- Posted by Action Catalyst
- On May 9, 2023
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- author, Business, C-Suite networking, CEO, decision making, leadership, mentorship, success, tech, technology
Accomplished C-Suite leader Atif Rafiq reflects on starting a bank in elementary school (spoiler, it didn’t quite work), the power in the neutrality of raw curiosity, coming aboard AOL at the start of the internet boom, becoming the first Chief Digital Officer in the history of the Fortune 500, digitizing fast food, the creativity-killing hazard of “alignment before exploration”, lessons learned from the CEOs of McDonalds, Volvo, and Amazon, and enjoying the luxury of focus.
Atif Rafiq has blazed trails in Silicon Valley and the Fortune 500 for over 25 years. After rising through digital native companies like Amazon, Yahoo!, and AOL, Atif held C-suite roles at McDonald’s, Volvo, and MGM Resorts. He oversaw thousands of employees as a global P&L, transformation, and innovation leader.
Atif has built a large following as one of today’s top management thinkers. Over half a million people follow his ideas about management and leadership on LinkedIn, where he is a Top Voice, and his newsletter Re:wire has over 100,000 subscribers.
Atif is passionate about helping companies push boldly into the future. He accomplishes this through Ritual, a software app revolutionizing how teams innovate and problem-solve, and through his work as keynote speaker, board member, and CEO advisor.
Learn more about Atif and his book, “Decision Sprint: The New Way to Innovate into the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action“, at DecisionSprint.com.
The Action Catalyst is presented by the Southwestern Family of Companies. With each episode, the podcast features some of the nation’s top thought leaders and experts, sharing meaningful tips and advice. Learn more at TheActionCatalyst.com, subscribe below or wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to leave a rating and review!
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(Transcribed using A.I. / May include errors):
Adam Outland: Welcome to the Action Catalyst. This is your host, Adam Outland, and today we get to meet the amazing Atif Rafiq. He has been a C-Suite leader at McDonald’s, Volvo, and MGM held roles at Yahoo, AOL, Audible, and Goldman Sachs. He’s had a 25 year career spanning Silicon Valley in the Fortune 500, and he’s developed innovative approaches to leadership and management.
And in his book Decision Sprint, the new way to innovate into the unknown and move from strategy to action. He describes a lot of these strategies. We’ll unpack some of these lessons from the book and from his experience. Welcome to the program. If it’s okay with you, I’d love to start way earlier in your career than your bio suggests. I wanted to hear what is the makeup of this person who’s had a very illustrious career in C-Suite roles in their professional life? Where did this journey start for you? I mean, were you just fired up in high school about being a future executive?
Atif Rafiq: Well, if we wanna roll all the way back, I guess there are some signs of the business career, you know, probably as early as where I started a bank in elementary school.
Adam Outland: A bank in elementary school?
Atif Rafiq: Well, wait till you hear the next part, it folded in a week. I didn’t understand what compound interest was, my classmates did, and when they demanded, you know, their interest back then I, I folded and I had to borrow the money from my dad. Um, so it was a, a whole scheme around, you know, using the deposits to buy baseball cards and make some great profits.
But, it didn’t turn out in middle school You know, one of my teachers did, you know, in a parent call, asked my mom, well, what does his dad do for a living? You know, because he wrote this every kid’s writing about, you know, things like wanting to be a movie producer and you know, an athlete.
And he wrote a paper on the stock market. Um, so what does his dad, dad do? My dad is, was a small businessman though that probably you. Through osmosis. You see a lot of things going on, you know, because, especially as a small business person, it’s not like you’re leading the work at home. He probably brought it home on, on his phone calls.
Probably the seeds were planted fairly early in, in my childhood. Nature and nurture, it’s still an open question.
Adam Outland: Yeah. What were kind of the natural skills that were already being birthed? I mean, were you just like great with people? Were you really numbers oriented?
