Times have changed since Genghis Khan mastered inclusion. Is it still a cultural tool that will enable you to conquer the known world? We explore the potential power—as well as some of the pitfalls—of trying to create an inclusive culture.
From Cabrini-Green to CEO
The self-help guru Tony Robbins says the quality of your life is a function of the quality of questions you ask yourself. If you ask, “Why am I so fat?” your brain will say, “Because I am stupid and have no willpower.” Robbins’s point is that if you ask a bad question you will get a bad answer and you will live a bad life. But if you ask, “How can I use my vast
resources to get into the best shape of my life?” your brain will say, “I will eat the highest-quality healthy food, work out like a professional athlete, and live to be one hundred and twenty.”
As a society, we often ask, “Why do we have so few African-American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?” And we get answers like “Racism, Jim Crow, slavery, and structural inequality.” Perhaps we should be asking, “How in the world did a black kid from the notorious Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green Gardens become the only African-American CEO of McDonald’s?” If we want to figure out why inclusion hasn’t worked, we ask the former. As we want to figure out how to make inclusion work, we should ask the latter.
Genghis Khan overcame being a black bone and an outcast to conquer much of the world and then remake it in a more egalitarian way. His tactics included killing his half brother Begter and his blood brother Jamuka as well as countless others. That doesn’t work so well in today’s world. Don Thompson rose through a very different approach: he embraced inclusion from the bottom up, forging alliances rather than forcing people to accept them. But once he had power he employed egalitarian techniques remarkably similar to Genghis’s. They both saw people not through the
prism of their rank or color but for who they were and who they could become, if given the opportunity.
At six feet four and 265 pounds, Thompson is physically intimidating. Yet he is so affable and genuine that if you don’t like Don Thompson, you don’t like yourself. His philosophy about people and race reflects his disarming demeanor. As he told me:
There are two ways to approach being the only black guy in the meeting. You can think, “Everyone is looking at me”—and start sliding down the slippery slope: “They don’t like me, they don’t like black people . . .” Or you can think, as I do, “Everyone is looking at me and they have no idea of the experience that is about to hit them in the face called Don Thompson. I’m going to go and talk to them and they will learn about me and I will learn about them and we might even strike up a wonderful friendship that leads to a long-lasting business relationship.”
Unfortunately, a lot of our folks have been brainwashed to approach life in the first way. A meeting is a game. I’m trying to figure you out and you’re trying to figure me out. Can we be partners, can we be assets to each other, or are we going to be enemies? If you start the game thinking everyone in the room is your enemy, you’ve already lost.
You must reset your framework to thinking that you’re bringing the new stuff, the good stuff, the stuff they don’t have.
Thompson was raised by his grandmother, Rosa, in what he affectionately refers to as the Neighborhood, rather than the ’hood. That subtle tweak in terminology pervades Thompson’s outlook—where others see bleakness, he sees opportunity. Cabrini-Green was almost entirely African-American. Its only white residents were a cop, a fireman, and an
insurance salesman. The salesman sold life insurance policies just large enough to cover the cost of a funeral.
When Thompson was ten they moved to Indianapolis. His neighborhood was still African-American, but now his school was mostly white. Rosa taught Thompson how to negotiate these different worlds: she was a manager at Ayr-Way, a midmarket retail chain later acquired by Target. Most of her employees were white, but she treated everyone the same, and they all visited the house. Thompson learned from her that people can be good or bad, but you had to look at them individually to see who was what.
When Thompson entered Purdue University, in 1979, he got a shock. He recalls:
My first night on campus, I am so excited to be at college and a convertible pulls up with three white guys in it and they shout, “Nigger!”
I was stunned, but it was game on. Because there is no way in this world that you are going to deter me from what I am here for. I’ve seen you before. I may not have seen you specifically, but I’ve seen people just like you. But I’ve also seen black folks who tried to hold me around the neck and strangle me to death. Ain’t nothin’ new to me. Stop the car if you want to, all three of you against me. We can do that. Or keep driving and yell what you want to, because that ain’t gonna change nothing.
