK: When anything starts to be rote and when anything starts to just be routine and you’re just going through the humdrum of going to work and doing what you know how to do well, I always say that’s the time you want to seek new environments that push you and get you out of your comfort zone and will help you really grow. So I think you have to be in tune with yourself and you have to have a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Not only for the business that you might be working in where it pushes you to come up with new ideas and make new things happen, but have that healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo for yourself as well, so that you can really keep pushing yourself so that you grow and you build more skills and you can make a bigger impact for your company and help the people that you have the privilege of working with.

CURT NICKISCH: How do you know when the challenge is right? How do you assess that new environment that you’re deliberating is going to be the right place for you to go next?

DAVID NOVAK: Well, I think you have to have a real strong understanding of where you’re at in your life and in your career and how people see you. I used to run marketing for Pepsi-Cola Company, and every quarter I would go meet with Wayne Calloway, who was the chairman of PepsiCo, the holding company.

And we always had these great conversations. And finally one day, Curt, he said to me, “What do you want to do, David, in your career? How are you looking at yourself?” And I said, “Well, I want to be a division president.” And PepsiCo had KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Frito-Lay, and Pepsi. I didn’t care which one, but I wanted to run a business. And he said to me, he said, “David, you’re a really good marketing guy.” And I said, “Well, Wayne, I want to be in charge of the P&L. I want to be in charge of the division. I want to really run the whole shooting match.” He says, “David, you’re a really good marketing guy.”

And that gave me the self-awareness that I was going to have to demonstrate to him that I was more than a marketing person. He even said, “David, I’ll make you head of marketing for PepsiCo so we can grow our talent that’s so important to us.” That’s not what I wanted. So a month or so later, the chief operating officer job came up at the Pepsi-Cola company, and I was the marketing person, I had to demonstrate I was more than just a marketing person, so I went to my boss and I asked for the new challenge, the new environment. I asked to become the chief operating officer of Pepsi-Cola Company without having operating experience.

CURT NICKISCH: And knowing that they didn’t see you that way.

DAVID NOVAK: You know, I actually I went to the CEO of Pepsi-Cola company, Craig Weatherup, and I said to Craig, “I understand there’s a risk in this, but if I’m not doing a great job in six months, you can either fire me or you can put me back in marketing. But this is something that I really know that I need to do, and I think I can do it.”

Now, why would he even think that I could do it? Well, I’d been put in new environments before and I had succeeded. And the track record that I had in doing that was enough to give him the motivation to say, “Okay, I’m going to give this guy a shot.”

CURT NICKISCH: You also had the opportunity to go to Frito-Lay and run that Snack Foods division. And that technically, based off of what we’ve been talking about, is something that maybe you should have done. It would’ve been another part of the company that you didn’t know very well. It would’ve been a new challenge, it wasn’t your area, and you said no and you don’t regret it. How so?

DAVID NOVAK:  Well, I think one of the things I’ve learned is that you need to focus on what truly gives you joy. I had worked with Frito-Lay and I had great respect for the company, and I’d also worked in Pepsi-Cola Company, and these are packaged goods businesses. They’re very different than the restaurant business.

I learned that I loved the restaurant business. I love food, so I love just going down when working with R&D themes and just developing new products. It was fun and it was relatively easy to do. I loved marketing. There was no industry I’d ever knew of or had been in where if you could start advertising on one day and three days later you could have 10% mix, it was almost like direct response. So it was like the marketing skill that I had was something that I really enjoyed and really had great applicability to it.

And I love people, and the restaurant business is all about people. You know, I love going out and working with the front lines, and I really love the humility of the restaurant business. These are people who just are… They wake up every day, they’re great Americans, they work their butt off. I just loved it.

And when I thought about going to Frito-Lay, I just didn’t have the same kind of passion for the packaged goods business. And so I turned the business down because I really believe you need to follow what gives you your joy and what makes you happy. And when you can get into a situation where you’re joyful about what you do and you look forward to it every day, you’re not really working, you’re really pursuing your hobby and your love. The only reason why I would’ve gone to Frito-Lay, it’d have been more prestigious, it would’ve been a bigger business, but that isn’t what really turns me on.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because you used the word passion here to talk about taking on new opportunities that you’re excited about, but also passion for doing what you like. So you may have those opportunities where you might be able to learn something new but just might not enjoy it. And you’re saying avoid those and make sure you seek out an opportunity where you can learn and can enjoy it at the same time.