Atif Rafiq: Well, often you, you don’t know what they are told many years later, but you see the signs early and I think it’s probably product orientation, meaning like what’s the big idea, what’s the next way?
What’s sort of. The next, uh, trend of, of product that, you know, seems interesting and quite isn’t Yeah. Mainstream, you know what I mean? And so seeing that mean and then trying to, to do something about it. And that’s probably where it took me, you know, probably even 10 years into my career to realize. Oh, I’m actually somewhat good at that. So let me lean into that piece.
Adam Outland: You know, as you’re talking about this, a couple of the bullet points on your book. One of them was the exploration raises, unanswered questions and considerations to get to the bottom of of things, right? Uh, ed, maybe I read that. Differently. But I, what I saw in that is something about exploration means curiosity, right? It means asking questions and digging, not necessarily having the answers.
Atif Rafiq: I think there’s really two interesting things that, you know, you’re kind of putting your finger on. One is that what entrepreneurs are really good at is conviction, uh, that comes from their vision. If you share this same, uh, idea with, you know, 10 other people who are not entrepreneurs, you know, you’re likely to see those people have a lot more question marks.
Then confidence perhaps, you know, you see enough. Uh, but for other people it’s still quite a bit of more questions than clarity. Now, putting into sort of an organization, you know, I, I. The power of questions has always struck me because the interesting thing about questions is that they can be neutral.
They can take you to be for the idea or against the idea. You just don’t know. . But if you approach them with curiosity, which is kind of an interest to sort of get to the bottom of it, be neutral about the whole thing, the story will probably speak for itself. And so in companies, what I’ve found is that there’s really not a good way to take advantage of this thing because one senior people in a more senior go are expected to quote unquote know the answers.
You know, because of the tenure in the company, they feel like they need to take a position. You know, very quickly maybe teams feel like, hmm, if we don’t know the answer is, you know, very upfront, then, you know, are we really proving our worth? And so they’re not given the space for the curiosity they need to really get to the bottom of what could be a promising idea.
But of course, as soon as you go one level lower than the promising idea, you see a ton of questions. And so what I pray. Especially in my, my book decision spread is provide teams and companies a way to create space for questions and take action on it.
Adam Outland: Yeah. So did you feel that curiosity was an early driver for you? I mean, one of your primary careers that you talked about was Goldman Sachs. Was it curiosity that drove you to dig into that?
Atif Rafiq: I started my career at Goldman Sachs right after college, and, you know, honestly it wasn’t a great fit for me because it was all about, Transactions and, and numbers, and I didn’t really connect with the idea of a transaction as a product.
It didn’t cut it for me. I made a pivot, you know, very early on, I, I wrote a letter, uh, a snail mail letter to the founder of AOL, Steve Case, who’s very famous person in the history of the internet, and he actually opened my letter, uh, gave it to another executive, and I got a call. I was, um, early to the internet, which was a big, big thing break for me because getting involved in a company like AOL before there was a Google for example, you know, that was very meaningful and I was, I was hooked.
I was like, I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life. It’s gonna be about the internet base, you know, technology. The curiosity did play a factor because I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t really know what it meant to work outside, you know, in an industry like, Um, I didn’t know really where the internet was going.
So from that perspective, your curiosity did kind of help, uh, me get going in my career. Yeah.
Adam Outland: And you know, at a beast, right? AOL was growing. It was huge. There was a lot of complexity and you ended up in a kind of a corporate development and strategy position. I, I assume that meant you were overseeing a team and already getting, kind of building your chops in terms of how you managed and led a process.
Atif Rafiq: It was exhilarating and amazing, quite frankly. Um, being in my view, and I’m very biased here, you know, I think the most meaningful work, um, that I, I personally connect with is product creation. Yeah. It’s really about conceptualizing what is the pro, what’s the core product, what is a, do you know, what’s the differentiation?
What’s the sweet spot? What is enough to get it off the ground? And for people to wanna say, yeah, let’s please make more of this.
