What drives the CEO of McDonald’s

The List 2022 honoree Chris Kempczinski answers “20 Questions”
By Lottie Watts
Published Sep 22, 2021

Chris Kempczinski is one of the dynamic leaders on The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future 2022 who will be celebrated at the NRF Foundation Honors in January. He has been with McDonald’s Corporation since 2015 and is in his second year as president and CEO. He shares how he has built his career over 30 years, reflects on key decisions amid the pandemic and more.

The List 2022 honoree Chris Kempczinski answers "20 Questions" from the NRF Foundation.

Here are a few questions, along with Kempczinski’s answers (watch the video above for all “20 Questions”):

What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career?

Every time you go to a new organization, you take a risk with that. There’s the promise of potentially what you’re going to learn but there’s also the risk of starting all over. When I came to McDonald’s, that was probably one of the biggest risks for me.

I had spent most of my career in packaged goods, so I had to learn a new industry. I came in and I was very much the outsider. I needed to learn and I needed to listen quite a bit. What I found over time was that it was an incredibly generous organization. Everybody was willing to help you.

What is something you learned early on that has carried with you into today?

The importance of [showing up] every day. You can’t ever coast. You can’t be in a situation where you say, “I’ve made it to this level” or “I’ve made it to this role.” For me, whether it was back as a brand assistant at P&G or now in my role here at McDonald’s as CEO, there is a recognition that you constantly have to prove yourself – that’s something that has carried with me throughout my career.

What do you do to stand out?

I think the important thing is don’t try to stand out. It’s not about you. It’s got to be about the company and the organization. When you put other people first, I think that’s what allows you to stand out. What I’m most impressed with are the people who are servant leaders – the people who prioritize others.

What decisions did you make during the pandemic that proved critical?

Every single day [we] were having to make a decision about the business, and we were doing it across 40,000 restaurants in 119 countries, with different regulations and things going on in each individual Market. The biggest decision that I was most proud of, that was also most critical, was not trying to make all the decisions here at headquarters, but pushing those decisions out into the markets, while giving our leaders in the restaurants who were closest to the situation the flexibility to make the decisions.

I did spend time up front providing a framework – a list of five things to help guide those decisions: We’re all in this together. We’re going to be transparent with people. We’re going to make decisions with the long-term in mind. We’re going to lead by example. And we’re going to stay true to our purpose in supporting communities. That was the direction that I gave to the system. [Many] decisions were left to the field and I think ultimately that proved to be quite successful for us.

What is one misconception about retail that you would love to debunk for everyone?

A common thing that I will hear from people who are not in the industry is that retail’s a dead-end job. To me, there is nothing further from the truth than that. There are people who have been at McDonald’s their entire career, who maybe started working in our restaurants who are now in some of the most senior positions in the company or who are franchisees running large patches of restaurant.  

When you look at the career progression that people can have in the retail industry and the career progression that people have at McDonald’s, it’s quite remarkable. It’s probably unlike any other industry out there. Far from being a dead-end job, retail offers an opportunity for people that doesn’t exist in most other places.

Since 2015, the Honors has raised the funds to continue to provide programs and resources that connect people to an industry that’s a great place to start and grow. Join us in New York City and be a part of the story of how retail builds extraordinary careers.

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