Nonetheless, he remains grateful for his time at Purdue—and now serves on the university’s board of trustees.
Regardless of where you are from, if you come out of here with this engineering degree, you will have earned it. And that felt equal.
After graduating in 1984, Thompson took an engineering job at Northrop in the Defense Systems Division. Things started poorly there, too:
Bro, I got a desk. My own desk! I go in the first day and what’s taped on the middle of it? A white cross. I scraped it off, balled it up, and put it in the garbage can. And then I put my stuff in my desk. Remembering the words of my grandmother, I ignored the incident and went on to establish some really great relationships.
Thompson spent the next six years at Northrop and moved into management. When the defense sector softened in the late 1980s, he got a call from a recruiter asking him if he wanted to come work at McDonald’s. He naturally assumed it was McDonnell Douglas, the defense contractor:
When I found out it was McDonald’s hamburgers, my response was “No, thank you.” I worked too hard to become an electrical engineer, and my grandmother invested too much in me for me to end up flipping hamburgers. They had a McDonald’s guy call me who had been an engineer at Bell Labs. He said, “What do you have to lose by coming
in to talk?” It was a lesson for me. Now I say, “Don’t turn down anything except your collar.”
Thompson began in the engineering group, helping McDonald’s make the most delicious french fries in the world by optimizing a process known as “the fry curve.” The fry curve is the temperature curve a french fry travels during its cooking cycle. Optimizing the curve is tricky, because the fries enter the hot oil at various temperatures, sometimes lukewarm and sometimes straight from the freezer. Thompson and his team inserted a computer chip into the fryer and programmed it to ensure that McDonald’s fries traveled the optimal curve every time. By excelling at this and other challenges, he became the top engineer in the department. And that nearly led to his leaving the company:
McDonald’s gave the President’s Award every year to the top one percent of performers. I had a great year and everyone in the department kept saying, “Don, there is no way you will not win the President’s Award for engineering.” The day of the awards, I was dressed to a T and cleaner than the board of health. I was so excited. And then they announced that there were no winners in the engineering department. The year before we had had two.
So I went to the pity party. I told myself, “They didn’t want a black person to win. They are not ready for me. I’m going to quit.” The head of the department came up and said, “You’re probably wondering why you didn’t win.” I said, “As a matter of fact I am.” He said, “Because I didn’t put your name in. We had two winners last year.” So now I am not only ready to attend the pity party, I am ready to host it. I call the people I know and tell them I am going to leave. And one of them says, “Before you decide, I want you to talk to Raymond Mines. Just do me a favor and meet him.”
Raymond Mines, who ran a McDonald’s region that covered eight states, from Washington to Michigan, was one of the company’s top two African-American leaders. He was a really rough guy from the neighborhoods in Ohio. When I met with this dude, he said, “Why are you leaving?” I said, “Obviously McDonald’s is not ready for me. They are not ready for the kind of impact I can make.” He said, “So you’re leaving because you didn’t get the award.” He cut right to the chase. Then he said, “The quality management group wants you. They are willing to promote you, so why don’t you go
work for them?” And he added, “And maybe one day you can come work for me.” I thought, That has to be the most arrogant comment I have ever heard. Still, what Raymond said kept bothering me. I was expecting sympathy and all I got from him was strength. It kind of shocked me out of my own b.s. So I took the job.
Thompson was now one of four people working on quality management at McDonald’s. The other three had the plum jobs of writing speeches for the top execs; he drew the short straw of carrying the flip charts to meetings around the globe. But this task enabled him to learn, and then to master, the complex operations of the world’s largest restaurant business. He met nearly every significant group in the company and pieced together the process flows, the subcultures of the different operating units and the relationships between them, the details of the business model—the hidden magic that made the hamburger factory hum.
I got the view from the bottom. We would have objectives to get people to smile more or work harder, but when I got to a restaurant I would find out that someone was working at McDonald’s for eight hours and then going to their other job for eight hours. To be effective at that level, you really had to understand what the employees were going through.
A year in, when Thompson passed Raymond Mines in the hall, Mines cried, “It’s time to pay the piper!” He had created a new position in his region for Thompson: Director of Strategic Planning. Thompson shadowed Mines as he inspected the regions, resolved local issues, and set the plans for each quarter and year. Mines had an unusual management style:
I would get a call on a Thursday and Raymond would say, “Meet me at the airport on Monday.” I would ask, “Where are we going? How long are we going to be there?” and he’d say, “Never mind where we’re going, pack for three days.”
I’d show up at the airport and we’d fly to a region that might be having a dispute with its restaurants and he’d say, “Don, you resolve it.” Now, in the region we covered all the restaurant managers were white, and at first they were like, “Don, get the fuck out of here.” But I worked it and got things resolved and learned everything I had not learned
in the previous job. This job gave me the view from the top.
I was tasked with helping the regional managers improve their business. Well, if I walked in saying that, I’d instantly become the enemy. With Raymond’s coaching, I developed a much more effective approach. I would say, “Look, I am here to help in any way I can. I’m not coming in to tell you what to do. What I can do is help you understand your performance relative to other regions and help you hit your plan.” That approach changed the whole dynamic. If you are the one guy wanting to help, then the regional managers would embrace you. Those white guys taught me all the details of how to be a regional manager, which directly led to my ascent to CEO.
Recognizing that it was the jobs that he took after he decided to quit that prepared him most to be CEO, Thompson drew two lessons on how to succeed as a minority:
- Don’t attend pity parties. And definitely don’t host them
- Don’t turn down anything except your collar. Opportunities can come from anywhere. You ask an electrical engineer to design the thermal system on the french fryer. Then you ask me to carry flip charts to facilitate strategic planning. I had many reasons to refuse all the opportunities that led to me becoming CEO.
His own bumpy rise—where he’d had to make his own way, but also be open to grabbing a helping hand at a crucial juncture—informed his philosophy and his approach to inclusion and diversity as McDonald’s CEO:
The company had a women’s network, an African-American network, a Latino network, and a gay and lesbian network. One day I see a lot of the white guys together, and they said, “Don, we have a question. Who’s thinking about us?” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “You got networks for blacks, Latinos, and gays—but who’s thinking about us? What network do we have?”
A lot of people would have replied, “Are you fucking kidding me?” But Thompson has the rare gift of being able to hear a comment that could easily sound insensitive or self-involved and to perceive the underlying anxiety. He hears the context and the intent that most cannot.
So I said, “You know what? We need a white male network.” They said, “Stop messing with us.” I said, “I’m serious. Are we about true diversity and inclusion or are we about black folks’ rights, Latino rights, and all that?” The point was, Do we want to see people for who they are and get the best of everyone or do we just want to advocate for certain groups over others? So we created the first white male network. They didn’t want to call it that, of course, so we called it the Inclusion Network.
I asked Thompson to elaborate on his unusual approach.
The other networks thought I had lost my mind. They said, “They don’t need a network, they’re the majority.” I said, “Right now, today, they are the majority. I get it. But you have to ask yourself, What do you really stand for? You claim to stand for diversity. Well, that means every idea in this room merits some inclusion. And if that’s the case then we must include white men, too. Either you’re inclusive or you’re not.”
After creating the Inclusion Network, Thompson took all the network leaders on a retreat. On that retreat, he tried to pass on a lesson that Genghis Khan had learned and exploited nearly a thousand years earlier. Don’t see me as a bastard or a black bone. See me as a first-class citizen and I will help you conquer the world.
The retreat started with each group talking about its concerns about all of the others. After hours of listening to these identical complaints, everyone concluded that their concerns were totally unfounded, because everyone there wanted the same damned thing. They all wanted to be seen and heard and included in the conversation. Most of all, they wanted to be valued. That’s what inclusion needs to be about. Do you see a black man, or do you see Don?
If the key to effective inclusion is seeing people for who they are, then how do we make sure that we really see them?