Adam Outland: At what point did you feel, if any, that you hit that career where you were really stretched as an individual and pushed or were where you feel like you hit a, a certain breaking point, and what was the lesson from that?
Atif Rafiq: Well, one that I would point to is, is the pivot from Silicon Valley. I went to, you know, Yahoo and then Amazon. Very much sort of, uh, familiar setup of an internet company. And this is the product that they make. And this is sort of how we, you know, innovate on the product and manage the business. But I made the pivot to what you would call traditional companies being their inception is before the age of the internet.
They’re probably not tech companies really, but the future of their customer experience or the business model is now profoundly affected by technology and they need to really probably rewire a lot of the guts of the company around technology. And so I became the first chief digital officer in the history of the Fortune 500, and that was with McDonald’s in 2000.
And so the wall that I hit was one that was cultural where people haven’t grown up in the internet aids, it’s not a digital native company, and it’s not as much, okay, what’s the latest idea? How do we spin up a team and see if this might, you know, turn into a really high growth machine. It’s a different bar for, you know, vetting ideas and, uh, committing to them.
It’s, it’s different coming in from this Silicon Valley, you know, you’re probably. Oh, it’s obvious. This is the next wave. Let’s go all in and let’s do it as fast as possible. But, um, you need to bring other people along. And a lot of that is why I wrote the book because rather than say, okay, well we won’t have big ideas and we’ll sort of just think small because we, that’s what we could get buy-in around, how do we maintain that high bar for our ideas and do it at a quick pace? I had to invent new ways to accomplish that.
Adam Outland: And so when you came in at this new digital strategy, were there people just looking at you like, what’s your job like, what are you doing here, man?
Atif Rafiq: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and that’s to be expected because at that time, you know, mark Andes had just coined the phrase, you know, software is eating the world, but people didn’t really know what that meant.
And so the challenge was to explain, you know, why does digitization matter to McDonald’s? And so the way I approach. Was to put it in familiar terms. So I would always, uh, start with the same sort of spiel where I would say, look, McDonald’s over 60 years has been about three things, taste, value, and convenience.
And people wouldn’t nod their heads and agree. And the first two, I, I can’t do anything about with, you know, what I’m focused on here at the company. But the third one, convenience. That’s something we’ve owned and we want to continue to own that in the future. and everyone would nod their head and then we’d, the door would be open for the conversation around what, how can digitization make the McDonald’s customer experience even better?
So there, you know, you overcome some of the question marks by really respecting the heritage of the company and putting what you’re doing in familiar terms. So that was step one. The key thing is to take advantage of the collective intelligence around the table. Like what, what would make this. , how would it break?
What do we need to solve for? And just really, uh, make that a specific step in the process. I was trying to boot up where the unknowns are something that we sort of, kind of take inventory of, and then we actually spend time getting to the bottom of them because we’re suspending judgment. We’re creating space.
For what I call exploration, and then we’re going to move on to the process of drawing conclusions or coming up with recommendations. When I shifted from Amazon to McDonald’s, I tried to bring in Amazon’s way of working, especially around a narrative. Into, into McDonald’s were some of our more meaningful ideas, and I’ve found that, you know, obviously it works well at Amazon and it’s a culture where everything you’re solving, whether it’s an operational problem, you know, a marketing problem or you know, some type of product idea is, uh, has to be distilled into a document.
It’s six pages. It’s essentially sort of an investigation of the idea. I’ve tried to bring that into McDonald’s and I couldn’t make it work. It was more of a conversational environment, right? Like more like let’s have a meeting and, and talk about it. So I was even trying to get people comfortable with, here’s a pen and draw it on the whiteboard, right?
So it was that kind of situation and um, but I was trying different ways. Um, kind of nudge people to, to think twice, to dig a little deeper, to sort of ask questions. Uh, supe, suspend a little judgment until we can do the right fact finding. You know what I mean? Fast forward five or six years later and then I, I started to say, wow, you know, maybe there is a method for this.
