Greg Solomon – MD of McDonalds

Greg Solomon, MD of McDonalds, describes the company as “a family and a family business. Looking outward we want to be talking to a family – a mother, a father, a child – and that’s who we cater for.

We are not just a business that caters for kids. One of our fastest growing markets is the young adults. For us there is a family feeling in this business. It is an open ended learning environment”.

He refers to a three legged stool to describe the business further, which of course means every leg is critical as the chair cannot remain standing without one leg. The first leg is McDonalds Corporation. The second leg is the suppliers. Leg three represents their franchisees. What binds the three legs together is a strong partnership. Solomon explains further that “at McDonalds we do not enter into business contracts with our suppliers; we enter into long term business partnerships with our strategic suppliers. We don’t enter into a small three year agreement with our franchisees; we enter into a long term sustainable business proposition with our franchisees. These are deeply entrenched partnerships where we work hand in hand, and relationships are co-dependent on each other.” 

They own seventy five percent of their properties in SA. So, while some may believe they are actually in the property business, they mostly see themselves as being a people’s business. They are also a learning institution with a Hamburger University that formally trains about two thousand five hundred people. This is a formal learning institution for which Solomon has a much larger vision.

In SA there are currently one hundred and sixty restaurants with over seven thousand five hundred employees between McDonalds and its franchisees. Worldwide there are over 1.4 million employees in one hundred and twenty countries. In short Solomon describes McDonalds SA as being “about partnerships, family and learning”.     

Solomon grew up in Johannesburg and was schooled there as well. He qualified as a Civil Engineer, through Wits Technicon at the time. While working as a civil and structural engineer he came across a McDonalds advert for a construction project manager, as they were entering the country. His wife encouraged him to go for it. He comments: “And so she pushed me as she does so many times. I applied and the rest is history”. He spent six to seven years ultimately leading the construction and development portfolio.

The American CEO at the time called Solomon into his office and explained they had too many expatriates in the business. The plan was to change this over three years and they identified him as one of the future leaders. This resulted in a fast track leadership development programme. He went into Auckland Park McDonalds for a year, learning the trade – cooking, working hand in hand with and understanding the crew – the entry level of the organisation. He later became Director Operations, then Executive Director and finally the CEO. Solomon says: “McDonalds is a very proud business. To lead this business you need to know how to make a hamburger. You need to know where the raw ingredients come from.”  

I like the open identification of Solomon as a future leader of the business, and then the formal exposure across the organisation, to prepare him to be an effective leader. Solomon mentioned that he often ‘counseled’ with the then leader about what the future may hold for him. This process of openly identifying, communicating and fast tracking leaders is not an isolated incident at McDonalds, but an everyday occurrence.

Solomon mentions that overall he was prepared for the current leadership position by way of three elements: 1) education (business and engineering, giving him a great background); 2) experience (the year in a restaurant; two more years in mid management, and all the responsibilities that followed); 3) exposure, which is different from experience. For example, when Solomon gives a talk to MBA students he takes a couple of his managers along, “just to sit in the room, to be exposed to the type of questions they ask me, to the type of individuals I interact with”. The week after our conversation he had to hold a tough conversation with a franchisee in Cape Town and planned on taking one of his managers with him, for exposure.

He adds to the ‘leadership preparation formula’ – “and maybe it is also about failure. I have achieved a lot in my life, but I have also failed in a lot of things. I have learnt from a huge amount of leaders what to do right and what not to do”.   

Because of his own experiences he would consciously move people from one division to the next – marketing to supply chain, or from supply chain to training, and so on.

For Solomon leadership is mainly about influence, influencing other people.

He explains it is about “trust and respect. The latter is about delivering on results, leading from the front, knowledge, skills; it is about show and tell. Your people need to understand they have somebody with the know-how, credibility and the results that they can follow. Trust is about delivering on your promise, integrity, sticking to your word”.

Without wanting to become too mathematical, Solomon uses a formula, which is about giving a person a score out of ten for respect and a score out of ten for trust. You then multiply the two scores with each other. The rule of thumb is that if the leader scores below sixty four (8×8) they don’t really influence followers effectively. This is a high standard, because eight out of ten in each category is the bottom end of the standard.

As a leader you should ask yourself whether your direct reports, your boss, your stakeholders will score you at least eight times eight, or ten times seven? If not there is work to do, because you do not have sufficient influence and you may be depending too much on your position and title to influence.

Solomon also believes leadership is about balancing great results with great loyalty. A leader could be pushing so hard for results that he forgets to work on the loyalty of his people. In other words, one needs to balance results with ensuring that the people have trust and also feel loyal to the leader and the overall goal.

Solomon goes out of his way to build a team that is not a ‘cookie cut’ of himself. He says: “I try to find people that have completely different backgrounds and business philosophies”. For him it is about the leadership team, and he feels “if you are going to hang your hat on just the leader of the organisation, versus the team, you have a problem”. Solomon employs people that are smarter than he is. He believes “a successful leader replaces himself with somebody better”.

He has been working on getting buy-in to the fact that his leaders’ primary team is not their direct reports but the actual leadership team of McDonalds. In essence there is a business goal and this goal needs a HR leader; it needs a supply chain person; and so on.

His approach to leading his team is firstly for him to look four to five years into the future and establishing what is needed to service this picture. The immediate plan for this year is complete, and every team member is fully empowered to run with it. His challenge is to start stretching their thinking around the following year and thereafter. He explains further: “On this year’s plan I don’t see myself as their boss. I see myself as their thought partner and sound board on day to day issues”. He therefore invites his team members to approach him as such, and then allows them to make the decisions.

Solomon spends about forty percent of his time in the field, talking to the people about how the plan is coming to life.

It is no small wonder that McDonald’s South Africa have been awarded the accolade of Best Company to Work For in their category for the previous three years. They also managed to achieve the most profitable three years running in the history of the company locally. This in spite of severe economic pressure locally and internationally. My sense is that great leadership plays a large part in these and other achievements.

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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