As one of the most inspiring and admired execs in the food industry, Jim Donald, who was named president and COO of Albertsons Cos. on Monday, has enjoyed quite a storied career. The former CEO of Starbucks, Haggen Food & Pharmacy and Extended Stay Hotels, Donald spent four decades watching, listening, learning and executing strategies and lessons from employees and retail icons. Beginning his career in 1971 as a trainee with Publix, followed by a stint at Albertsons, Donald was handpicked by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton to help build its then-fledging grocery operation into its game-changing Supercenter division. Donald subsequently served as president Safeway’s 130-store Maryland-based Eastern division from 1994 to 1996 and joined Pathmark Stores in 1996 as chairman, president and CEO. Renowned for helping struggling companies find their footing, the “Turnaround King” has been recognized as one of the “Top 25 CEOs in the World” by The Best Practice Institute and one of Business Travel News’ “25 Most Influential Business Travel Executives of 2013.”
Meg Major: I’ve long admired your inspired leadership style, approachability and plain-spoken wisdom—particularly as it relates to associate empowerment and corporate cultures built on mutual respect and open communication. What galvanized your philosophy?
Jim Donald: Understanding that to be successful as a company, as a leader, as a father or a husband, the entire group of individuals that you associate with must feel a part of the group. Today, they say millennials want to work “with”—not “for”—people or companies. I’ve found much success in making others successful by communicating, listening and involving every level of an organization. In most brick-and-mortar companies today, 98% of their workforce is on the front line. When 98% of your employee base gets engaged because they work “with” you and not “for” you, action gets generated, revenue grows, shrink reduction occurs and customer service spikes.
MM: One of my favorite memories I recall reporting on from your days at Pathmark was your Turtle Awards, which was predicated on the philosophy that a turtle makes progress only when it sticks its neck out. Please elaborate on the backstory of the program.
JD: Absolutely. The Turtle Awards rewarded people—including hourly workers and cashiers of all ages, genders and ethnicities—for sticking their necks out and taking risks. I developed the program three months into my time at Pathmark, which had just emerged from bankruptcy. People were walking around like deer in the headlights and holding back out of fear of further rocking the boat. At the heart of the program was giving people the freedom to make decisions, to take risks and not be afraid of failure. It was something that was a successful motivator in the 1990s and something I still encourage companies to do in the present day. In fact, the central premise of the Turtle Awards is more important now than ever, because millennials—which are going to be 100% of our workforce in seven years—want to make decisions and want to be able to take risks. So it’s important for corporate leaders and store managers to give employees permission to take risks, think on their feet and, yes, make a few mistakes, which is a proven way to help them learn and move their companies forward.
MM: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given, and by whom?
JD: The best advice I’ve ever been given was actually from two people, first from Sam Walton, who said, “Never be bigger than those on the front lines,” and second, from Bob Miller, current chairman and CEO of Albertsons Cos., who said, “You will always be successful if you don’t mind who gets the credit.”
MM: What’s your favorite book, and why?
JD: “Boys in the Boat”—a combo history/leadership book written by Dan Brown, who’s a fabulous storyteller. My favorite two business books: “Leader Without a Title,” by Robin Sharma (It’s how I roll), and “Give and Take,” by Adam Grant, which is so true: that “givers” are more successful than “takers.”
What is your favorite city in the world? Eastsound, Wash.
Who is your fictional hero? Spider-Man, who got the job done with limited superpowers and overcame a tough childhood to do good!
What is your least favorite business jargon term? “To improve the bottom line, we need to cut costs.”
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Todo esta bien?/todo esta bien! (It’s all good?/it’s all good!) I do love saying it, though.
What is your most prized possession? The relationship with my wife of 35 years.
What is your motto? “Prepare, prepare, prepare.”
Illustration by Olivier Balez