And so I would run my meetings in different ways. I would gather the right team and I would share with them a three step process where I would say, look, Our first meeting is gonna be this loose sort of brainstorm. We’re gonna whiteboard a lot. We’re gonna raise a lot of the important questions and subject matters.
And you’re gonna feel like, uh, intimidated by the end of the meeting. Cuz, cuz you’re gonna feel like, wow, there’s just so much we don’t know. , but it’s okay. I’m gonna give you a week and you’re gonna come back and you’re gonna put something on the table after a week, and that’s gonna be our second meeting.
And you’re gonna actually feel pretty good because you’re gonna say, Hey, you know, we see how this puzzle is starting to fit together. And then we’re gonna, we’re gonna look at it, we’re gonna try and tear it apart. We’re gonna come up with the next wave of things we wanna look into, and then we’re gonna have a third meeting and you’re gonna feel you’re gonna come in really confident.
And you’re gonna feel like, wow, we really, you know, you really want people to, to question you because you’ve done your homework, you’ve done the detective work. You are really smart about every aspect of this, and you can defend the recommendation that you have on the table.
Adam Outland: I’ve been in some of these, you know, meetings as well, where you’re kind of trying to figure out the solution of problem and in order to getting a group of partners together to group things on a whiteboard and brainstorm and trying to get that puzzle sorted and figure out your prior. When we’ve done that, there’s sometimes where it’s yeah, per like, we all agree, right? But a lot of times there’s people with different opinions. How do you navigate that? How do you sort through that when there is a big disagreement?
Atif Rafiq: The number one reason why that happens is what I call a lineman before exploration. We have to say, well have we sort of built and run an exploration where we’ve surfaced the important considerations, especially the unknowns, and have we gotten to the bottom of them?
And that can be done in a simple form as an faq. And if the answer is no, we don’t have a list of the most important questions and we haven’t. Given the people, responsible people the opportunity to get to the bottom of those questions, then we’re a little bit out of sequence. And this is the number one, you know, problem because we put too much expectation on a single meeting to do many things, to brainstorm, to re, to explore, or to get to the bottom of questions, to draw conclusions. That’s just too much in one interaction, if that makes sense.
Adam Outland: So you find using this process of brainstorm first be patient, don’t try and squeeze it all into one meeting. You can generally get the buy-in of the group along one aligned path through that process. So you play the role of investor advisory to a lot of different startups. Including Head space, um, SpaceX, I, I think I’ve heard of them. 23 and me. I mean, these are really successful companies. Right. So you play this role, uh, a little bit of an advisor now to a lot of these folks. My question for you is actually, you know, kinda going back in time real quick. Who played that advisor role to you and your career that helped you formulate, uh, who you are today and, and your procedure and, and your approach to business?
Atif Rafiq: I would say that I am actually a compilation of a lot of different, The way that my business career has evolved is more where I notice and observed something that I thought was very, you know, special, a gift in, in an individual leader. And I thought to myself, well, that would be a nice, you know, gift to have.
And so, How do I bring a little bit of this person into me? For me, it’s been far less of here’s one or two people who have consistently been there as, uh, mentors, so to speak, and more, you know, learning in line too. Seeing how they’re operating in the real environment and saying, wow, that is, you know, that is something to work towards, you know, actually, uh, have some recency bias here.
Going back to, let’s say, Volvo, where the CEO o uh, Hawk on Samuelson. Was just a very deeply curious person where he would not really worry too much about, well, how much time do we have left in this meeting? Or, you know, are we going to hit our, our numbers? But more if there was an according curiosity where that would kind of fill in the blank for him so he could understand things well enough.
You know, he, he did hesitate to, to ask those questions. So, you know, curiosity from the. Former CEO Volvo. Very important thing, you know? Rolling back to the CO McDonald’s, who was the CO when I first joined Don Thompson, just a. Charismatic person, you’re very hard to be charismatic if you’re not born that way.
