The art to listening: how McDonald’s is cleaning up its image

March 17, 2015, 9:00 AM UTC
Photograph by Kiyoshi Ota — Bloomberg via Getty Images

McDonald’s Corp.’s recent announcement that it would change its U.S. menu by only serving chicken that are not raised with antibiotics is a sign that executives are practicing a treasured skill: the art to listening. The fast-food chain will also offer milk from cows not treated with an artificial growth hormone, an announcement that coincided with Steve Easterbrook’s first week as its chief executive. The move also comes as McDonald’s (MCD) struggles with the perception that its food is unhealthful at a time when more consumers shift toward options they feel are made with natural ingredients.

Strategic decisions, by their very nature, are complex. Having been a CEO of a $12 billion healthcare company, I can imagine all the constituents who must have weighed in on these menu sourcing decisions: McDonald’s supply chain executives, marketing executives, suppliers, franchisees, as well as customers, advocates for healthier eating, and many others. Undoubtedly, there were people who were enthusiastic about the change and those who raised questions, such as how this sourcing would be accomplished across such a mammoth restaurant chain. The company’s announcement, though, highlights the fact that leaders listened to customers and the eating choices that are important to them and their families.

Leaders today are confronted by more “voices” than ever before: customers, team members (as I refer to employees), shareholders, analysts, regulators, policymakers and activists. And let’s not forget about Facebook and the Twitterverse. With so many people talking, CEOs might be tempted to ask themselves: to whom do I have to listen? Despite the temptation to be selective in one’s listening, the answer isn’t to screen out certain feedback or input. The goal is to gain a balance of perspectives to see a bigger, fuller picture when making a decision, rather than relying only on what the CEO knows or the senior team thinks.

Achieving balance is a quality of values-based leadership, which I define by four key principles. The first is self-reflection, which heightens self-awareness and clarifies one’s values and priorities—what matters most. The second: keeping an open mind and welcoming input from a variety of sources. The third principle of true self-confidence acknowledges one’s strengths and accomplishments, while the fourth principle of genuine humility keeps the ego in check and respects everyone. Together, they establish a foundation of values-based leadership that I call becoming one’s “best self.”

Too often, in an attempt to avoid these negative emotions, leaders try to move quickly. Unfortunately, that means they don’t stop to self-reflect and they don’t gather input from others because they consider these activities to be a waste of time. The problem is that when people make quick decisions based on strong opinions and emotions, they usually fail to acknowledge that there are many different perspectives that might very well impact what is the best decision.

That’s not to say decisions can’t or shouldn’t be made expediently and decisively. However, if a decision can be made better, stronger, or more assured by reaching out to more parties, then that’s what a values-based leader does.

For the CEO of any organization, decision-making isn’t about playing favorites or weighing some input more than others. It’s about listening to as many relevant parties as possible, taking it all in, and then making the best decision possible. One group may appear to be favored while another feels excluded. It’s usually impossible to make everybody happy. However, a sincere effort to hear contrary opinions may defuse a contentious situation from escalating into conflict. Sometimes, just being heard helps people make the switch to get on board with a decision—or, at least, stop campaigning against it.

Rather than give in to temptation to listen in or tune out selectively, leaders need to keep their minds and ears open to feedback and opinions from a broad spectrum of stakeholders and interested parties. Leaders may not agree with everything that is being said. But only by listening to input from multiple sources, and knowing what the chorus of “voices” out there is saying about a topic, can they stay grounded in reality and make the best possible decisions.

Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr. is the author of Becoming the Best: Build a World-Class Organization through Values-Based Leadership and From Values to Action: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership. He is a clinical professor of strategy at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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