Jim Donald, former CEO of Starbucks Coffee and Pathmark Stores, forged a reputation for turning around financially ailing companies early in his career. He also served 16 years in executive management positions with Albertsons, Walmart (where he oversaw the expansion of its Super Center stores), and the eastern division of Safeway.

It’s expected that a business executive with this kind of consumer experience and pedigree would fit right in addressing students in a top business school. But Donald says the lessons he’s learned in decades of high-level management also pertain to managers in the cattle business.

During the recent 4C Summit in Seattle, a collaborative program between Elanco and Micro Beef Technologies, Donald provided an animated keynote presentation to attendees on his six-step process for succeeding in business. By the way, the 4Cs signify meeting Challenges, making Connections, establishing Collaboration, and empowering Commitment. (Watch a video that digs deeper into this topic here.)

“These six dance steps are all I do when I go into new companies. It works for me and I know it will work for you. I can’t tell you what the price of cattle or meat will be in 2017, but I can promise you that these six dance steps, if taken seriously and applied, will guarantee that you’ll be around, much bigger and much more profitable,” Donald told the crowd of almost 300 producers.

The key to it all, Donald stressed, is “to understand that you’re not dealing with cattle, you’re dealing with people.”

Continuing with his dancing metaphor, Donald said the job of a leader is not to make the numbers dance. “All of you are leaders in your own right in regard to your business, but it’s not up to you to make the numbers dance, the profits improve, or the cattle perform better. The job of a leader is to make the people dance, to motivate them; those are the people who make the numbers dance.”

Taking the stage with Donald was Clement Stevens, the head of perishables merchandising for Seattle-based Haggen Foods. The duo shared their experiences as leaders focused on innovation, quality, service and strong relationships within the community.

Step 1: Have a fish story. It’s important, Donald says, that a successful business differentiate itself. Thus, your operation needs “a story” that customers will remember and that depicts your importance to the market.

“What is your fish story? What is it that you’re going to be able to tell your customers that they will be able to remember? Your story must stick with people. People don’t retain slides and graphs,” he says.

As an example, Donald said that when he hired Stevens to head up perishables merchandising for Haggen Foods, “the company was flat broke; we had the highest prices in town and failing profits.”

Stevens adds: “When I arrived at Haggen Foods, we had a meat program, but it was just like everyone else’s – we had Select, we had Choice, but we didn’t know where it came from, etc. There was no story behind it. There was nothing that was making us stand out.”

 So Stevens began studying his customers and his community – what were they looking for? In the end, their niche became what their customer base told them they wanted: “local, associated with a real ranch, sustainable, locally sourced feedstuffs. We utilized a local ranch and partnered with Agri Beef, Co., a meat company from the Northwest (Boise, ID).”

In just two years, the regional chain rebuilt its brand on the notion of providing local products that represent the quality and integrity of the Pacific Northwest and marketing Northwest beef to customers, and supporting local ranchers. The strategy was so successful that, in February, Haggen Foods garnered the national Beef Backer Award in the Mid-Size Retailer category.

“When I brought Stevens in, our beef was down 18-20%; when I left it was up 40%,” Donald says in lauding the accomplishments of Stevens and his team.