A Segment in the Series “Leadership Insights: Interviews with Global Leaders”
in partnership with the Executives’ Club of Chicago
Aylwin Lewis grew up in Houston, Texas, in a modest, working-class household, and has gone on to achieve impressive credentials as a leader in corporate America. He is now Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Potbelly Sandwich Works, a growing network of fast-casual sandwich shops based in Chicago. Under Lewis’ leadership, Potbelly has surged from about 200 restaurant locations to nearly 350 throughout the United States, plus a few in the Middle East. Soon, Lewis will lead Potbelly’s further expansion into Europe.
Before taking on the CEO role at Potbelly, in 2004 Lewis was recruited to take over as CEO of Kmart Holding Corporation, making him at the time the highest ranking African-American executive in the U.S. retail industry. As if that wasn’t enough, his former boss, Edward Lampert, Kmart’s and Sears’ investor chairman, quickly named Lewis CEO and President of Sears Holdings (Kmart’s parent). Sears was then the third largest retailer in the United States, but one struggling mightily to keep customers. It was a daunting assignment, and Lewis left Sears in January 2008 amid the embattled company’s restructuring.
Now he is firmly in command at Potbelly, which he took public a little over a year ago. In total, Lewis has over 29 years of executive and restaurant experience. Before he came to Chicago, from 2000 to 2004, he was President, Chief Multi-Branding and Operating Officer of YUM! Brands – the parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. He was Chief Operating Officer of Pizza Hut from 1996 to 2000, a period which one analyst, alluding to Lewis’ leadership, called “the halcyon Pizza Hut years.”
In addition to his Chairman & CEO roles at Potbelly, Lewis is also a member of the Board of Directors of The Walt Disney Company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, and he currently serves as a trustee of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Lewis sat down with me after a recent presentation to the Executives’ Club of Chicago to share his views on leadership — from the courage and conviction strong leadership requires to the critical role that mentors play. Click the video image above to see our conversation.
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It was a vision to see, a Kingian dream come true: On March 7th, 2015 — 50 years after peaceful protesters trying to cross a bridge in Selma, Ala. were bloodied by billy-club wielding police and choked by tear gas — Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, led a bipartisan, biracial march celebrating the conviction and triumph of those who marched so courageously in 1965 for the right to vote.
The anniversary celebration of that famous 1965 march was a joyous occasion. It commemorated the effort that led to the successful passing of the Voting Rights Act into law. An estimated 40,000 people, mostly African-American, gathered on a sunny, warm day in Selma. Many reportedly lined up as early as 6:30 a.m. to make sure they got a glimpse of the commemorative activities. Proud attendees waved posters of President Obama and Dr. King.
But this was more than a nostalgic celebration of long-ago events. As one journalist wrote, it provided “a moment to measure the country’s far narrower, and yet stubbornly persistent, divide in black-and-white reality.” Amid the recent conflicts in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, NY, Americans are expressing concern over racial discord at a rate nearly unseen since the 1960s. (more…)
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Mr. Ashford is President of Holland America, an award-winning cruise line with a fleet of 15 premium vessels carrying approximately 850,000 guests annually to all seven of the globe’s continents. The Holland America line is a division of Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise ship enterprise. Ashford is an executive on a meteoric rise, who has become an expert on talent. Prior to joining Holland America, he served as Coca-Cola’s Group Director of Human Resources for Eurasia and Africa, Chief Human Resources and Communications Officer for Marsh & McLennan Cos., and President of Mercer consulting’s Talent Business Segment. The following is an excerpt from Ashford’s book expressing the urgent need to close the talent gap by embracing what he calls a “new human ecosystem.”
“Talentism” is a term I first heard used by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic forum; it refers to the notion that human capital fundamentally drives growth for both business and societies. The old model of capitalism, in which capital was the most valued and necessary resource for businesses, is being replaced with talentism, with talent being the critical factor driving growth for both business and societies.
In the past, the most critical resource for businesses was financial capital. An entrepreneur could not start a factory or a steel mill without large amounts of capital to buy the equipment and pay for the facility. But in today’s economy, human capital — not equipment or the money to buy it — is the critical resource. Talentism therefore can be viewed as supplanting capitalism. People and the skills that they bring are the critical resources, and critical talent is getting harder and harder to come by.
Today, more than one-third of employers worldwide cannot fill all available jobs. Yet, an estimated 202 million eligible workers are unemployed across the globe. (more…)
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Wilfred J. “Will” Lucas is President of the W. Lucas Group, Inc., a leadership development and executive coaching firm based in the Chicago area. Previously, he spent nearly 25 years working in various corporate executive positions, including leadership positions as divisional general manager of Allegiance Healthcare, a unit of Cardinal Health, and also corporate staff leadership roles at Baxter Healthcare. As a business coach, Lucas works with high potential middle managers and senior leaders in a cross section of industries. He has engaged with numerous clients — at companies from BMO Harris Bank to Blue Cross Blue Shield — to help them leverage their individual gifts to achieve personal and company goals. The strategic “chalk talks” Lucas will present here are designed to help readers develop the leadership skills which can propel them to the next level.
