Published on: July 2, 2013
Content Guy's Note: "The MNB Interview" is designed to engage with business thought leaders who I like and respect, and who have something to say. It will run each workday from July 1-12, and has a simple format. I posed to each of the interviewees the same 13 questions and requested that they answer at least 10 of them; I told them that their answers could be as short or long as they wished, and as serious or irreverent as they liked. What I was looking for was a window into how they think and feel.
Today's MNB Interview features Dave Dillon, CEO of The Kroger Co.
Forget about Kroger being the nation's largest supermarket chain, with annual sales approaching $100 billion and a strategy that seems to be, in the words of the CEO, both "sustainable and resilient," which would certainly be enough to ask Dave Dillon to be part of this series. I've always just liked him, and not only because he is an MNB reader. I like him because, unlike with a lot of CEOs, there is no sense of drama or self-aggrandizement in his leadership style; he is the kind of person whose picture should appear in the dictionary next to the word "decent." And I mean that as the highest compliment...
The MNB Interview...
What's the most important thing you've learned in your career?
Dave Dillon: As individuals, we are generally not able to see ourselves the way we really are and need to rely upon our friends (both at work and outside of work) to be a mirror, giving us that vision. Developing the capacity to be open and receive feedback and do something with it can be an important learning for all of us.
What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?
Dave Dillon: Over 30 years ago, I was failing in my first really significant merchandising job. To make matters worse, I did not even realize that I was under-equipped for the role. I was saved by Chuck Fry, Founder of Fry’s Food Stores, who took me under his wing, taught me the skills I needed to know in a very intense process – taking about a year and a half. Chuck not only taught me the skills I needed in merchandising at that time, but he also taught me not to be afraid of taking risks and, if you want to make something happen, you actually have to find a way to make it happen. I thank Chuck regularly for his faith in me and for the lessons learned.
What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?
Dave Dillon: I found the most important thing I can do in the organization is to talk to our associates one-on-one or in groups. I regularly look for the opportunity to talk to any of our gathered meetings to help connect the purpose of the meeting and the purpose of individual jobs to the purpose of the Company and indeed the purpose of each of us as individuals.
What is the most irreplaceable or essential piece of technology you own, and why?
Dave Dillon: My iPhone (although I suspect I would feel the same way about an Android phone if I had one) because it is like the Swiss Army knife I had as a kid. It has a knife, a file, a screwdriver, scissors, toothpick and a corkscrew (figuratively speaking of course!).
What is your favorite movie (and is there a business lesson in it)?
Dave Dillon: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – There are many lessons in it. My favorite is when they are about to jump off the ledge over the river and fretting over the fact that Sundance can’t swim and Butch says: “Hell, the fall will probably kill you.” The lesson is to put things in perspective. What’s the worst that can happen when you take the risk?
Content Guy's Note: Great movie, and a great scene ... and you can see it online here.
Kirk or Picard? And why do you prefer one's management/leadership style over the other's?
Dave Dillon: Picard, he is a better listener.
Who has been the most influential person in your business life, and why?
Dave Dillon: Joe Pichler, former Chairman & CEO of The Kroger Co. I worked for Joe either directly or indirectly since 1980, until he retired in 2004. If I had realized that was going to be the case, I would have taken his business class at the University of Kansas where I was student and he was a professor.
Why is a little harder because he taught me so many lessons. Two examples will illustrate:
First, Joe taught the whole organization to be focused on the business model as a flow of cash in and out over time. Internal rate of return and our present value became a regular part of our thought process. There is a reason we nicknamed him “Cash Flow Joe.”
And second, and perhaps more important, Joe believes deeply in people. He believes in giving people an opportunity, in the value of diversity, the value of education, and the value of community. Cincinnati is a terrific illustration. Even ten years after he has retired from Kroger, he is working full-time on reshaping the inner-city.
Keenest insight (so far) from your life and/or career?
Dave Dillon: Happiness is a decision you make.
When it comes to food, what is your greatest pleasure and your greatest weakness?
Dave Dillon: Hamburgers and glazed donuts.
Most memorable meal? Where & what & why?
Dave Dillon: My wife’s chicken tetrazzini – to die for.
Favorite place to go to eat/drink, not your home?
Dave Dillon: Javier’s Restaurant in Dallas, Texas.
What is the thing that you haven't yet done that you would most like to do?
Dave Dillon: Learn to be a really good photographer.
If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?
Dave Dillon: One of the most important aspects is learning to be a good follower. That may seem counter intuitive, but learning to follow teaches you humility, listening skills, thinking skills, and an opportunity to really observe leadership traits in others. Being willing to both follow and lead ends up making you a better leader.
Tomorrow: Glen Terbeek, who spearheaded the SMART STORE project at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and authored "Agentry Agenda: Selling Food in a Frictionless Marketplace."
- KC's View: