In an iconic company like McDonald’s, it’s hard to become a record-breaker. But Stephan De Brouwer managed to do it, as his fourteen years as CEO of McDonalds Belgium is the longest anyone has ever held the top spot in a given country.
Succeeding in that kind of leadership position, given McDonalds’ relationship to each individual franchise owner, requires a fine understanding of people’s motivations and worries; succeeding in it for so long also requires an ability to constantly question oneself and adjust as the situation on the ground changes.
“The most important aspect for anyone in a leadership position is the ability to continually reinvent yourself, especially if you stay in that position for a long time. You as a person will grow, but the real key is making sure that the company you’re leading keeps changing for the better.”
The key point that Stephan has understood is that leadership is never an individual endeavor: it is only worthwhile inasmuch as the leader is being effective in bringing everyone else along in the journey.
He first developed that knowledge in his early career as an architect. As he says, “An architect will design something that comes out of their customer’s wishes and their brain. You draw it so that it can exist in three dimensions. But you have to then bring many people together to actually make it. Just drawing the plans isn’t nearly enough to get the job done.”
That experience has come in handy at McDonalds, where Stephan had to bring a set of individual business owners — some who own one restaurant, some who own eight — into agreement with the decisions being made by the corporate leadership team.
“You have to remember that each of those people in their own domain, they’re right! They’ll defend what they know to be true, without necessarily seeing that it’s only true from their perspective. Your job as a leader is to get them beyond their day-to-day discussions about the details and get them to all move toward the bigger objective that you’re trying to achieve.”
Stephan also emphasizes the importance of every single participant in the journey. Whatever one’s role or job title, each part of the machine needs to be working together. A single person with a single task to accomplish can throw the entire project off course if things aren’t done properly. And so a leader needs to be able to not only see all those people, but also to speak to them in a way that gets everyone on board with the company’s goals.
“Each of your people is a specialist. Bring them into the process and listen to them, you don’t know everything that they know. You have to show them the direction, while getting them engaged in the process. Every person in the company should feel like they belong and are part of the overall vision.”
Pushing yourself to continue developing as a leader is critical because, no matter what one may hope, change comes for us all. Whether a major corporation or an SMB with a handful of employees, change is part of the business world. One can either decide to surf the waves, keeping an eye on the horizon and selecting the best surfboard for what’s coming, or to stand knee-deep in the water, counting the minutes until the tsunami hits.
True leaders will always opt to be in that first group.