Cereal for dinner? The 'scornflakes' drama imparts a valuable lesson for CEOs

Kellogg’s chief executive has created a stir about the best characteristic a business leader can display

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Last week, the chairman and chief executive of cornflakes maker WK Kellogg Co found that consumers did not want to swallow his suggestion that his company’s cereals represented a more affordable dinner option in an era of rising prices.

Around the world, people are feeling the pinch at the supermarket checkout, as conflict, trade disruption, climate change and higher wages combine to spur a global food security crisis. It is a concern that affects almost all of us and Kellogg’s Gary Pilnick insisted to CNBC that, as a result of this crisis, the idea of eating cereal for dinner was “landing really well right now”.

Soon after the interview, Mr Pilnick was compared to Marie Antoinette and her infamous – and probably apocryphal – comment in 1789 that starving Parisians eat cake if they could not get any bread. Ultimately, the guillotine had the last word as France erupted into revolution.

Mr Pilnick is being pilloried for his “Let them eat flakes” moment even though the company has been publicly marketing its cereal-for-dinner suggestion for more than a year, seemingly without provoking much debate. In hindsight, the “scorn flakes” drama was perhaps entirely predictable.

There are many examples that prove that listening is humility put into action

This is because much of the anger directed at Mr Pilnick by users on social media is over his lack of qualifications, as a wealthy executive, to provide advice to those earning far less than he is. Making the cereal did not give Mr Pilnick the appropriate credentials to advise others about how to prepare budget-conscious meals when they are feeling financially worse off than they have done for a long time.

This distinction between knowledge and advice is instructive.

While it is more important than ever – and easier because of social media – for any business leader to be aware of trends and the key issues of the day, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they must then air their own views.

Yes, with rapidly evolving technology and social shifts that have the potential to upend employment and economic security, employees and customers are naturally keen to feel secure that someone who is making decisions is not out of touch.

However, that doesn’t mean that speaking out is the way for a chief executive to prove that he or she understands the concerns of stakeholders. Typically, these will be clumsy attempts to marry commercial objectives with the appearance of having a finger on the pulse of society.

Listening can be a far more powerful exercise.

For example, last month, during a discussion between award-winning comedian and investor Trevor Noah and Badr Al Olama, director general of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, it became clear that taking the time to hear from a diverse and international mix of people can help make a bigger impact than ensuring that a personal viewpoint is put across to any audience.

Both Mr Noah and Mr Al Olama talked about the success of Abu Dhabi and the UAE as an environment that attracts talent and investors in part because the country’s leadership has made every effort to understand what people need in order to feel comfortable establishing businesses and making investments in the Emirates.

Mr Noah grew up in South Africa during and after apartheid, before going on to huge success in the US as the host of the popular and hilarious Daily Show.

“What I have is a yearning to understand the world. I’ve never believed I know the world... what I am always trying to do is learn… I ask questions… [and] you come to understand oftentimes there isn’t one story for anything that is happening, there are multiple stories,” Mr Noah told me during the Impact Summit organised by Hub71 and Adio at Abu Dhabi Global Market.

Mr Noah is now spending much of his time enabling future generations in his home country to find opportunity, helping them access education and the tools they need to succeed.

Simply put, there are many examples that prove that listening is humility put into action.

The trait of humility is arguably the most important characteristic any executive or business leader can display. It demonstrates true strength and ensures resilience and nimbleness during a crisis. Humility implies an understanding that no one person can have all the answers.

It might seem a contradiction during an era in which audiences expect leaders to be able to discuss topics far removed from their businesses, but it is a surefire way to build the trust that is needed precisely because we live in such a challenging epoch.

Acknowledging both one’s own and others’ strengths and weaknesses also leaves room for colleagues and subordinates to step up and shine. It encourages an environment in which the staff is not afraid to speak up, and it will ultimately improve the performance of a business.

Frankly, there aren’t many obvious examples of chief executives publicly demonstrating humility among the biggest and best-known global corporations. It doesn’t seem abundant among those leading the giant American technology companies, for example. Perhaps the trait of humility is more apparent within the day-to-day running of a company and more easily appreciated from the inside.

It’s more likely, however, that humility has been discounted in more advanced economies as weakness, while it is more easily nurtured in cultures where it is more obviously valued, such as in the Arab world.

Published: March 07, 2024, 2:00 PM