Cal Turner, Jr.

Cal Turner, Jr.

I have studied leadership all my life and will continue to until I die. What concerns me is the broad-based misunderstanding of what leadership is. I worry about our society until I meet another person who gets it and is trying to make a difference in his or her realm of living, and then I have hope!

I aspire to leverage all of the experience I have had for the benefit of others. I would hate to have gone through all of that stuff and made all of those mistakes and not be able to help others do better than I did. Unfortunately, the real learning often comes in the pain and loss. I would like to help others not have to go through as much of that as I did.

Someone once asked me what I would like my legacy to be, and my very quick answer was that I don’t want a legacy. A legacy would be about me. I don’t want anything that shallow. I want to be able to discern where God is on the move so that I can be part of it. I don’t want this ego-centric accomplishment agenda. I think that one of the most important tests of any endeavor on Earth is its impact on human potential. To the extent that I can help someone become more infatuated with his or her potential, I feel like I am in real agency with God here on Earth to do the most that can be done.

This was an evolution. In the early 1990s in an estate planning meeting, I was told that if I died right then, this amount would go to the government. I would rather see what that money is going to do, so I decided that every year I would have the accountants tell me the most I can give away that would be tax advantaged, and I would give that away. I’m having fun seeing it do something. So it started from a selfish motive: I want to see something from all of this.

As I got into that, I experienced things that got started that wouldn’t have otherwise begun and I realized I was a part of that blessing. I began to involve senior management of our company in how we can pay back those who really deserve it. Our company has the smartest customers in the whole world because we have the struggling customers who are trying to make ends meet. We are inspired to discover everything that we can do to help them get ahead in life. It’s a matter of paying back, and true giving involves confusion about who is really giving and who is really receiving. We have been profoundly blessed by giving to people who couldn’t pay us back. We see the impact that comes from that motive.

But there are a lot of people who need our help. Of the hundreds of thousands of persons I have met in my lifetime, I am convinced that I have met none who is as blessed as I. But how can I be a good steward of that? It’s all a gift and with any success there is a lot of luck, a lot of other persons who have contributed to that success. Being a steward of success involves sharing it where it can be most cathartic and helping others have a better life.

Making Leadership Work

If I am the smartest person in the room, I am doomed as a leader, because a leader needs other people. I wouldn’t need other people if I am the smartest person in the room. The effect that I desire as a leader is when I am not present and others are implementing. There is a real art to bonding with another person in a moment where you feel like you are both part of something bigger; then that person will implement well in your absence, better than I would.

The people out in the stores of Dollar General understood retailing a lot better than I did as CEO. They understood the customer better. We might create a grand program in corporate that wouldn’t resonate with the customer, never understanding why unless the employees and our customers explained it to us so that we could undo it or tweak it to make it work. The problem-solving genius exists alongside the problem. The people who are in the midst of the problem are often the best ones to tell you what is wrong.

My dad, founder of our company, was from the old generation of management. When something went wrong, he wanted to know who did it. But there is never one single person who was responsible. We don’t ask who did it. We ask what happened and who needs help to fix it. You can talk about the various persons who were involved, but focus on what happened, not who did it.

It’s a very subtle change of focus that is powerful in its effect. Focus blame away from the person and to the true gap, what happened, and how we can all come together. There can be some major development and learning from that mistake, but first you have to get over the all-too-human tendency of guilt and blame so that you can get on with the good stuff.

Our first step in strategic planning wasn’t mission; it was our values and looking at the statement by which we run the company. One value that we were most proud of was that we believe in developing human potential in an atmosphere free of guilt or blame, where performance gaps are acknowledged and processed in a way that helps individuals and teams learn and develop and grow. We acknowledge that a blame-free environment is an ideal that is hard to attain, but we work hard to have that environment in our company.

We got there in two steps. The first step was the value statement. Then, over the next three years, in between planning cycles, a lot of people were having issues and, when we tried to discipline them, they pointed out that this is the guilt-free environment. So, we had to say we believe in the guilt-free environment, but we also believe in acknowledging problems when they occur in a way that can help us to get on with human development. We were too naive when we started, and it was getting thrown back too much.

We are often confused about what is little and what is big in leadership. At the end of one leadership meeting, we went around the table talking about what we’d discovered. One person said he had been with this company for 13 years, and this was why: 12 years before, while he was unloading a truck in the warehouse, I came through. I asked him how he was and I actually waited for his answer. That’s why he’s still here.

How important is it in the grand scheme of things that one person asked another how he was and paused to hear the answer? To him, it defined his commitment to the organization because the guy who was supposedly the top guy in the company actually wanted to know how the guy with the entry-level job in the warehouse was. Doesn’t that make this an organization that I want to be a part of and stay with?

I’m not perfect. I’m sure there are times when I asked someone how they were and didn’t wait for the answer, but this time I did. I was always moving fast, but for some reason God helped me to pause in my question to that man unloading the truck.

I go through life preaching to myself and, if anyone else wants to listen, they are welcome.

Cal Turner, Jr., is Chairman of the Cal Turner Family Foundation and former Chairman and CEO of Dollar General, succeeding his father in 1988 in the family business founded in 1939. At his 2003 retirement, Dollar General had more than 6,000 stores in 27 states, with annual sales of $6 billion. Cal has served on the boards of many organizations, including Easter Seal Society of Tennessee, Inc., Fisk University, PENCIL Foundation, and YMCA of Middle Tennessee. He mentors and guides corporate leaders through the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions at Vanderbilt University.

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