Ten Career Lessons from The Founder Movie

Last Saturday night, I finally got to watch the controversial movie “The Founder”, a biographical drama that tells the fascinating story of Ray Kroc who turned a single hamburger operation in California created by the McDonald brothers in 1940 into the global fast food empire with a market cap of US$165 billion. It is obvious that the movie portrays Ray Kroc as a greedy and unethical narcissist. To some extent, I have to agree that the criticism of his ruthlessness and disloyalty is warranted. That being said, this brilliant movie is packed with valuable career lessons that everyone, job seekers especially, can learn from. Here are ten of them:

1. Persistence

Persistence is probably the biggest lesson this movie teaches. How do you create a restaurant business and become an overnight success at the age of 52? Ray Kroc said, “I was an overnight success alright, but 30 years is a long, long night.”

There is an excellent quote in the movie by Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent won’t; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius won’t; unrewarded genius is practically a cliché. Education won’t; the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful.”

In the job search process, it is tempting for one to look for a shortcut to success. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Getting a great job offer will take a lot of hard work and rejections, even if you already have a perfect resume. Winston Churchill put it best: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

2. You Are Not Too Old

Ray Kroc joined the McDonald’s when he was 52 years old. At that time, the McDonald brothers, Mac and Dick, were 52 and 45, respectively. If the three men found their success at such an “old” age, maybe you should not be too frustrated that you haven’t landed your dream job at 26. I am probably too old for this” is a comment that frequently comes up during my coaching sessions with experienced job seekers. Don’t let your age be the excuse of not striving for greatness.

3. Shoot for The Moon

Norman Vincent Peale once said “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” Most job seekers are not ambitious enough. They are settling for the low-hanging fruit. Recently, a new client of mine at 36paths with a Master of Financial Economics degree confessed that he would be happy if he could land a Teller role. No disrespect to hardworking tellers out there, but I encouraged him to think bigger and shoot for a more intellectually challenging role that better utilizes his education. All of us can learn from Ray Kroc. He had an ambitious goal of making McDonald’s a coast-to-coast sensation. Guess what? He overachieved it eventually.

4. Be Open-minded & Inquisitive

Before coming across McDonald’s, Ray Kroc was an unsuccessful milkshake machine salesman. He had sold paper cups, worked as a real estate agent, and sometimes played the piano in bands. He certainly did not have a linear career path by any means, thanks to his open-mindedness. More importantly, when he learnt that a client just ordered 6 milkshake mixers, he did not simply fulfill the order and move on. Instead, his inquisitiveness led him to drive over 2,800 kilometres to find out exactly why a local burger drive-in wanted 6 milkshake mixers. And the rest is history.

I’d recommend exposing yourself to various areas, even those you previously never thought of. For instance, assuming that you are dedicated to pursuing a career in investment banking, which is perfectly fine, but don’t limit yourself to only Investment Banking. Apply to jobs and network with professionals in areas such as Sales & Trading, Equity Research and Corporate Banking and see what happens. Always be curious to learn more, because your dream job or the opportunity of your lifetime might be lying where you never imagined.

5. Quality Is Important

We can agree that Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers are very different people. But one thing they do have in common is that they strive for the highest quality. McDonald brothers ensure that every hamburger has two pickles and a precise shot of ketchup and mustard. You can say Ray Kroc is an untrustworthy salesman full of crap. But there is no doubt that he is obsessed with quality, just as the McDonald brothers. In fact, consistent quality is what makes McDonald’s such a global success.

As a job seeker, it is critical to make sure everything you deliver and present (i.e. resume and interview) is of the highest quality possible. Inconsistent format and typos on your resume are equivalent of three pickles and spoiled lettuce on a hamburger. It will ruin your brand.

6. Become A Great Story-teller

One thing that Ray Kroc does extremely well is his ability to tell a compelling story. He is great at inspiring others with his contagious passion and helping them (i.e. the McDonald brothers, franchisees, his wife) visualize his grand vision that McDonald’s can be “the new American church and it ain’t just open on Sundays”.

Start honing your communication and story-telling skills today. After all, who does not like an interesting story? The best part is that it will not only help your interviews and networking games in the near term, but also take your career and life to the next level, regardless of what you do. On the topic of how to better tell your story, my favourite book is Made to Stick. Check it out!

7. Be Methodical & Data-driven

The McDonald brothers, Dick, in particular, is highly methodical and data-driven, which I consider a key success factor of McDonald’s world-famous fries.

Of course, Ray Kroc religiously implemented the brothers’ data-driven success recipe, or the rapid franchise expansion would have been a disaster:

Another good example is that they measured each menu item’s revenue contribution and the finding behind the numbers is that 87% of the total sales come from hamburgers, fries, and pop. What did they do? They focused on exactly what sell. Brisket? Gone. Tamales? Gone.

During your job-hunting journey, you should measure key metrics. For example, I used this sheet when I was looking for my first full-time job. It helped me stay organized, but more importantly, after 1,000 applications (I was applying to jobs at both buy-side and sell-side), I discovered that all of my 13 interviews came from sell-side opportunities. This powerful discovery allowed me to become more targeted and effective in my subsequent networking and application efforts.

8. Do an Exceptional Job, Whatever You Do

There is a subtle scene in the movie when Kroc was checking the work of his employees. No one, except the young fellow named Fred Turner, did a perfect job. Turner grilled the beef patties flawlessly. His outstanding performance caught Kroc’s attention and he quickly got promoted. He was named Operations Vice President in 1958, four years after he graduated from Drake University. He later became the CEO of McDonald's when he was only 40 years old.

Lessons learned? Perfect your current role, despite how boring or tedious it might be. Because perfecting whatever you are doing now will get noticed – it is just a matter of time. Many successful people start from an unglamorous job. Unlike their peers, they embraced the boredom and perfected their craft, which eventually resulted in their seemingly lucky career success.

9. Be Proactive

Another important person in the history of McDonald’s is Harry Sonneborn. The then VP of Finance at Tastee-Freez, Sonneborn overheard Kroc’s conversation with the banker, approached Kroc and offered to review his books. A master of relationship-building, Sonneborn immediately established his credibility as a finance expert and pointed to Kroc that McDonald’s is not in the hamburger business but the real estate business. Kroc appointed Sonneborn McDonald's president and CEO in 1959 which he held until 1967.

Take a lesson from the networking pro Sonneborn. Don’t wait for opportunities to knock at the door, create them instead. This is particularly relevant when it comes to networking. Doing it consistently will increase your luck surface area and set you apart from your peers.

10. Be Kind & Grateful

I would have respected Mr. Kroc much more had he treated the McDonald brothers fairly and honoured the 1% annual royalty he promised over the handshake deal. He also refused to give credits to the brothers as co-founders of McDonald’s and creators of the “Speedy System”. In my opinion, success is more satisfying when it’s achieved together with others. Just look at the special bond between Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. I am sure Buffett won’t trade anything for his friendship with Munger. Ray Dalio also mentioned in his book Principles: Life and Work that he values relationships more than his success as judged by conventional measures.

It’s perfectly fine to pursue success in your career. But don’t do it at all costs. For me, spending meaningful time with my family and friends ranks higher than my career success. Know your priorities and always be grateful.

I have been fascinated by the origin stories behind successful companies and their founders since I was a kid. This movie did not disappoint me and I plan to get my hands on Ray Kroc’s autobiography – Grinding It Out. I definitely learnt many valuable lessons from watching the movie. I hope you can learn something out of it, too. All the best with the pursuit of a career you love.