Cal Turner, Jr.:
The Legacy of Dollar General
Leadership is Redefining “Profit” see my post HERE
This is interview #6 in the legacy series. In this podcast Orchestrating Success: Converting Passion to Profit, we think of profit in results other than money. This one includes money, ultimate success, and being very vulnerable and transparent and including the team in the planning, in the energy field. This is quite the fascinating interview. Over many years of knowing Cal Turner, every time I speak with him, there are some amazing things that come out in the conversation. For me, listening to Cal Turner is a major paradigm shift. This is a very meaningful interview with my dear friend and his story about the legacy that he was responsible for creating with this business called Dollar General. Listen to this, and see how you think orchestrating success converts wisdom to results. This is passion to profit, and profit has many facets. Enjoy this interview.
Hugh: This is Hugh Ballou. Welcome to this session. My special guest today is my dear friend Cal Turner. I have known Cal Turner for probably about ten years, and every time I talk to Cal, he makes me think because he makes profound statements. Cal Turner was president and CEO of Dollar General and took it public. Cal has very astute observations about leadership. Cal, welcome to this interview today. Thank you for being my guest.
Cal: Thank you, Hugh. Being here is wonderful.
Hugh: The topic is sustainability and creating legacy. Before we get there, talk about your leadership in Dollar General. You told me a little story about you going to your managers and saying you got this position because you are the son of the founder. You asked them to play into the space. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you approach leadership.
Cal: Leadership may start with the leader establishing himself with his supposed followers. I wanted them to know that I intended to share the leadership agenda with them. I tried to make me real as a person with them by poking fun at myself. I am here because I am the boss’s son, and that is not good, is it? Boss spelled backwards is double SOB. No one cares for the boss, but what about the boss’s son? That must be worse. Clearly, if we are all to succeed, I need your help. You understand this business enterprise. You experience all of the problems and opportunities faced by this business enterprise and have creativity that we need to have in order to move forward together. I need your help. By the way, you have my commitment that success will be shared. If you really come on board and are a part of this, success will be shared.
That’s pretty much it. Was it a poignant or pregnant pause?
Hugh: I was reflecting on the summary you had given me when you first shared that. Leadership is about defining one’s gaps and finding competent people to fill those gaps. You also went on to tell me that you were very transparent. If you hadn’t been, it would have been a different and negative dynamic.
Cal: Indeed, it is about defining the gaps and establishing partnerships to do something about them. I needed first to establish a strategic inquiry in our company. I needed everyone to be interested in exploring together our gaps. Now, first, I thought I needed to admit my gaps. I did that by this boss’s son discussion I would have for their hearing. I am here because I am the boss’s son. I have tried to do most of the jobs in this company that all of you do and have discovered that I am good at none of them. But that gives me a sense of awe in my respect for your ability to do them. Not only do I respect your ability to do them, but I also respect your opinion about the problems, how they happen in the first place, and the ability of all of us to come together to fix problems for the benefit of all of us. I’d like for us to go at that. We have to be honest first. We as a company need not to tell the boss what the boss wants to hear. The boss, if he is a leader, really wants your iteration of the truth. What is the truth as you see it? I hope for us to have relationships where you feel free to disclose that. You are not playing the political game of trying to figure out the boss so you know what to tell the boss that will be what he/she wants.
Hugh: You and I were talking as we were preparing for this interview about the writing of Richard Rohr. Richard has been talking recently about the true self and the false self. What you just described is in essence what that is. The true self, as Paul says in the Bible, is speak the truth and love. What you modeled is what is reflected in the culture.
As you remember, I spent 40 years as a musical conductor. The orchestra choir very much models the conductor. I write about that in the corporate culture. You set the bar right there for that honesty. It’s the way that you acted. We can really say anything we want. If we don’t respond with integrity and authenticity and model and practice what we preach, the culture is going to come back. You said to me as a post-script to that: If I hadn’t admitted and been transparent about those gaps, they would prove to me that I have those gaps. I wasn’t being honest with them. You nipped that in the bud by being direct right away.
Cal: That was my modeling the dealing with truth that I was trying to do that I hoped they would consider for themselves and their work and their lives.
Hugh: Part of sustainability, we are talking about leaving a legacy. You went on from that to the work you are now doing with the Turner Family Foundation.
Cal: Yes, the Cal Turner Family Foundation.
Hugh: So we are talking about legacy. Underpinning that is sustainability. How do we create a model that is sustainable? Speak to the leadership piece of that, if you will please.
Cal: I think the key word in your question is “we.” Is that an honest “we,” or is that an “I” in disguise? How do I do that? if you are honest in asking the question “How do we do this?” then you are more likely on your way to creating the sustainability and legacy you seek. It’s not about the leader. In fact, I believe leadership certainly in the Richard Rohr sense also would more likely be defined as followership. It is whom you follow that defines your leadership. Legacy and sustainability are perhaps largely about my not being here someday. Maybe I as a leader should consider diminishing my role and expanding theirs in order to provide for that future event of my absence.
