Former Dollar General CEO Cal Turner, Jr. Shares Leadership Advice

cal turnerCal Turner, Jr.’s values-based, people-oriented, and pragmatic leadership style helped take his family business, Dollar General, to the next level. He took over as president of the three-generation-run family business in 1977 and served as chairman and CEO until he retired in 2003.

In his new book out today, “My Father’s Business: The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General into a Billion-Dollar Company” (Hachette/Center Street), Turner chronicles stories of three generations Dollar General’s leadership, including how his grandfather turned a third-grade education into a recipe for success, and how his driven father created the game-changing and wildly successful dollar price point strategy.

“I consider myself the benefactor of great mentoring and this book is my attempt to mentor the reader,” Turner told Chief Executive. Turner talked about that mentoring, how his leadership style evolved over the years and why listening is such an important skill for a CEO. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: What were some of the most important lessons that you learned from your grandfather and your father that prepared you to be a successful CEO at Dollar General?

A: My grandfather, who only had a 3rd grade education, had two guiding principles. Number one was everybody he met would be smarter than he. He should therefore learn something from everybody. He cast himself to learn something from everybody he met and he believed in saving something from each paycheck. So, it didn’t matter so much as the regularity of saving something. I learned that from him. From my father, I learned to pay attention to the customer and that’s pretty strong guiding principle for any CEO. And my father had, of course, the second concern for the company family, the employees.

Business to him was a family enterprise. He began helping his father after my father’s education exceeded the 3rd grade. So, he was very early into the business and do not have a separate business from family. And it helped me to really understand the job of CEO. So, they jointly founded the company, and I would say that was at the heart of each.

“A good CEO, in my opinion, gives his or her job to the whole organization and brings them into the CEO agenda.”

Q: Tell me a little about some of the opportunities and some of the challenges that are tied into taking over the family business. Was there anything that popped up that you didn’t expect once you were actually running the company?

A: Well, perhaps only every day. I am fortunate to have had what I considered to be early CEO training, from my mother. This is my father’s business, but the upbringing that I received in preparation for the business also involved my mother: not to take myself too seriously, to reach out to other people. “You speak first. You engage them first. And by the way, son, for a good boy, you get into a lot of trouble,” which was her way of saying to me, “We want to deal with the problem by taking the person out of the problem.” We could talk about that when we separated the person from the problem, and I applied that principle to my leadership attempt as CEO.

I knew that I was stepping into the role of boss’ son and that I should recognize that with everyone, and laugh at that enough so that everyone would help me to figure out how to be a better CEO, help the boss’ son to figure out how to be a better CEO.

A good CEO, in my opinion, gives his or her job to the whole organization and brings them into the CEO agenda.

Q: How did your leadership style evolve as you led the company through the decades?

A: Well, I had to negotiate with the founder of the company, my father, as to the leadership style that would work in the company. When I first came into the business with him, he said, “Well, son, I think you have to run a business like a church.” And I said, “Oh, no. If we do that, we’re dead. I know that’s not right, daddy.” And then as he saw my attempt to engage with the employees, at one time he said to me, “Son, you’re consulting others too much. It’s not efficient. You know what you want them to do. Tell them what to do and get on with running the business.” Well, we had already grown to a size beyond this leadership style he advocated to be effective.

It was time for the company to undertake strategic planning and there’s a whole story around how I explained to him what it was. And he supported me. He would only have supported his son in the undertaking of strategic planning, but he did that for his son. So, I was positioned to be a CEO and I had the support of the founder who didn’t understand what it meant to be a CEO. And he expected me to learn and do it well. And he was my cheerleader, though he sometimes didn’t understand what I was attempting to do as CEO.

Q: What’s your advice for business leaders who are looking to improve their leadership style?

A: I think you need, as CEO of any organization, to finely hone your ability to listen. And when a CEO has the reputation of being a good listener, anyone who speaks with the CEO wants to think through issues and have something worthwhile to say because, “My golly, that person’s gonna listen.”

And it’s often how you ask questions that helps you to have that reputation of being a good listener. I was once criticized by a new vice president of our company who said, “the way you ask questions encourages them to tell you what’s wrong.” My response was, “Well, tell me how you ask questions?” You don’t want to ask questions that elicit the answer of how wonderful the company is. So, there’s a talent in how you undertake listening to people and they’ll try to give you an answer that’s worth your while in the companies. I think that’s critical. The highest talent of leadership is that communication talent that’s based on solid listening.

The boss needs the reputation of seeking the actionable truth, not what you think the boss should want to hear. It’s not about making the boss feel good. It’s about helping the company to be better.

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