David Novak's Book Promises to Be Pretty Candid, and It Is -- Well, Sort Of

Bookstore Review: 'The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons Learned from the Trailer Park to the Corner Office'

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From its title, "The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons Learned from the Trailer Park to the Corner Office," you'd expect a pretty frank book from a regular guy who just happens to run a company with 1 million employees, a $2 billion marketing budget and nearly $10 billion in revenue.

"The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons Learned From the Trailer Park to the Corner Office," by David Novak.

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And for the most part, you'd be right. While a lot of business-book authors write in the hypothetical, to his credit, Yum Brands CEO David Novak lays out some real-life examples and has the guts to talk about not just his successes but also his mistakes. This is the guy, after all, who didn't just bring us the Meat Lover's Pizza. He also brought us Crystal Pepsi.

Here, Mr. Novak is at his best, owning up honestly to the failing behind that clear cola: He didn't want to hear why it might not work. "I was so caught up in my own convictions and so uninterested in having them challenged, I was like a heat-seeking missile that had already been launched," he writes.

Lesson learned.

Mr. Novak is also refreshingly candid in giving the inside story of how he tried -- and ultimately failed -- to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to allow Pepsi to go ahead with a Super Bowl promotion asking consumers to call in for free Diet Pepsi ("You got the right one, baby, uh huh") because the commission worried the call volume would swamp the country's telecommunication system. A story about a movie tie-in gone wrong with "Back to the Future II" also serves to remind that the occupants of the C-suite are as human as the rest of us.

But a few learn-from-my-mistakes examples aside, the book for the most part accentuates the positive. Mr. Novak is definitely a glass-half-full kind of CEO. A constant theme is rewarding and celebrating employees. We're not just talking financial rewards. We're talking brass bands being sent to airports to meet employees and financial analysts being coaxed into doing the Yum company cheer. Yes, Yum actually has its own cheer.

Mr. Novak also makes a big deal of decrying "bigcompanyitis" or bureaucracy. "My antidote to bigcompanyitis is shared knowledge and open communications," he writes. And he does impart some illuminating bits of wisdom from some bona fide business giants, among them Warren Buffett, Jeffrey Immelt, Herb Kelleher and Howard Schultz.

But for all the plain speak, there are times he seems mired in process and acronyms such as CHAMPS (cleanliness, hospitality, accuracy, product quality and speed with service); Dynasty Drivers; mission statements; and founding truths. The company's mantra -- "to put a yum on consumers' faces around the world" -- is delivered with all the religious fervor of a tent-revival meeting.

And for all his candor, Mr. Novak glosses over the biggest threat to fast food today, rising obesity rates, with about a page of what appears to be sanitized PR speak about choice and responsibility. The reader could have garnered far more from personal advice on what to do when the food police -- or any critic for that matter -- comes calling.

Still, Mr. Novak has a knack for teaching and does so in an engaging manner. If you are a fan of managing via continuous awards, this is definitely the book for you. But even if you're a bit more cynical, there's still plenty of takeaway from the trailer park.

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