Fortune 500 Leaders: How do they do it?

Fortune 500 Leaders: How do they do it?

According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the average human being can only maintain a stable relationship with approximately 150 people. This is Dunbar’s Number. In short, this is the number of people you, know on an inter-personal level. It can reasonably predict how they will interact with others and respond to different situations.

Sure, 150 people may seem like a lot. However, we are talking about a total number of relationships your brain can keep track of. Think about it, between friends, family, and work. Assuming you use half for family or friends and the other half for work, that gives you 75 relationships for each category. In a small company your 75 “work relationships” might look a little something like this: Boss(es), co-workers, vendors, customers. The chances of running out of spots are minimal and relationships might be relatively easy to maintain. Move to a medium-sized company and your brain has to work a little harder. Imagine being a top executive in a Fortune 500 company… How in the heck do they do it?!?

Back in the day….

I used to be a store manager for a Fortune 500 retailer, which employed approximately 40,000 employees. The executives would travel our retail locations to stay on top of what was going on. Their goals: Motivate managers to be the best we could be and keep the company moving up the Fortune 500 charts by being successful at attracting and keeping great employees. Immediately upon entering my store, an executive would greet me with a big smile. Most would add some form of greeting ranging from a handshake to a hug. The best of them made it feel like we had a genuine friendship! Sometimes I hadn’t seen them in over a year, but we talked like we were just at a family BBQ together this past weekend.

I came up with 2 rational explanations for why this happened… Either I was the biggest ‘rockstar’ store manager they had ever met, or they were Gooooood! I knew which one it was, but preferred to pretend I was a rockstar. So how did they do it? The answer is much simpler than I initially thought. There are tools and support systems in place… and they use them.


There is no possible way to keep up with every store’s numbers in your head when you are traveling to 1,400+ stores on a regular basis, so metrics were key to their visit. They would quickly review our metrics/numbers before entering the store. Luckily for me, I was usually above average on most of my metrics and I could speak to the numbers.  Thus, I would perform a SWOT analysis on a regular basis to ensure that I was capturing opportunities and minimizing my weaknesses. I like to believe that this was the reason for their big smile.

District Managers:

There was rarely a time that our executive team would travel to stores without the local district manager. This allowed the executive to get the relevant details allowing them to refresh their memory. The district manager could prep them on details such as name, marital status, highlights, low-lights, and recent successes. This would provide valuable talking points for the executives.

The executives would start the conversation with questions and congratulations on the things that were going well, then finish with a challenge to be better in some area of weakness. The praise at the beginning of bringing a sense of pride in my work and the challenge at the end leaving me determined to be better. This formula is flawless! Or is it?

Every time we would have a corporate travel I would feel better about my job and I would be excited to get to work on my new challenge… but for every person like me who was happy, there was another person who was left feeling discouraged or mad. How could this be? Did we just talk to the same person? Did they only ‘like’ me? Was that other store manager not doing their job correctly?

The secret sauce:

Finally, I came to realize that the answer had little to do with the other manager’s performance, the executives approach when inside their store, or me being a ‘rockstar’. It all came down to a matter of how we prefer to communicate with others. Some people love to be praised for a job well done. Others get uncomfortable with praise and would rather just complete their responsibilities and move on. Some people are competitive, love a good challenge, and can’t wait to prove themselves. Some people are less sure of themselves and will become immediately discouraged when a challenge is presented. Had they understood each person’s DISC profile an executive could have easily made slight adjustments in their approach and ensured that they motivated a higher percentage of the people they visited.

My DISC profile is called ‘High DI’. Simply put… I like to be challenged and get results (High D) and I like to interact with people as much as possible (High I). As my pattern indicates, I am extroverted and I flex easily between being task oriented and people oriented so these visits caused me very little internal stress. At the time, I had no idea, but these standard corporate visits fell almost perfectly in line with my DISC profile’s Motivators.

From my personal DISCflex Report:

Mike Motivators

I now understand that if I were naturally a task-oriented Introvert, just the thought of having an external factor (executive) come into my space and point out opportunities would be very stressful. This obviously explains why only the best of the best executives could show up at so many different locations with so many different people and motivate a large majority.

The key to being a great leader is knowing (or figuring out) your audience and understanding their motivators. DISCflex Assessments are a great tool that can help you quickly identify with a person’s behavioral style, their motivators, and their stressors. The assessment takes only 15 minutes to complete and can be reviewed quickly along with metrics before visiting a location. Don’t be slowed down by your brains Dunbar number… Call today and get a free quote. This will help to ensure that the time you spend with your team keeps them motivated and running towards your company’s goals.

For more information on DISC Methodology check out my post “What is a DISC Assessment“.


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