DAVID NOVAK: Yeah, I do think that if you have that choice, that always works best, but you have to understand where you’re at in your career. Sometimes you have to take on some potential risk and some potential pain to get the learning that you’re going to need to get you to where you ultimately want to go. And that was the chief operating officer role for me at Pepsi. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I much preferred everything that I was doing in the restaurant business and running operations for Pepsi. But I learned so much by doing that that I don’t think I could have been nearly the kind of leader I was at KFC and Pizza Hut and Taco Bell and ultimately Yum! Brands without getting that experience.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. So how did you approach that just from a learning mindset?

DAVID NOVAK: I think you have to learn to fill your gaps. I would assess myself as a good leader, a good team builder, but I didn’t really understand operations. As a marketing person, I would go into the bottling plants and basically feign interest and be really thinking about all the marketing things that I needed to be doing. But I didn’t really understand the business from the ground up. And that’s probably why Wayne Calloway had questions about me because he probably saw me feigning interest and not really being into it that much.

So I needed to learn, and the best way I could learn is to fill the gap, the knowledge gap that I had on operations. So what I did is I brought in all the best operators in the company and I asked them what was working, what’s not working, what processes needed to be fixed.

The other thing that I did is I went out. Every week I would leave on Monday and come back on Friday, and I visited bottling plants and I met with the frontline and I had round tables and I would ask what was working, what’s not working. You have to be able to learn to listen. And so what I did when I was out there is I’d listened and I’d really understood what the problems were. And I had a lot of power in the Pepsi-Cola company because of the role I had.

And once I realized we had a problem, I could put the resources on that problem and get it fixed so that we come up with better processes that would help us with our route truck loading or better processes that could help us make sure we didn’t have out of stocks or better processes to work through the pricing models that we had.

So the fact that I listened to what the issues were and then took action. You know, you can be an avid learner and you can become really book smart. You can learn everything and be of interest to you, but what you have to do is take that learning and turn it into insights and action and use it to drive results. So I started out thinking the best leaders were avid learners – you got to be an active learner so that you take the learning that you get and you turn it into action.

CURT NICKISCH: As part of your work, you visited a team where somebody who’d been there for a long time was retiring. This man was named Bob. And you were there as they were going around and everybody was talking about everything that Bob had done for them and how important he was. And you noticed that Bob was at the end of the table there in tears, and you asked him about it.

DAVID NOVAK: Yeah, I said, people were all this praise on him and I said, “Bob, people love you. You’re the best at what you do. Why are you crying?” He said, “Well, I’ve been in this company for 47 years and I’m retiring in two weeks, and I didn’t know what people thought about me. I didn’t know that I was seen this way.” And that hit me in the gut, and it was like from that day on, I wanted to make sure that the people, the Bobs of the world, were appreciated for what they do. And I said to myself that I’m going to make recognition the number one cultural behavior I drive in whatever team or business that I lead.

CURT NICKISCH: So this was – that’s an active choice, I guess, is why I’m trying to draw that out, right?

DAVID NOVAK: Yeah, absolutely. I decided I was going to make it the biggest behavior that I would have as a leader. And that if I ever got a chance to run a company, I’d make it the distinguishing characteristic and behavior that would set us apart. And it’s interesting, when I did get to become the president of KFC, I started recognizing people by giving out this rubber chicken. It was fun that I did it, but what happened is everybody saw the power of recognition. And everybody on my team, they developed their own individual recognition awards. And then we cascaded it all around the world. And recognition became the number one key to our culture and the reason why we felt like we were able to attract and retain the best people.

CURT NICKISCH: You share then from your experiences and from a lot of the people that you’ve spoken to and interviewed, you share a lot in the book. And I just want to almost do a little bit of a lightning round and run through some of the advice that you have, some of these practical tips that you have. Learning by failure, that’s a common thing to hear. What’s your advice about learning from failure?

