Great leaders lead by lifting others up

Alumnus David Novak shares his expertise on leadership and recognition with MU business students.

david novak speaking into a microphone

Nov. 16, 2023

For David Novak, being an effective leader isn’t about having all the answers. It’s about surrounding yourself with ambitious people eager to find the answers for you – and then, most importantly, thanking them for their work.  

“There is nothing more motivating than recognition, even if it’s just saying, ‘Thank you,’” said Novak, a University of Missouri alumnus and highly regarded co-founder and CEO of Yum! Brands, a Fortune 500 company. “People want to be recognized and if you can, make the recognition personal and spontaneous.”

Novak, now retired from corporate life, recently spoke with business students and others about cultivating leadership skills, one of the eight competencies the Trulaske Edge professional development program helps students acquire while at Mizzou. During his presentation, Novak said successful leaders understand that reaching the top takes a strong team whose members are inspired and motivated. And that requires a leader who can cultivate passionate participation through clear and sincere communication with employees.

“You can’t do it alone,” Novak said. “Know the people you are working with, listen to them. Everyone counts. People want to be a part of something great, not something mediocre. It’s up to leaders to cultivate a vision that leads to greatness, and that takes other people.”

Over the course of each semester, industry-leading professionals, like Novak, interact with students during a variety of Edge-approved events that allow business students to develop professional competencies for graduation. Students also complete course work, engage in professional team-based projects with actual business clients and compete an internship.  

Novak said he was lucky to discover his passion while a student at MU when he took his first advertising class. After that, he was hooked on advertising and marketing and began to follow his passion, which he told students isn’t always easy to do.

“It takes a lot of courage to go for what you want,” he said, adding that it requires ambition and self-awareness. “You need to learn to take feedback constructively and follow that with action.”

Throughout his career, Novak has worked to remain true to one simple truth: Do the right thing and the right things will happen. “I still ask myself, ‘Would Mom and Dad proud?’” he said.

Novak said business leadership is moving away from “being bosses to being coaches.” For him, a successful leader is one who embodies gratitude as well as ambition, curiosity and passion – that’s how effective leaders bring out the best in others.

Read more from the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business

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