Ex-Yum Brands CEO: How active learning took me from trailer parks to the helm of a $32 billion company

9 Min Read

David Novak

In my late 30s, I lobbied to become Chief Operating Officer of Pepsi’s beverage division in the East – and I got the job. I was a bit young for the role, but I had a bigger hurdle to overcome: I had almost no operational experience. My career up to that point had been in marketing. I had convinced the CEO and chairman to take a chance on me by making them a risky offer. If I couldn’t prove myself within six months, they could fire or demote me. Neither option would help my career.

Why did I feel confident enough to take the risk?

I knew something essential about myself: I was an active learner. Put me in virtually any role or team, and I looked for good ideas and insights wherever I could find them, and then linked them to action and execution. It’s a habit and mindset I’ve seen in most of the leaders I admire and have learned from throughout my career.

Active learning was crucial for me because I did not have the same formal education as many of my colleagues. I had a journalism degree from a public school and not an Ivy League MBA. And because my father marked latitudes and longitudes with the US Coast and Geodetic Survey team, I had grown up moving from city to city every few months, living in more than 30 trailer parks in 23 states before high school.

That’s where my active learning habits started. When I was in elementary school, my mother worried that moving so often would harm my education. My teacher in Dodge City, Kansas, Mrs. Anschultz, reassured her. “David has lived in more places than most of these kids will visit in a lifetime,” she said. “Your son is getting the best education of anyone I know.”

I learned how to learn: as much as possible, from as many different people as possible, as quickly as possible. I learned that you never know where the next important idea might come from, and that you shouldn’t judge people or the value of their insights based on their background.

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By being an active learner, I’ve built a reputation for solving big problems and transforming teams and brands. It’s how I succeeded as COO that led me to my eventual role as CEO of Yum Brands. For example, during my 17-year tenure, I helped grow Yum’s market cap from $8 billion to $32 billion. And that’s how I make a positive difference in people’s lives today.

I developed the essential discipline of learning from everyone, every experience, and every new environment that had something valuable to offer.

For example, the first thing I did in my new role as COO was to tour our bottling plants. I knew that there I would learn the root causes of our major problems and the best solutions. However, I didn’t go to the managers. I would get up at 5am and talk to the route salespeople, sometimes riding along to meet our customers. I spent hours with people working on the lines and in the warehouses. “What should we do better?” I have asked. “What do we have right?” I heard our predictions were wrong. We were constantly running out of stock. We couldn’t get the product out of the warehouse fast enough. And morale was low. When I questioned the factory managers, they said, “How did you find out about this so quickly?”

I have asked. I observed. I paid attention to the ideas and lessons offered. This discipline, which I applied from my early days as a newcomer to marketing, has helped me get up to speed faster in every role so I could make a positive impact faster. It had a major impact on my career trajectory.

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One danger of leadership is that as you move up the ranks, you can lose touch with reality, let your ego get the better of you, and stop listening. Given what sometimes felt like my lack of pedigree, I could have fallen into that trap. But I saw such leaders and how it affected their teams and their results, so I worked steadily to develop and maintain an open, curious, and humble mind.

I learned to ask better questions that could help me understand the fundamentals, see the world as it really was, expand our options, and get clear on the right action. For example, if I was concerned that we would stagnate or miss an opportunity, I would ask, “If a new top guy came in and took over, what would they do?” I would ask my team “what could be we do” instead of “what should we do” to broaden their thinking. In difficult situations with other teams or organizations, I would ask, “What would be possible if we first increased trust?” We were constantly assessing ourselves against our competitors and asking ourselves, “What can we learn from them about how to win?” These types of questions increased the flow of great ideas in my teams.

For example, I was hired to lead marketing for Pizza Hut, then owned by PepsiCo, about a decade before my COO gig started. Pizza Hut’s numbers needed help, so one question we asked was, “How can we get weekday volumes much closer to weekend volumes?” It led to a number of successful ideas from the team, especially the Kids’ Night on Tuesday. Kids received a free personal pan pizza and a small party pack with their regular pizza order, giving us weekend volumes.

Career step by step, I learned by doing the things that needed to be done or that could make the biggest difference, such as tackling new challenges, doing the hard thing or doing the right thing. When we learn by doing, we discover the insights that come from action. Two habits I became known for were pursuing joy and recognizing the team members who contributed to our success.

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We learn more when we feel positive emotions, and I have consistently made career decisions that allowed me to do work I loved, with people I loved, to get great results and have fun doing it. A few years after I was COO, when I was president of KFC, I was offered the role of president of Frito Lay, which was a great opportunity. However, I turned it down because I had discovered how much I loved the restaurant industry. And ultimately, that decision led to the opportunity to lead Yum.

At Yum, we have developed a culture of recognition from the start. This allowed us to identify the behaviors that would lead to our success, hunt for those behaviors in our teams, highlight them across the company, and make people feel like their contributions mattered and were valued. It’s what made us famous, and I attribute much of our incredible growth and success to what we learned from our committed team members as a result.

Here’s the lesson I ultimately learned as my career progressed: Active learning is the foundation of virtually every other important leadership habit. When you learn with purpose and with an eye to making a positive difference, the result is greater possibilities, for you and the people and teams around you.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Fortune.

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