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Yum! Brands CEO David Novak Extols the Power of Recognition

During Novak's 15-year run as CEO of Yum! Brands, he gained a reputation for using unlikely accolades—rubber chickens and chattering teeth—to galvanize employees.

david-novakIn fact, when Novak was recognized as Chief Executive’s CEO of the Year in 2012, it was in no small part due to his uncanny ability to identify and nurture talent. Now Novak, who stepped into an executive chairman role last year, is embarking on a new venture, one dedicated to spreading the word about the power of personal recognition.

In 2016, Novak launched OGO (O Great One!) Enterprises, which he describes as the “world’s first recognition brand,” dedicated to “getting people everywhere to recognize each other for being great people and for the great things they do every day.”

As part of that mission, Novak recently published O Great One! A Little Story About the Awesome Power of Recognition, a parable that chronicles the journey of Jeff Johnson, a new CEO whose family-owned toy company has fallen on hard times. Struggling to get the business back on track, the CEO protagonist encounters surly factory workers and a dispirited management team.

“The best thing you can do is to create a culture where everybody in the company recognizes each other for good performance. It spreads like wildfire.”

O Great One—which was what Novak’s grandkids called him when he said granddad, grandpa, poppy or the usual names would make him feel old—is meant to address what he sees as a global recognition deficit. “I’ve learned that everywhere I go around the world people crave recognition,” he says. “Sixty percent of employees say that recognition in work matters more than money. So, my question to the world is: Why isn’t recognition used more often?”

The following are excerpts from a recent interview with David Novak on his newest venture.

Why don’t more leaders practice recognition?
There are two big reasons. One is that, unfortunately, bosses think their employees won’t work as hard if they tell them they did a good job. So, in other words, they’re concerned that if you tell somebody they did a great job, people will take the pedal off the metal. It will relieve the pressure of performance, which is crazy because, 40 percent of people say they’d put more energy into work if they were to get recognized. So, it’s a fallacious assumption.

The second reason is that leaders often think if they recognize someone, others will feel left out. What I find is that if you recognize people, it creates a contagious energy that makes other people want to get recognized. The best thing you can do is to create a culture where everybody in the company recognizes each other for good performance. It spreads like wildfire.

Unfortunately, too many leaders run their businesses around the one-tenth of 1% who aren’t going to work that hard or take advantage of the system versus the 99% of the people who go to work every day wanting to do a good job.

Is there any set of circumstances in which recognition simply doesn’t work?
Recognition, by itself, isn’t going to be effective, but recognition that is earned is very effective. You can’t go around and just tell people they’re doing a good job if they’re not doing a good job. Then, people look at it as more of going through the motions versus driving the kind of behaviors that drive performance.


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