DAVID NOVAK: Failure is information. Take it, learn from it, and make sure that you move forward with new knowledge.

CURT NICKISCH: And by the same token, success is information too.

DAVID NOVAK: Winning is a great opportunity to learn from. Find the winners, find out why they’re winning, and then say, “How can I win too?”

CURT NICKISCH: Truth tellers. You write that you want to have those in your circle of friends and colleagues. Tell us about that.

DAVID NOVAK: Pursue truth with everything that you have. Chase it like it’s the most important thing. Make sure people know that you want the truth and that that’s so important to you, and then you’re going to get the kind of knowledge and learning that allow you to do the right thing.

CURT NICKISCH: Snap decisions. How do you see those?

DAVID NOVAK: Snap decisions can only be made well if you have the experience that gets you to the right end. I think snap decisions are dangerous. You got to have enough facts to make sure your decisions are correct.

CURT NICKISCH: Conversely, this idea of slowing down, listening, processing information, is that undervalued or overvalued?

DAVID NOVAK: I think you have to slow down to go fast. Too many times people skip the important steps to get people involved and committed, and it ends up taking them longer to get where they want to go.

CURT NICKISCH: What about pattern thinking and recognizing patterns?

DAVID NOVAK: Will make you smarter than you ever thought you could be. There’s so much information you can glean by looking how other people are doing things and then taking what seems to be a totally different category or a totally different business situation, and then asking yourself, “How could I take that learning and apply it in my business?” And it becomes one plus one equals three.

CURT NICKISCH: What’s a good example of that?

DAVID NOVAK: Well, my best example of pattern thinking is when I was working with Frito-Lay when I was in the advertising agency business. I knew that we needed to bring forward some new product ideas to help grow Doritos, which was our biggest account. So I took my team to the grocery store and I said, “Guys, we’re going to go up and down every aisle in the grocery and see what’s growing and see what’s happening in the industry.” And so we went up and down every aisle and we got to the salad dressing section. And at that point in time, ranch dressing was a new flavor and it had lots of facings, lots of point of purchase, which means that it was very successful and people were really trying it.

And so I came back with the team. I said, “This ranch dressing is very interesting. I wonder if we could do a Doritos with a ranch flavor.” And we all talked about it and I said, “That could be a good idea.” So I called Dennis Heard, the head of R&D at Frito-Lay and said, “Dennis, you think we could make a ranch-flavored Dorito?” And he says, “Absolutely.” And I said, “Well, let me tell you something. It’s the fastest growing flavor in the salad dressing market, and I think it could be a hit for us.”

And I’ll never forget going over to Frito-Lay with Dennis. When those ranch flavored Doritos came off the line, I mean, they were unbelievably good. They were so delicious, and we knew we had a winner. And then we did some pattern thinking on what had made Nacho Cheese Doritos so successful. Well, Nacho Cheese Doritos was successful because it took a known quantity – cheese – and then we named it with the unique image when we called it Nacho Cheese Doritos. Nacho was the unique image. I said, “Well, we need a unique image for Ranch.” And so we came up with the idea to call it Cool Ranch Doritos, and we launched Cool Ranch Doritos, and it was enormously successful.

And you’ll see ranch-flavored potato chips, ranch everything now. But we started that. And guess where that idea came from? Not by going up the snack aisle. It came from going to the salad dressing aisle and just by saying, “Okay, if ranch flavor is great in salad dressings, could it be great on a chip?”

CURT NICKISCH: Well, that came from a question too, and you also recommend learning how to ask better questions and being more deliberate in your interrogation of an idea.

DAVID NOVAK: Absolutely. The best question that I think you can ever ask is, “What would you do if you were me?” And I think if you want to pick up insights on how you can be a better leader or issues that need to be solved, ask that question. And one thing I will say, Curt, is don’t ask it once when you’re talking to somebody because they’ll say, “Oh, nothing. Everything’s great.” Then ask it twice and they’ll say, “Oh, things are really good.”

Then ask it that third time. And they’ll say, “Well, one thing we might should be working on is cutting the bureaucracy out that we have, or stop being so focused on our food costs because our product quality’s moving.” But people aren’t going to tell you if you have a lot of power what needs to be done unless they know that you really want to hear it. And so I think sometimes you got to ask that question more than once to get the answer.

