Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has gone from working a low-budget farm to running a billion-dollar company — and he’s done it without sticking to a plan.
The 50-year-old billionaire said in a recent episode of the ReThinking podcast with organizational psychologist Adam Grant that his adaptability has contributed to his success. And he recommends that others learn this skill.
“Planning has never been my thing,” he told Grant. “[When you stick to plans] You create a kind of rigid lines and don’t see the dimension of the possibilities.”
Many professionals see planning as an essential tool for success because it can help you stay focused and take responsibility for achieving the goals you set. But if you rely too much on a plan, you also become stuck and unable to adapt when changing circumstances make your original plans redundant.
Ulukaya has experienced it first hand. He moved to the US in 1994 without much money, having come from a “tribal life” in Turkey where he grew up in a family of nomadic dairy farmers. While attending school, he took a job on a farm in upstate New York to make ends meet. Years later, Ulukaya came across an ad for a full-fledged yogurt factory — and when he bought it, he needed a business plan.
“I created my first business plan, which I wrote for the Small Business Administration [get a loan] “Buying the whole factory… It was the first time I’ve ever done that,” he said. “And six months after I opened the factory, no one remembered that plan. It was only a fraction of what we had accomplished in the first six years [to] seven months.”
Ulukaya and Chobani stayed at this plant for five years, enduring challenges and adapting to changes such as the Great Recession of 2007. He said the company had sales of $1 billion in 2012.
According to Ulukaya, he didn’t know the ins and outs of business early in his career — but not sticking to planning norms as a business owner actually served him well.
“Not knowing was one of the best things that has ever happened to me because if I had known all those things and done all kinds of calculations … I probably would have doubted myself,” he said.
Ulukaya isn’t alone in abandoning the conventional wisdom of creating a career plan and sticking to it. Apple boss Tim Cook sees it the same way.
As part of his MBA curriculum at Duke University, Cook had to write a 25-year plan, he told undergraduates and graduate students at his 2013 class reunion. Years later, he found that plan hidden in a box.
“I would say it was reasonably accurate 18 to 24 months after it was written,” Cook said. “There was nothing, not even what was accurate after the post. Nothing.”
Sixteen years after founding Chobani, Ulukaya says he now needs a certain amount of preparation when running a large company, but he vows never to be rigid in pursuing plans.
“Obviously I struggle with things like this as I run a big company now and I have to make some plans,” he said. “But I never lock myself into it. I never lock myself in this prison.”
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