Making LeadershipWork If I am the smartest person in the room, I am doomed as a leader, because a leader needs other people. I don’t need other people if I am the smartest person in the room. The effect that I desire as a leader is when I am not present and they are implementing. There is a real art to bonding with another person in a moment where you feel like you are both part of something bigger; then that person will implement well in your absence, better than I would.The people out in the stores of Dollar General understood retailing a lot better than I did as CEO.They understood the customer better. We might create a grand program in corporate that wouldn’t resonate with the customer, never understanding why unless the employees and our customers explained it to us so that we could undo it or tweak it to make it work.The problem-solving genius exists alongside the problem.The people who are in the midst of the problem are often the best ones to tell you what is wrong. My dad, founder of our company, was from the old generation of management. When something went wrong he wanted to know who did it. But there is never one single person who was responsible. We don’t ask who did it. We ask what happened and who needs help to fix it. You can talk about the various persons who were involved, but focus on what happened, not who did it. It’s a very subtle change of focus that is powerful in its effect. Focus blame away from the person and to the true gap, what happened, and how we can all come together. There can be some major development and learning from that mistake, but first you have to get over the all- too-human tendency of guilt and blame so that you can get on with the good stuff. Our first step in strategic planning wasn’t mission; it was our values and looking at the statement by which we run the company.One value that we were most proud of was that we believe in developing human potential in an atmosphere free of guilt or blame, where performance gaps are acknowledged and processed in a way that helps individuals and teams learn and develop and grow. We acknowledge that a blame-free environment is an ideal that is hard to attain, but we work hard to have that environment in our company.
We got there in two steps. The first step was the value statement.Then, over the next three years in between planning cycles, a lot of people were having issues and, when we tried to discipline them, they pointed out that this is the guilt-free environment. So, we had to say we believe in the guilt-free environment, but we also believe in acknowledging problems when they occur in a way that can help us to get on with human development. We were too naive when we started, and it was getting thrown back too much. We are confused about what is little and what is big in leadership. At the end of one leadership meeting, we went around the table talking about what we’d discovered. One person said he had been with this company for 13 years, and this was why: 12 years before while he was unloading a truck in the warehouse, I came through. I asked him how he was and I actually waited for his answer. That’s why he’s still here. How important is it in the grand scheme of things that one person asked another how he was and paused to hear the answer? To him, it defined his commitment to the organization because the guy who was supposedly the top guy in the company actually wanted to know how the guy with the entry-level job in the warehouse was. Doesn’t that make this an organization that I want to be a part of and stay with? I’m not perfect. I’m sure there are times when I asked someone how they were and didn’t wait for the answer, but this time I did. I was always moving fast, but for some reason God helped me to pause in my question to that man unloading the truck. I go through life preaching to myself and if anyone else wants to listen, they are welcome. Cal Turner, Jr. is Chairman of the Cal Turner Family Foundation and former Chairman and CEO of Dollar General, succeeded his father in 1988 in the family business founded in 1939. At his 2003 retirement, Dollar General had more than 6,000 stores in 27 states, with annual sales of $6 billion. Cal has served on the boards of many organizations including Easter Seal Society of Tennessee, Inc., Fisk University, PENCIL Foundation, and YMCA of Middle Tennessee. He mentors and guides corporate leaders through the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in Professions at Vanderbilt University.