And he, he was and is, it’s more like he disinfected people with positivity. So there’s some of that of like, okay, well, building people up. You know, when I look at, you know, senior leaders at, at Amazon, I would say, well, hmm, this person really always asks sort of the, the right question. You know, like, Hearing a fairly complex idea, putting their finger on sort of the one thing that would make or break the idea.
So thinking twice, thinking a little bit deeper, trying to synthesize all the information to like, what does it really mean? These are some of the people I’ve observed sort of out in, in my career, so it’s been a lot less of. . Here’s one person who I, I can always call and have a hotline for what I’m going through and more of like, okay, well what can I take from the environment around me?
Adam Outland: I really like that approach. I mean, it’s kind of what mentorship in, in some narrative is, which is finding people and their golden nugget, no one’s perfect.
Atif Rafiq: I think is also little bit in recognition that each individual does have some gaps as well. So you say, Hmm, let me take this part of that. But not the other.
Adam Outland: Yeah. Can we talk about all the bad parts of the people you just mentioned? I’m just kidding.
Atif Rafiq: They’re only good parts.
Adam Outland: They’re all the good parts. Right. You know, we’re called the Action Catalyst podcast in part because interviews and conversations are helping our audience of entrepreneurs and, and business owners and, and people figure out how they can be action oriented in their life. And so even your book is around this a little bit in decision making and, and a team and alignment On a personal level, what’s a habit or practice that you have that saves you the most time each day or helps you be more efficient?
Atif Rafiq: I always, uh, give myself the luxury of, you know, focusing on one thing and being, you know, getting the most meaningful thing right now done as a win for the day.
And when you take that mindset, you know, usually you get several things done. You know, you, you tend. get momentum in what you’re trying to achieve.
Adam Outland: Yes. Figuring out what that one thing is.
Atif Rafiq: Right now, not from yesterday, because another mantra sort of I live by is like what matters most now, and it could be, you know, different today than it was yesterday and it’s certainly not a function of what’s the latest thing that came into your inbox or what’s calling, you know, what’s biting at you more.
It’s not, you need to sort. Probably , uh, take a step back and really reflect like, what is the most important thing I can do right now for this team, for this organization in terms of my contribution? And then really just put a lot of, uh, energy and concentration into that. Knock it out of the park. You know, you get that one, one thing done.
It tends to create a lot of momentum because say you’re a leader, it probably unlocks a bunch of other people to go do their. Creates a lot of clarity for them. You know, if you’re an individual contributor, it’s still a huge contribution for your organization. It’s something they probably need and now that they have that, you know, three other things can happen.
But really by distilling that something really important gets out the door. I mean, if one thing porn can get out the door over the course of an entire week, that’s, that’s quite a bit of contribu. Yeah, and
Adam Outland: that almost sounds to some degree how your process helps organizations as well. That alignment principle of figuring out, helping the team figure out what that one thing is.
Atif Rafiq: For sure. I mean, even when, when I talk about the mantra exploration before alignment as opposed to the other way around, it’s like the order kind of matters because if you service the right, you know, unknowns and you get your head around them, get the team’s head space around. Then they’re gonna, the alignment’s gonna be easy.
The decision making’s gonna be, uh, easy as well. I’ve been in so many non-decision decision meetings when people look, look at it like, wow, why did we have so much anxiety and think this was gonna be hard? Well, they didn’t really know that. You know, in the weeks leading up to it, we were doing the work in the right order, and we put so much, you know, concentrated effort into the exploration. We took all the pressure up, the decision point.
Adam Outland: Having some responsibility of, of leading a team and dealing with some of the roadblocks that come with that from time to time. I’m, I’m looking forward to reading the book as well. So for our listeners out there, check it out. Uh, decision sprint, the new way to innovate into the unknown and move from strategy to action. Thank you so much for carving out a little window of time for us today and sharing some of your experience and how you came to some of these ideas. So I appreciate your time.
Atif Rafiq: It’s been a pleasure to join you, Adam.