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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 Cathy Green Burns, the former president of Food Lion.

I like Cathy Green Burns a lot. I think she's smart. I think she's funny. I think she's compassionate. And I think she is one of the people in the retailing business - if I wanted to be a retailer and wanted to work for someone other than myself - that I actually could work for.

One of the things that I think Cathy shares with many of the other people who have participated in this series of interviews is a sense that ultimately, she is not the story - she's willing to share her feelings about leadership and details about how and why she thinks and acts, but in the end, she knows it is about the people on the front lines. Which is not as common in the retail business as one would like to think.



The MNB Interview...

What's the most important thing you've learned in your career?

Cathy Green Burns:
The power of unleashing the best in others by encouraging them to believe in themselves and take personal risks. I have had the privilege to lead and learn from many great people. By creating an environment of trust, collaboration and accountability, I have found that it is incredibly rewarding to watch people grow and perform at levels beyond their own expectations. Personally, I have experienced tremendous growth when I was bold and courageous.

What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?

Cathy Green Burns:
Early on in my career, I would wait too long to address conflict.  After I collected plenty of data to support my position, I would hit the topic head-on.  Instead of addressing the situation when it was a "spark", I would wait until a bonfire erupted which, obviously, was not healthy.

After the first bonfire, I adopted a principle that if I was anxious about something I was going to talk about it and address it immediately.  Not only was it more efficient and effective, everyone always knows exactly where they stand and there are no surprises.  It is much easier to put out a spark.

What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?

Cathy Green Burns:
I work hard at keeping balanced by tending to my mind, body and spirit. I connect weekly with business leaders that keep me challenged and stimulated. I select leadership books that stretch my thinking. I find a varied exercise program is great for motivation.  From cycling to step class to yoga, I try to change my routine up.  At dinner, finding out everyone's high and low of the day is a daily ritual.  Selfishly it allows me to hear details of their day beyond "yes and no" answers.  Lastly, there is nothing better than tucking the girls in at night, telling them they are best and listening to their prayers.

What is the most irreplaceable or essential piece of technology you own, and why?

Cathy Green Burns:
My iPhone – access to anything, anyone, anytime.

What is your favorite movie (and is there a business lesson in it)?

Cathy Green Burns:
Remember the Titans. For me, the business lesson is to never give up even in the face of adversity.  When the stakes are high and/or when the choices impact the customer, be bold. In addition, good prevails.

Content Guy's Note: Sports movies are always a great source of inspiration, in life and in business. When I read Cathy's answer, I immediately went online to check out some scenes from her movie choice ... and if you'd like to watch what I did, click here.

Who has been the most influential person in your business life, and why?

Cathy Green Burns:
  Beyond my parents, the person who most influenced my business life was Ron Hodge (former CEO of Hannaford and Delhaize America). Ron is the model of humility, trusts people to make the call, supports risk-taking, and is a strong advocate for “investing to grow” and brand positioning. He provided guidance when I wanted it and wisdom when I needed it…..and he still does.

Keenest insight (so far) from your life and/or career?

Cathy Green Burns:
All good leaders understand people, care about them, and know how to connect with them. You may meet someone who connects well with people who is not a good leader but you rarely meet a great leader who is not good at connecting with people. It matters.

Cathy Green Burns: When it comes to food, what is your greatest pleasure and your greatest weakness?Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.  I make sure I have one piece, in some form, everyday.

Most memorable meal?  Where & what & why?

Cathy Green Burns:
I had the honor of accepting the ESGR’s Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award in Washington, DC. It is the highest recognition given by the U.S. Government to an employer for their outstanding support of employees serving in the Guard and Reserve. One of our store managers shared an emotional reflection on behalf of all Reservists. Although I do not remember the food, I have never been so proud of, and humbled by, the men and women who serve to protect our freedom.

Favorite place to go to eat/drink, not your home?

Cathy Green Burns:
MoJos on Bald Head Island, NC.  Nothing beats a Friday night meal at Mojos.  The atmosphere is casual, the view of the harbor is incredible and the food is simply delicious.  Bald Head Island is a hidden treasure off the coast of North Carolina (only golf carts, no cars!) and Mojos adds a special tradition for our family.

What is the thing that you haven't yet done that you would most like to do?

Cathy Green Burns:
Two things....hike the Napali Coast in Hawaii and cycle across the Loire Valley in France.  Since we own two bike shops, I think my chances are stronger that I will bike France.  I am hoping my husband will hook me up with a great bike to make it easier!

If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?  (And, if you are so inclined, could you give an example of this quality in practice?)

Cathy Green Burns:
Start with a strong, clear set of core values that guide your decisions and give you strength to lead through adversity. I strive to lead by example by staying connected to the marketplace, customers and associates.

A small example would be the time I would spend monthly connecting with a group of approximately 40 store managers in the back room of a store. No formal agenda but a fantastic opportunity to hear what is on their minds, identifying our gaps, and celebrating successes. I always believe a day at retail is a good-for-your-soul day!


Monday: Neil Golub, executive chairman of the board at Golub Corporation / Price Chopper Supermarkets.

KC's View: