How Jerry Wilson balances the art and science of leadership to strengthen Coca-Cola's global McDonald's division Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Jerry S. Wilson gets paid to eat and drink his way around the world. Right now, he may be in Atlanta, but tonight, he could be in Miami. Then he’s flying off to Hong Kong tomorrow and up to Japan just a few days after that. And this is typical for the president of The Coca Cola Co.’s global McDonald’s division, which serves 56 million customers a day throughout 118 countries.

“I spend 70 percent of my time in the market with the customer and with my people,” Wilson says. “In fact, my office is my BlackBerry, if you think about it. The beauty of such a device is you’re always connected, and the sun never sets on my job.”

The problem with being on the road — or in the air — so often is that he has to figure out what’s the most important way to spend his time.

“I think the biggest leadership challenge that certainly I’ve had, and I think a lot of other executives have in this day and time, is you have finite time with infinite ways to spend or invest that time,” Wilson says.

He prefers to focus on the things that will move his division of the $28.9 billion beverage giant forward, such as balancing the art and science of business, developing his people, and setting attainable stretch goals for his employees.

“Your goal is to spend your time in the highest impact zone as often as you can, and generally speaking, that’s going to include other people.”

Here’s how he does it.

Balance art and science

In every business, there is a delicate balance behind its makeup and success.

“The reality of great leadership is it’s a combination of science and art, and knowing when to leverage the science of business with the art of leadership is the real X factor for any leader,” Wilson says.

First, tackle the easy part.

“You start with the science,” he says. “There’s plenty of data on almost any business anywhere. If you don’t have it, Google it. The outside world may be more aware of some of the issues than the inside corporation.”

Wilson enjoys spending time quietly studying different types of reports — consumer, sales, profit analysis — to get a baseline of information, but you also need the art, which is where people come in.

“Go to the point of contact and observe,” he says. “Get out there. Sometimes the data will suggest a situation that, when you observe it, it may take a different texture. Then listen to the people closest to the situation. Then investigate what they’re saying, have great discussion and make great decisions from that.”

You need to ask myriad questions when you’re interacting with your people.

“The very first thing I’m looking for is how are they doing,” he says. “How is this individual doing? How is their professional career progressing? Are they getting the kinds of resources they need to succeed? How is their personal situation? If they’re living overseas, is there any issue we need to be aware of? How is their family?”

Beyond just asking questions, you also need to actually listen to their responses.

“First and foremost, don’t listen in order to provide a rebuttal,” Wilson says. “... If you’re listening to learn, that leads to great questioning because you’re hearing something that will spark a few more questions for greater precision.”

As you listen, make sure you’re thinking like a business owner, even if you’re not. For example, instead of thinking of his business as part of The Coca-Cola Co., Wilson imagines that if his division was just simply Wilson Inc., how would he want things done? Personalizing it helps him make better decisions for Coca-Cola.

“If you think and act like an owner of the business, then you’re going to have a longer-term perspective, you’re going to be concerned about share owners, about the employee base, about quality, about consumer relevance ...” Wilson says. “It’s amazing what great solutions can come from that way of thinking.”

Lastly, you need to make your own observations, as well. Wilson likes to observe the customers in the restaurants to see what’s happening.

“The danger in business today is to take an inside-out approach,” he says. “The winning strategies are much more outside-in. Figure out what the demand or need is for your product or service and then back in to the kind of strategy that will succeed in the market.”

By doing all of these things, you’ll be able to better balance the art of leadership with the science of the hard numbers and data.

“If you look at it from that perspective, you become more of a listening leader, and then when you’re ready to make a decision, you have the science of the information, but you also have the art of the people on the front line that can help you understand any situation better than just the data.”

Develop your people

One of the other things Wilson spends his time doing is focusing on things that help create a solid reputation for his organization.

“Develop a reputation as someone who is focused on people development and leadership development,” Wilson says. “Then you meet people internally over the course of years, and you become a magnet for talent. That’s another objective for any great leader — to develop a reputation that people want to work in that division. They want to work in that company because they know they’re going to get great leadership, great mentoring, honest and fair reviews — all those things that people want from an employer.”

One of the best ways to do this is to open the lines of communication by giving people constructive feedback on their work.

