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Business Executive Jim Donald Discusses Leadership Philosophy at NECA 2017 Seattle

Oct 08, 2017

Respected businessman Jim Donald, a former CEO of major names such as Starbucks, Pathmark Stores and Haggen Food & Pharmacy, shared his insights during the Monday General Session at NECA 2017 Seattle.

In his 45 years of retail experience, Donald developed a reputation of turning around financially struggling companies. That track record prompted Extended Stay America to seek him out after emerging from its bankruptcy proceedings in 2010. The company has since rebounded.

That comeback was among the topics Donald focused on as he discussed leadership for the 21st century. He started off by saying the message that comes from an executive must be memorable and bring the entire company together.

“Nobody from the front line to the top can become unwired,” he said.

He added that it is vital to have a story that is understood by everyone. At one point in his career, that story was a salmon, an symbol of the region that swims upstream to fight for its life. He even brought one on stage.

“What is your fish story? If you don’t write the story, someone else will,” he said, pointing to recent negative coverage of companies such as the car-riding service Uber and the airline United.

Donald said he spends a lot of time with employees on the front line, who are the lion share of the workforce, to learn more about what they do and how to connect with them.

“The front line is not fighting with you – they are fighting for you,” he said.

Working with Sam Walton, who founded Walmart and Sam’s Club, early in Donald’s career helped in that area. He learned that if he ever became bigger than the front line, he would fail.

“The front line is your legacy,” he added.

Donald also said important strategies for leaders are speaking their language and make sure they know they are represented.

Some other central tenets of Donald’s philosophy are taking chances and encouraging employee to takes risks with the freedom to fail. Using one “get out of jail, free” card is an example.

“Going where you’ve never gone before allows you to see things you never knew existed,” he said.

Regarding today’s workforce, like it or not, he said, millennials are the front line. And more than salary, they value things such as a good relationship with their boss and being a part of the decision-making process. Donald has seen how workers at every level share the same types of problems and ended on a positive note.

“The opportunities in this crazy world that we live in have never been better,” he said.

Before Donald’s speech, a diverse group of 17 winners of the new NECA Project Excellence Award were acknowledged on stage.

It is the first year of the program, and NECA members can submit projects for next year beginning on January 1. A list of winners and project descriptions can be found at

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