Donnie Smith is a self-described “skinny kid from very rural Tennessee.” He graduated with a degree in animal science and immediately began working for Tyson Foods, assisting local poultry producers. In 2009, almost 30 years after taking that first post-college job, he was named CEO of Tyson Foods.
When you meet Smith, you feel like you’re talking to the guy who farms just across the fencerow. Each year, he hosts a leadership session with the national FFA officer team. I often assist with FFA training, and Smith usually presents just ahead of me. He’s a hard act to follow.
Smith’s insights are not reserved for the inner workings of Fortune 100 companies. It’s good down-home
advice for anyone. Smith says one of the keys to leadership is simply visiting with people. “When you make an immediate connection, everybody becomes less defensive,” he says.
Great leaders are able to influence situations beyond their span of control. “It’s really about being able to build relationships. It’s connecting with people and being very transparent, very authentic and a person they learn they can trust,” Smith says.
That approach lays the foundation for good relationships and better business. At Tyson, Smith calls it the “peach tree” model. Instead of a top-down pyramid model, he says, “My job at the base of the tree is to provide the resources and stability we need to support the people who are the star of our show—the people producing food.”
That attitude can be seen in something as simple as regular visits to the company’s many processing plants. “Rather than hop on a company plane and come in with this big entourage, I just get in my truck,” Smith says.
His down-to-earth style even applies to what he wears. Many team members at Tyson, including Smith, dress alike: khaki pants and a shirt with their name and company logo. A Fortune 100 CEO who wears his name on his shirt makes a statement. Smith says, “I’m coming to work today, and I’m fully prepared to do anything I need to do. So if there’s a problem in a chicken house and you need me to help, I’m dressed for work.”
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