Hugh: You had on something in the last part you talked about: It’s not me. Autocratic and charismatic leadership is about me. Transformational leadership as a system is about the vision and elevating leaders within that culture. I define that with clients I work with, whether it’s a business, charity, or a church, as creating a new architecture of culture and how we function together and how we approach the sustainability. That is impacted by the leader, or it is squelched by the leader.
I just finished a one-day empowerment and leadership symposium in 19 cities. I have ten more on the books coming up. Nashville is not on my radar yet, but I hope it will be at some point. I find at the beginning of each of these, it is designed to give people systems, and to me, leadership is a system and a culture as well as a skill to lead that culture. I ask people at the beginning of each one, “What are the issues you want to make sure we deal with today?” Number one across all of them is leader burnout. Number two is bored and volunteer under-functioning. Number three is lack of sufficient recurring revenue to accomplish their vision and mission. Speak to those. I believe those are all subsets of leadership, the leader. We set those up as a leader, don’t we?
Cal: I believe we do. That is a lot to unpack, Hugh. Hugh, you devil, that is a lot. Leader burnout. Well, when we were talking about the leader acknowledges that it is not about me, he has to explore what he/she means by that. So in order to minimize me, we have to understand what I am. I have to understand what I am and who I am. But if I am a leader, I largely have to define whose I am. I am more empowered to get on with its not being about me, and the less it is about me, I think the less likely there is to be burnout.
Hugh: Love it.
Cal: I don’t want it to be about me. I have always wanted my values to unite the thinking and effort of all of us because I want them to be shared values. The leader should largely talk about values and what is important to all of us that we can get excited together about. That is a good antidote for burnout. If we are all propelled by the same motor, then that motor doesn’t burn out as much as it might. We can help each other to take care of it, too.
What we aspire to do was to say first of all, we are going to do our strategic planning, we are going to try to define a mission and a vision. We can’t do that, can we, if we don’t talk about the values that are important to all of us and what are those values? Let’s state them as a group so that we can understand them together and use them as issues come up in our work to help us to take care of the culture of this organization. These values are what will do that.
We finally resolved on a two-word mission statement, which was beautiful in that everybody could remember it. Two-word mission statement: Serving others. That differentiates you from the largest constituency of all, which seeks to serve self, seeks to serve that company, seeks to serve that government entity, whatever. It’s about others. What is our greatest contribution to them? It didn’t say service, which implies you do it and go on to something else. It’s about serving. It should motivate us every day of our lives to figure out that day’s agenda of serving others.
It was those two words that really got our company going. You can spot the person who is amenable, governable by serving others. When someone is in it for themselves, it doesn’t take you too long to know that you don’t have strategic commonality with that person. You need strategic commonality of your leader and his/her persons. You don’t have people as a leader; you have persons. Everybody is unique, everybody is one of a kind. You can be enriched by diversity. Sometimes you feel damned by it. But you need it.
Hugh: That’s awesome. That’s pretty profound. One of the things I have noticed ever since I have known you is that you are a very active listener, both with your ears and with your eyes. That to me is a primary leadership skill. You listen, and then you think, and then you respond. I can imagine a situation with you talking to your managers, and you are listening and acting based on their response. That is really a skillset that more leaders ought to employ: active listening both aurally and visually. What do you think?
Cal: That is the crux of the leadership dynamic, whether you can listen to others, whether you can listen to yourself. Listening is so much more than just waiting your turn to speak. What are you doing in the time before speaking? Are you thinking about what you are going to say, or are you trying hard to take in what the other person said and what he/she might mean by that? Could both of you perhaps pursue that question that is in the background of words used by the other person? What is the question? What is that question? I am fascinated by questions, especially when they lead to answers by others who would implement the answer.
Cal: That’s what you are trying to do as a leader. You are trying to listen to your persons into better questions.
Hugh: I love it.
Cal: Excuse my vernacular. But I certainly do not consider myself a repository of answers but a suppository of questions. Questions that get the flow going, questions that challenge. I am challenged by the questions of life. Any leader should help others to explore that challenge. In the life of this organization, what is our organization about? What are our real opportunities? What would you feel good about our doing for the customer together? What is the greatest need of the customer, the meaning of which would ring our chime? What is that? Whatever enterprise we are in, we are a unique organization, so we don’t have to model ourselves after the competition. What if we aspired to define the customer pool on our unique creativity? What would we feel most fulfilled about if we could meet that need of the customer? The more you help each other to experience fulfillment, the less you are burned out. It comes from others. There may be burnout for someone like me who might be trying to do too much myself. But relax, Cal, you’re not God. You’re not even the god of this organization, even if you are the boss’s son.
