Don Parkinson

One reboot is not enough

Don Parkinson has had a very diverse and interesting career and life. He has seriously retired – and rebooted – twice. Here’s his story:

Don Parkinson

Nearly all of my life I wanted to be in the automobile business.  I grew up in a family owned dealership and began working there in middle school sweeping and washing cars.  I always liked that business.

After college, I worked for Procter and Gamble for three years, learning sales management and discipline. “Plan the work, work the plan” was drilled into me. I left P&G and joined the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors, progressing through 11 jobs and eight houses in 11 years. While I enjoyed the business, the disruption to our family was wearing.

Don and Libby Parkinson

I was recruited to become a vice president of Kentucky Fried Chicken, accepted the offer, and we moved to Louisville, Kentucky. I had to learn a new business, and it was a challenge to adapt. I spent a year as a cook, dishwasher, manager, and multi-unit supervisor, and came to appreciate the contributions of all team members. A year later I was made regional vice president responsible for 500 restaurants and thousands of team members.

After three years I became president of a Mexican fast food chain owned by KFC, but when KFC was bought by Pepsico the chain was folded into Taco Bell and I returned to KFC as senior vice president of development. I stayed at KFC for 20 years and retired at 57.

First reboot

I had developed a health problem, so my wife Libby and I built a second home in Naples, Florida, and decided to retire. It didn’t last long. Six weeks into retirement, we decided that making plans for golf, dinners or travel was an empty way to live, so we sold the house in Florida and got re-engaged in community organizations in Louisville. That was my first reboot.

I became interim CEO of the Kentucky Performing Arts Center, a position which led to appointment by the mayor of Louisville to become the volunteer liaison to the arts community, a $1 per year position. My challenge was to help arts group focus on efficiency and raise money. We weren’t entirely successful during my time there, but we planted enough administrative management seeds to enable the groups to come together to share some administrative services a few years later.

I was asked to return to KFC as a consultant to help resolve some legal and operational challenges.  It was very strange at first to return.  Now I had to lead change without organizational authority and had to sell new ideas and recruit partners. We settled a franchisee lawsuit and began healing the organization. Eighteen months later, I retired from KFC for the second time.

For the next ten years Libby and I traveled extensively to the San Francisco area to visit our daughter and family and to Africa to visit our son and family.   We were still involved in charities in the arts and healthcare.  Retirement was interesting but we were never really settled.

Reboot No. 2

Then in November of 2015, an opportunity for a second reboot came out of the blue. I was asked to become the Kentucky Secretary of Tourism, Arts and Heritage. In this new role, I had to learn so much and so fast. Many 70-hour weeks.  In my lifetime, I never worked so hard or enjoyed anything as much. 

The cabinet had 16 agencies and 2,000 employees.  As a public servant, I was dealing with legislators, press and civic groups.   My first priority was to learn the basics and hire functional experts with experience in government.  I learned that government employees and legislators are not shown the respect they deserve.  There are always exceptions, but in my experience, most want to do their best for the public.

We accomplished much in four years.  We made a plan to improve state agencies and the image of Kentucky.  We planned the work and worked the plan.  We had to sell our vision to not only the executive branch but also the legislature.  We communicated our vision very simply and clearly.  Just like selling soap.  We secured badly needed capital to fix neglected facilities. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.

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I have been very lucky in my life.  I married a very smart lady, Libby, who has been a great partner and has led organizations on her own. Several things I’ve learned as I have been challenged in new organizations:

One of my most challenging roles was when I became Secretary at age 72 and just finished at 76. It was an intense job, but great fun. The point is so many reach their 60’s and retire. They miss so much. We need to encourage others to stay in the game. Challenges help us grow and should be embraced. We should not focus on age as it can limit our thinking.

And some other final thoughts for people joining new organizations:

First, go slow at the start, and listen and learn.  It takes time to get it right. Second, find people in the organization with experience and influence with whom you can partner.  Third, lay out a clear vision with simple goals.  Communicate goals simply, effectively, and often. Fourth, be approachable and listen to everyone in the organization regardless of their role. I have found that janitors have very interesting insights.