By Will Lucas
A young client of mine who works as a financial analyst in a large company, recently complained to me about how he was having trouble influencing some of his constituents in the business. His role is to be a business partner to the marketing managers responsible for building product and creating marketing strategies for the company’s product lines. These marketing managers do not report directly to my client. He is not their boss. His role is to help them manage overall profitability of the product line, and his challenge has been to influence his marketing colleagues – to get them to accept his recommendations – even if they don’t have to listen to him.
It’s a difficult challenge that many professionals face, but they don’t always handle it as deftly as they should. Consider what happened with my client: The marketing manager proposed a pricing strategy that would have produced profit on paper, but according to my client’s analysis it would not have been accepted in a highly competitive market place. So, my client raised strong objections. The problem is that he did it in an open meeting with the manager’s peers and supervisor present.
For everybody to hear, my client contradicted the marketing manager. He told everyone that the profit forecast made by the marketing manager was not very realistic. This caught the manager off guard. He likely felt embarrassed and perhaps betrayed. So he defended himself, declaring that despite my client’s opinion, he did not have a final say in the matter. My client may have appeared smart, but the move defeated his purpose by straining a relationship he had hoped to bolster.
Here’s the lesson learned: (more…)
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Martin “Marty” H. Singer is Chairman and CEO of PCTEL, which develops antenna, scanning and other solutions for wireless networks. Before PCTEL, Singer served as President and CEO of SAFCO Technologies, another wireless communications company. He was also a Vice President and General Manager at Motorola and held senior management and technical positions at Tellabs, AT&T and Bell Labs. With a Vanderbilt Ph.D in experimental psychology, Singer is a trained thinker. He shares this space with other distinguished executive thinkers, who offer occasional musings from “the corner office.”
By Marty Singer
About 18 years ago, a young Venezuelan-born engineer – let’s call him Fred – approached me. He had been working for our Chicago-based company for about a year and he had bad news. His college bachelor’s degree from Penn State had been funded by the Venezuelan government; and, unless he returned to Venezuela he needed to repay $40,000. He wanted to stay in the U.S., but he had no choice but to give me notice that he would be resigning his position.
After a brief discussion with our parent company and my CFO, we offered to pay off the loan in return for a commitment that Fred would work for us for four years and reimburse us if he left early. Indeed, I left the company before Fred. After his four years, though, he joined the team at my current company, PCTEL, where he is one of our most highly-valued associates.
Our policy now is to approach the top, young performers at the company and inquire about their college loans and continuing debt. (more…)
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What’s missing from this image of four young white men and one Pakistani-American? Well, women for one thing. Blacks too. Not to mention Hispanics. But the sad truth is, the promo pic for HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” the sitcom about a handful of engineers who write code for a killer app and launch a startup company in the heart of techdom, is actually true to life.
By now, you’ve likely heard about the problem: Internet companies in Silicon Valley, and now I’m referring to the region in northern California where many of the world’s most innovative and dominant tech companies call headquarters, are remarkably bereft of ethnic and gender diversity. At LinkedIn, for instance, just 2% of the work force is black, and 4% is Hispanic. Google is 70% male, with 91% either white or Asian. The percentages at Facebook and Apple are similar. When it comes to executive leadership positions or representatives on boards of directors, the figures get far worse.
With a record of inclusion this shabby, the time has come for action. (more…)
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Robert “Bob” Mariano is Chairman and CEO of Roundy’s, a $4 billion grocery retailer with more than 165 stores throughout the Midwest – including brands such as Pick ’n Save, Copps, and most recently, Mariano’s. The Mariano’s brand, a compelling hybrid that is part Euro Café and part specialty foods grocer, has been taking the Chicago market by storm. It’s a big bet, intended to add a much needed spark to a struggling Roundy’s group of stores. While big-box grocers such as Safeway’s Dominick’s have exited Chicago’s ultra competitive market, Mariano has been growing his new concept at a swift pace. The plan is to defy the odds and grow Mariano’s stores beyond Chicago to other states across the nation.
Over the summer, the straight-talking native Chicagoan paused from his busy rounds to share some impressively candid answers to questions about his growth plan, his approach to customer service and technology. Here are excerpts from our conversation at the Metropolitan Club of Chicago:
1. You are pursuing a rather aggressive growth plan with Mariano’s at a time when a lot of food retailers aren’t growing. So why are you being so aggressive?