Hugh: The principle you are describing to me is collaborative culture. I find that a whole lot of leaders, especially clergy, don’t know how to do that. There is a control piece, and there is an insecurity piece. The dynamic that you described, which I love, is I am not the answer man, I am the question person. That way you are teaching people to think. If you answer all of the questions, that is over-functioning. We talked about Murray Bowen’s work; the antithesis to that is under-functioning. If you are teaching people all the questions, then you are teaching them that they have to come to you for the answers. You are putting yourself in that bottleneck, so we have created that burnout and, by our lack of effective leadership, dependency and an under-functioning staff, board, or group of volunteers in the culture. We actually set up the problems by not doing the kinds of things that you are inviting people to think about doing. Am I tracking with you?
Cal: You are indeed.
Hugh: Are there some other ways that leaders get in the way? I tell leaders to do their vision and mission, write their objectives and tasks, and then empower people and get out of the way.
Hugh: it’s hard for people to do though.
Cal: That is profound, and it isn’t that easy to do. I think you can get out of the way of other people if you try to get over yourself a little bit.
Hugh: That’s big. I love it.
Cal: Get over yourself. Get excited about helping your people. If you have the reputation of wanting to help them, then they might ask how they need to be helped, and they might ask deeper questions of what is needed here. If they know you seek to serve the customer, and as a leader you want to serve them as the way of eventually serving the customer, then you are throwing the ball back into their court.
I had already said I respect how you will play the ball. What you do, I am amazed at because I have tried to do it and I am not good at it. You are. I respect that. What are your issues? How can we explore the next best answer step to it? Sometimes we try to figure out the whole problem when if we had the right leadership culture, we could figure out the next best step in route to the achievement of our vision. What is the next thing to do? We don’t have to get all the way to the answer today, but what gets us working toward an answer together? Could we perhaps share milestones together so that we can all see how we can help each other to move along better together? We used to do all of our planning on the run. We do our planning, and we would all understand where we were starting. We all would have a sense of the eventual end and success we seek. We’d understand where we were starting and where we all hoped eventually to end. We were going to come together to take steps together that will move us along the pathway better. We are going to have to learn as we go. You can’t figure everything out now. There is stuff that is going to happen. You need to be honest with each other about what the stuff is so you can help each other.
Hugh, you have heard me talk about the change in mindset of my father’s generation and the business and mine as to guilt and blame when something would go wrong. My father would say, “Who did that?” and I would say, “I am not going to tell you.” He would say, “Do you know?” and I would say, “Yes.” “Well, tell me.” “I am not going to tell you.” We don’t ask that question anymore. Our question is not about who, but our question would be about what. What happened? Who needs to come together to fix it? That is a major shift. Richard Rohr’s concept of nonduality I think largely moves the blame. At least, it helps people to come together more creatively to respond to problems and issues, and other things than asking the question of “Who?” You are going to draw the line in the sand between you and the other person.
Hugh: It’s a step.
Cal: When you look at the world through that filter, you are amazed. We define human potential by its packaging. You are a conservative or a liberal. You are a rich dude or a poor struggling somebody or other. Everyone is the child of God who wants to be part of something that matters. The leader helps that to happen.
Hugh: That is a great statement. As we are approaching the landing strip here, I want to focus for a minute and get your thoughts on how leadership impacts the revenue. When I work with 501(c)(3) organizations, I encourage them to think of the word “nonprofit” as a tax classification, not a philosophy of operations.
Cal: That’s good.
Hugh: I work with a lot of start-up or early-stage entrepreneurs or charities. They think money is going to fix everything. I say, “Money is a magnifier. If you don’t have systems, it is going to magnify what is wrong and create the negative effects.” Focusing on money is not the answer. As you and I have talked about over the years, it is a result of really good systems and serving your customer. There are results that bring in the blessing of revenue so you can do more of it.
Leaders are in the way. We block this thing of happening that feeds us. It’s like we build a car but we haven’t put gas in it, so we can’t go anywhere. Speak about the leader role in enabling or blocking that to happen.
Cal: Blocking what?
Cal: Money is never the problem where strategic need is being met by persons who buy into the same vision. The money doesn’t lead; it follows. It doesn’t answer; it results from persons coming together to work on the answer. It’s more of a score card than it is a success attainment. It will happen if you and your people are united and you really are doing something that makes a difference together. How do you generalize about money? That is kind of hard to do. But I guess that is my best shot.
Hugh: You have made it hard, too. You have been successful and have employed the leadership principles. I experience leaders, and I am not exempt from getting in the way. They get in the way of the mission and vision; they get in the way of creating sustainable revenue. There are a lot of reasons that people get in the way. What you gave our listeners there is very astute.