CURT NICKISCH: Wow. Yeah. What are some of your other favorite questions?

DAVID NOVAK: One that I really think every leader should think about or everybody should think about is, “What would happen if a hot shot replaced me?” If somebody came in and took your job, what would they do? Well, you usually know what needs to be done, and you haven’t done it yet, so you might as well do it so you can keep your job.

So I did that when I was CEO. I said, “If somebody came in and took over the CEO job at Yum! Brands, what would they do?” I said, “Well, you’re growing, but you know who’s growing faster than you? McDonald’s. McDonald’s is outperforming you. Yeah, you’re doing well. The stock’s going up, et cetera, but you should be doing a lot better.”

So what we did is we went out and we studied McDonald’s. We had what we called a global immersion day on McDonald’s where every management team around the world went in and spent a day going into McDonald’s and trying to come up with the keys to their success. And then we coalesced around the things that we would do based on that learning to help us grow sales, like having an everyday value menu or making sure that we had a dessert or making sure that we leveraged our asset throughout the day because we didn’t have breakfast. We started doing those kinds of things, and sure enough, our same store sales improved.

CURT NICKISCH: Some listeners might be thinking, “I’m one of those people who sort of feels like I’ve learned what I’ve learned and I’m an expert and I’m here to basically tell things or explain things and I’m not sort of a naturally inquisitive, just perpetually curious person. So asking questions and thinking about learning and listening isn’t something that comes naturally to me.” Do you have to be an intrinsically curious person to be a good learner, to be an active learner? Or is that a behavior you can learn, do you believe?

DAVID NOVAK: Well, what I’m hoping that this book does, Curt, is help people learn how to be an active learner. Because a lot of times people have it within them, but they don’t do it. And a lot of these people who think that they’re at the point now where they’re in the telling mode, they’re going to be the one that stall out, so they’d better be happy where they’re at. They better be happy that, “This is where I’m at. This is my station in life.”

But they also better be aware because there’s going to be someone coming up that is learning more and is uncovering new things and is bringing forward the new ideas that can grow a business and you’ll ultimately get replaced. I think that if you’re able to move up an organization or you’re able to get a job, you have the learning capacity.

The sad thing is, is people don’t take advantage of it because they get so locked in on what they’re doing. They’re not looking outside enough so they can learn how to do it even better or make themself better. So I think it can definitely be taught, but obviously if you’re naturally curious, you have a big advantage.

And I really believe the most successful leaders in the world that I write about in this book, and there are over 80 people that we share stories with in this book, these people are very curious. They have this trait. So if you need any incentive to learn how to be a better learner, know that it’s a huge advantage for all the people that have been able to climb up to the top in almost any industry or vocation.

Let’s say you’re middle management and you’ve been assigned a project that you’re supposed to take and drive action on. I would recommend that whatever you’re working on that you ask yourself, “Where can I get know-how that will accelerate my learning and therefore get us to the best possible result?”

So let’s say you’re working on new products – I would really look at what everybody else is doing in the world of new products and say, “Okay…” Let’s say you’re at Taco Bell and you really admire what Adobe’s doing, okay? I would get a hold of that middle manager in Adobe that’s working on new products and say, “Hey, let’s share some information together” and I’d go learn from them.

I would try to get a know-how map and I’d identify every place where I could potentially go to build my know-how and my learning on whatever I’m working on. And I would start reading the book that I needed to read, going to see another company that I need to see, go talk to a leader that I admire, but I would figure out who are the people, who are companies, who are the authors that I can learn from that will help me get to where I need to go?

CURT NICKISCH: David, you’ve provided a lot of insights here into becoming a better learner and using that to accelerate your career. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and your expertise with our audience – sure appreciate it.

DAVID NOVAK: Curt, I’ve enjoyed it very much. And thank you for the great questions.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s David Novak, the former CEO of Yum! Brands and the author of the new book, How Leaders Learn: Master The Habits of the World’s Most Successful People.

And we have more for you to learn from. Nearly 1,000 episodes of IdeaCast and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find those at or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox, and senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back on Thursday for our tech series and with a regular episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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