Mariano: Well, carpe diem, you have to seize the day. There’s an opportunity in the Chicago market now, and we are working very hard to accomplish all that we want to accomplish. We added 13 stores this year, it’s about 6,000 employees. You have to turn your hearing aid off to Wall Street. The Street wants results in 13 weeks. But you build a business over a long period of time. I submit that if somebody came up with the idea of the 3M Corporation today, it would never be what it is today. Corporations from years ago took time, they had patience, they even made mistakes. You have to have a level of understanding of what the Street is looking for, but at the same time you have to keep your eye on the long-term value. I’ll admit, it does take a bullet-proof vest sometimes.
2. As a leader you have to be able to look out into the horizon. What is your vision for your stores?
Mariano: We’ve got to be totally differentiated from other retailers. I don’t want to look like Walmart, taste like Walmart, feel like Walmart. Do I want to be aware of what they do? Yes. But I don’t want to do anything like them. (more…)
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For a black man in corporate America, it takes courage to stand up to your boss when it comes to issues of race. But that’s exactly what Bernard Tyson did. During one of those somewhat awkward discussions about diversity with a high-ranking, white senior executive at Kaiser Permanente, the executive told Tyson, “I don’t see you as a black man. I see you as a smart individual.” Sounds reasonable enough. But that didn’t sit well with Tyson, then an up-and-coming leader at Kaiser. He was pleased this Kaiser heavyweight recognized his intelligence, but he was disappointed the senior leader dismissed an essential part of who Tyson is: a black man. “I was insulted,” Tyson recalls. “He insulted my heritage.”
In Tyson’s mind, he is unabashedly black, and proud of an African-American culture that, in large part, shapes how he thinks, sees the world, and relates to other people. To disregard that, however benign the intention, is the sort of color blindness that hurts corporations. So, Tyson didn’t hold his tongue. “Wait,” he said. “I am a black man!” He paused and explained to this high-ranking executive that it was important to see the value Tyson’s race and heritage bring to the workplace—the value all black employees bring, precisely because the lens of race gives them a different perspective.
Tyson’s bold stand was risky, but it paid off. In fact, the conversation led to an all-day retreat with a diversity facilitator, who helped Kaiser managers learn to leverage the totality of people on their teams. Today, almost 10 years after that conversation, Tyson has risen to Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente. The $56 billion health care provider employs a diverse workforce of 175,000, nearly 60% of which are ethnic minorities and 13% are African American. About 42% of the members of the leadership team are non-white and 25% are African American. Seventeen percent of the leadership team is made up of women.
But those numbers are rare in corporate America. Kaiser is technically a member-owned non-profit, but compares in size to a Fortune 100 company. In that sphere, Tyson is one of just five black CEOs. Worse, there are fewer African American, Latino, and Asian American CEOs leading major companies than there were back in 2007. (more…)
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By Kacper Szumiec
Recently, the hard drive on my HP Envy DV6 crashed during what should have been a routine HP software update. But after less than two years of ownership, the computer simply froze up entirely. Every piece of data stored on the hard drive got erased. Customer service was sympathetic and pleasant, but the best they could do was mail me a disk to refresh the drive to its original store-bought status. Any personal data that I didn’t save to the Google cloud was lost forever!
That frustrating experience is why I think HP’s decision to spin off the PC business into a separate company is a good thing. The Silicon Valley computer conglomerate is joining a growing list of companies splitting up in order to produce better products for their customers and to adapt to an evolving marketplace. On October 6, 2014, HP Chairman and CEO Meg Whitman announced a plan to divide the company into what she expects will be two separate Fortune 50 companies. The Printing and Personal Systems division (PCs and tablets) is set to become HP Inc, and the server, storage, networking, services and software units will combine into Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE).
This move will allow HP–whose sales slumped 2.5% from the year prior to $28.4 billion in the fourth quarter reported Nov. 25th–to become more flexible and keep up with competitors such as Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba on the PC side and with the likes of IBM on the enterprise services side. HP has been losing ground to all of those players in recent quarters. The spin-off process is estimated to take until next October, when Whitman would become CEO of HPE and non-executive chairman at HP Inc. (more…)
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By Billy Dexter
The old adage, “My worst day on the golf course still beats my best day in the office,” adorns many a wall in business centers around the country. The opportunity to spend four to five hours outdoors on a beautiful and well-manicured golf course enjoying the great weather, your favorite beverage and a group of friends, colleagues or clients is something many executives daydream about and try to make happen weekly during the golf season. For others, hitting the green is something to be dreaded, because they fear embarrassing themselves with their lack of golf skills and lack of knowledge about the language or etiquette of the game.
Playing a round of golf is often a better setting than a power lunch or boardroom meeting to make great connections. Executives play golf for professional and personal advancement. Golf is more than just a game; it is a skill that any professional person looking to advance his or her career should learn. Golf provides you with an opportunity to get to know people and business associates in a more leisurely way. (more…)
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