As we are leaving this interview…
Cal: Hugh, let me interrupt. One comment on that. I have heard people say, “Where there is no money, there is no mission.” Perhaps where there is no mission, there is no money. You are talking about what isn’t there. Money is not there. But the money is absent because the mission is absent. That creates the absence of the money. A mission is something that inspires others to achieve. It meets a real need that tugs at your heart and your pocketbook will follow.
Hugh: That statement is reported in not as direct a way in the writing of Napoleon Hill, who interviewed all these capitalists in his era. The Carnegies, Rockefellers, Edison, Emerson, Ford, Wanamaker, and other presidents. They had a definiteness of purpose; that is your mission. They had a group around them that brought something good to the world. Looking back, some of them were heavy-handed with that, but they also surrounded themselves with like-minded people who wanted to change things. So that is consistent. He lists attributes of wealth, and money is the last one. He made a point to say money is the last one.
Cal: I might alter the words a little bit from “like-minded people” to “like-missioned.”
Hugh: Very good. I welcome that edit.
I meet lots of people. I had conversations with 100 entrepreneurs last week, as I was at a business growth conference called CEO Space. I had interviews with 100 people, and there was not a bad vision or a bad idea of what their mission ought to be. They didn’t have it as clear, but they had passion for something that would change people’s lives. They didn’t have a structure underneath it. I think the law of averages is 3% of the people will actually do something about it. For those people who have a germ of an idea, who have a vision, but haven’t put the pieces together yet, what advice would you have for those people, who have a passion of making a difference in people’s lives? What would you say to them as a leader? What would be your advice to them?
Cal: I hope it’s not your passion for them. I hope it’s their passion for themselves that you help them achieve. I may have a higher mission and purpose in mind for you, Hugh Ballou, than you have. But we are not on board yet for your accomplishing anything. What is your highest purpose that I can help you to achieve?
Hugh: You don’t need a lot of words to make impact. I love that. Cal Turner, I interviewed you years ago for a book, and you got so excited that you decided to write your own book. You wrote it with Howard Olds. What was the name of that book?
Cal: Led to Follow. A leader is one who is led.
Hugh: It’s a brilliant book. You sent me a copy when it was published. I believe people can find it on Amazon?
Cal: I think so.
Hugh: Cal Turner, Howard Olds. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. I am grateful for our friendship and all that I have learned over the years. Thank you so much for today’s interview.
Cal: Thank you, Hugh. I enjoy our chewing on the questions together.
Hugh: Me too. Thank you so much.
Cal Turner received his B.A., cum laude, from Vanderbilt University in 1962. Following his graduation from Vanderbilt, Mr. Turner served for more than three years as an officer in the United States Navy. In December 1965, he began his career at Dollar General, the company founded by his father and grandfather in 1939. He succeeded his father as president in 1977 and as chairman in 1988. At the time of his retirement in 2003, Dollar General had grown into a New York Stock Exchange retailer with more than 6,000 stores in 27 states and annual sales in excess of $6 billion.
Mr. Turner has served on the boards of a number of civic and charitable organizations, including the Easter Seal Society of Tennessee, Inc., Leadership Nashville, the PENCIL Foundation and the YMCA of Middle Tennessee. From 2000 – 2001 he was president of the Board of Governors of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. He is a past chairman of the Board of Trustees of Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, a current member of the Board of Trustees of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt University in Nashville and present Chairman of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee.
In 1988, Mr. Turner accepted the Presidential Award for Private Sector Initiatives from President Ronald Regan at a White House ceremony. In 1991, the Sales and Marketing Executives of Nashville recognized Mr. Turner with the Summit Award for his excellence in management. He received the Silver Hope Chest Award in 1992, an honor presented annually by the Middle Tennessee chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In 1994, he was honored as Nashvillian of the Year by the Easter Seal Society of Tennessee. In 1997, he received the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Volunteer of the Year Award from the United Way of Middle Tennessee, and, in 1998, he received the Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 2002, Meharry Medical College presented Mr. Turner with the school’s prestigious Salt Wagon Award, given for acts of kindness and commitment to Meharry Medical College and its mission.
Cal Turner’s commitment to the Methodist Church has been a lifelong personal ministry of faith. The Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church inducted Mr. Turner into the Fellows of the Society of John Wesley in 2001, for distinguished service to local church mission and ministry. In 2002, Mr. Turner was award the Stanley S. Kresge Award by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation for his commitment to higher education.
He and his wife Margaret are the parents of Cal Turner, III, who, with his wife Hope, are the parents of Cal Turner, IV, Alex Turner and Will Turner.
The Transformational Leadership Strategist
Here’s the transcript of the interview: