Want to Be a Super CEO? Stop Talking and Start Listening Like John Betts of McDonald’s Canada

 McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts, one of the thought leaders giving a keynote address at the 2014 IABC World Conference, spoke with Maria Hunt, IABC’s web content manager, on how communicating effectively helped him turn the company around.

When you sit down to interview a CEO considered a turnaround specialist, or one who has the word transformational attached to his name, you might not expect  the conversation to turn to tattoos, nose studs and nail polish.


John Betts visiting one of McDonald’s 1,400 restaurants in Canada.

But when young McDonald’s Canada crew members told John Betts they’d be happier if they could look like themselves at work, the CEO and president studied the personal style of workers at other Canadian companies.

“You see all that stuff in retail, why should we ask an employee to take the stud out of his ear or the girl to take that thing out of her nose? Why should we ask them to do that just to work a shift at McDonald’s?”  Betts said during a telephone interview. “It’s so old-fashioned.”

He decided it was time for the McDonald’s Canada dress code to change, and he spent six months getting store owners and the corporate team to agree.

“Our employees should be able to look and feel like the customers they wait on,” he said.

Actively listening to his 85,000 employees and being willing to change the status quo has helped Betts re-energize the fast food company after market share dipped to an all-time low of 14.7 percent in 2008. Though they wouldn’t share an exact number, six years later, McDonald’s Canada has seen a “significant” jump in market share, thanks to new programs that have engaged both customers and employees.

Betts will share more about how to engage and communicate on a large scale during a keynote 9 June at the IABC World Conference in Toronto.

“I get a lot of credit for what goes on here, but I look at myself as a creator of the environment we operate in,” Betts said.

“Everybody talks about the customer first. Yeah, but you know what? The customer first doesn’t matter if your employees aren’t engaged and desirous of making the change,” he said. “So I put them at the same level.  I think they’re both critically important.”

Other CEOs and boards might do well to take note:  A 2013 joint study that included the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that most CEOs were so focused on the bottom line, they spent little time on developing crucial people skills that create engagement like listening, conflict management or mentoring.

Perhaps Betts is so willing to listen to store employees because he remembers what it’s like to be one of them. He started his career with McDonald’s more than 40 years ago, toasting buns and putting ketchup on burgers at a store in New York state.

Betts, who accepted the Toronto CEO Award of Excellence in Public Relations from the Canadian Public Relations Society and the Marketing Hall of Legends in early 2014, said he always mentions his crew whenever he tells the McDonald’s Canada story.

“Those are the people that represent the brand every day for 2.5 million customers. That’s the brand. It’s not the owners, it’s not me, it’s the person at the counter or the drive-through,” Betts said.  “When I go to do a media thing, I talk about customers and employees at the same time. They love to hear that stuff and they love to hear that they’re part of the solution.”

When Betts became CEO, he set out for three months to talk to operators in every region of the country. He learned that since 1967, McDonald’s Canada store marketing had been funded and executed region by region, with some stores spending less than the 4 percent standard. The result was a patchwork quilt of underfunded marketing programs that weren’t getting much attention from customers.  Betts appointed an owner operator to help him institute a new marketing program, and make sure every store was contributing the same amount.

“We got the marketing funding consistent across the country for the first time ever,” Betts said. “It put all our operators on a level playing field and it gave us a lot of marketing muscle. And that was really the beginning of the turnaround.

“I engaged, I collaborated with the operators and then we got into igniting and transforming,” he said, referring to the theme for the 2014 World Conference. “You have to ignite before you can transform.”

He’s learned from many people over the past 45 years, but credits Rob Doran, then a McDonald’s senior vice president zone manager, for teaching him how to motivate a team.

“He taught me about the power of collaboration and listening to operators and the engagement of them in the solution we were trying to achieve,” says Betts. “I’ve managed to put my own little stamp on it over the years and continued to learn from other people.”