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How McDonald’s Don Thompson could have saved his job

February 10, 2015, 4:38 PM UTC
Key Speakers At The Year Ahead: 2014 Conference
Don Thompson, president and chief executive officer of McDonald's Corp., speaks at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2014 conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. McDonalds is "nowhere near saturation," testing mobile payment in some areas, Thompson said. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, Don Thompson announced he would retire as McDonald’s president and CEO after less than three years at the helm. Thompson is being blamed for almost all of the fast-food chain’s troubles: confusing the menu; not letting customers customize enough; not riding the healthy food trend; undermining children’s well-being; flip-flopping on America’s minimum wage debate; adding products that extended wait times; food safety scares abroad, declines in same-store sales.

And the Sony (SNE) hack. Okay, not the hack.

In all seriousness, however, as investors, analysts and pundits are expected to eventually line up to scrutinize moves by his successor, Steve Easterbrook, it’s a good time to remember that McDonald’s (MCD) is a lot bigger than Thompson, and a lot bigger than Easterbrook. The chain employs more than 1.5 million employees in about 120 countries. In its mission statement, the first words in the company’s plan to provide “an exceptional customer experience” is ‘people.’ That includes employees, who have the lead role in achieving McDonald’s mission and Thompson should have given his employees more tools to do just that.

Here’s what I, as President and Co-Chairman of a management consulting firm, always want to ask ousted CEOs like Thompson: What if you had focused on your people by using, as your governing principle, what I call the ‘success triangle,’ which asks whether a company has a clear vision that employees are capable of achieving. If not, it would be wise to ask why and how can a leader make them capable?

It appears Thompson did not take these measures. Let me explain.

Most companies work hard to successfully articulate a clear mission. McDonald’s mission is as clear as a bell, but if I were a McDonald’s employee, I would probably also wonder exactly what that mission means for my job? When employees are asked to alter a process, raise their performance, or deliver an improvement, you can incentivize them all you like, but the needle won’t move unless you articulate the precise change you desire at the granular level for each employee.

How can managers do that? For starters, they must let employee know what they are doing right that they need to do more of; what they are doing wrong that they need to change; what they are doing too much of that they should be doing less of. That’s it. Those are the only levers employees have to pull to meet management’s objectives. Training is also essential, but does it make employees capable? No, it just shows them how to follow processes. It does not give them the time or resources to change their behaviors. Lacking those things, training has an immediate impact but it’s unsustainable. Weeks or months later, you’ll hear managers fretting, They know what to do, so why aren’t they doing it?’

It’s reasonable to question whether the success triangle may be more difficult to embed in a business like McDonald’s that is heavily dependent on its franchises. I would say no. Independent franchisees are just another constituency of leaders that a CEO must hold accountable to minimum, non-negotiable corporate standards. When that happens, the franchisee’s employees are in turn motivated to achieve the CEO’s vision and capable of doing so.

I’m not a McDonald’s insider, but if Thompson didn’t use clear, capable and motivated thinking to diagnose his company’s product and efficiency worries and pass the importance of those traits onto his employees, then it’s time for a new leader to step in so McDonald’s can truly get behind their slogan, “I’m lovin’ it.”

Edward G. Brown is the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had and co-founder of Cohen Brown Management Group.