“One of the most valuable things that a leader can do is provide really useful feedback to their people,” Wilson says. “In order to provide useful feedback, they need to be thinking about observing the people doing their work, being in the moment, spending time with their people and the customer talking about their business issues.”

For example, a few years ago, one of Wilson’s managers came to him and told him that one person wasn’t going to make it in their group. Wilson asked why, and he learned it was because the person had presented to a customer group and had failed to hold the group’s attention, but the presenter thought he had done a good job. The manager said he simply didn’t get it, so he wouldn’t make it.

Wilson saw a different situation and suggested he go back to that person and ask why the person thought it went well. He also suggested to ask why there weren’t any questions, then use that to segue into explaining that the audience may have drifted and show him ways he could better hold people’s attention next time.

“Great leaders know how to provide useful feedback in the moment,” Wilson says. “Imagine that individual that the manager would have told, ‘You don’t get it; you’re not going to make it.’ That manager had already written that person off versus taking five minutes and saying, ‘How do you think the meeting went?’”

In order to provide good constructive feedback, you have to have open conversations with people to build a trust with them.

“General

ly speaking, people want to know the truth, but they want to hear the truth in a manner that is encouraging,” Wilson says. “What I have found is there are leaders that have difficulty providing feedback because they are concerned that it will be perceived as negative reinforcement. In reality, you can sit down, and once again, it’s a great questioning opportunity.”

He says to ask what’s working in their role and what’s not working. Ask what areas people have concerns in. By opening up with these questions each time you interact with people, it shows your concern for them, and they will be more likely to listen to constructive criticismin the future if they feel you understandthem and their role.

“The power in identifying a gap in performance isn’t identifying the gap,” Wilson says. “It’s identifying the solution to close the gap, but you have to baseline it around the gap and then work together to find the best way to close the gap.”

Set achievable goals

In the past 10 years, Wilson has met his numbers every single quarter, but that’s not because they were easy to meet. Instead, he takes a unique approach to setting goals that are achievable while also being a stretch for his people. He has what he calls an open-based planning model.

“Before you build your plans going forward, I set a system in place where we actually quantified all of the opportunities in the market that we currently don’t capture,” Wilson says.

That may be selling more to existing customers, expanding the customer base or even expanding brands.

“Use the idea of an opportunity approach to say, ‘What are some of the opportunities that are out there?’” he says. “If we are successful against those, how can we capture those? What are the barriers to capturing those types of growth objectives? Then you say, ‘If we can capture X percent of that goal, what would it look like?’ Then it becomes a quantitative objective that needs to be tested for reason.”

This kind of approach is very empowering to your team.

“It creates a sense of optimism in the employee base, and it allows your people to wrap their minds around going and capturing the opportunity versus comping success,” Wilson says.

He says that oftentimes leaders and their teams will psyche themselves out with the types of goals they set. For example, if you have a business that traditionally grows at 5 percent a year, and then you grow at 6 percent, there is now a goal to grow at 6 percent.

“That’s the wrong way to think,” Wilson says. “Six percent or 5 percent growth is just what you happened to get last year over the prior year, but in terms of the opportunity that’s out there, we have a tremendous ceiling of growth.”

For example, he looks at the number of consumers who go to McDonald’s and don’t order a drink.

“You have 56 million consumers coming in a day, and any percentage of that number is big,” Wilson says. “So how can we create offerings that would meet the needs of these consumers that, for whatever reason, are not buying a beverage versus saying, ‘How do we grow 3 percent?’”

Then you have to look at what are the barriers to getting there, what strategies you can use to eliminate those barriers and what quarterly targets you would need to meet to make it happen.

“Then, bang, there’s a plan,” he says.

“Then we focus on the execution of that plan, which is the other part. In my world, it’s not real unless it’s real in a restaurant. Everything that comes before that is just interesting discussion.”

The key to this entire process being successful goes back to the people and involving them in the process.

“Bring them into the goal-setting process, and you let them identify the opportunities so they can see it and discuss it,” Wilson says. “Then we determine what percentage of this is real.Then we put a stake in the ground, and we go do it. It’s really the idea of getting buy-in the entire way as you create the goals. That’s where the excitement comes in.”

HOW TO REACH: The Coca Cola Co., www.thecoca-colacompany.com