Procter & Gamble CEO Tells Students to "Be Who You Are"
A. G. Lafley Shares Stories of Colorful Career Path, Guiding Principles.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—It is probably a safe bet to say that A.G. Lafley is the only CEO from a Fortune 500 company who had a fellowship to study Medieval and Renaissance history. Or studied cinema and theater for a year in "the surfing capital of Europe," Biarritz, France.
Or, for that matter, eschewed bigger-name universities to study at tiny Hamilton College in upstate New York in hopes that the basketball team could use a 5-foot-11 guard (turns out it could). Or studied modern Hebrew and electronics in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War only to be stationed in Japan running golf courses.
Or chose business school instead of law school because he would be done a year sooner. He did, at least, get that right. He earned an MBA from Harvard, the farm system for CEOs.
But listen to Lafley, president, CEO and chairman of the board of Procter & Gamble, talk about his guiding principles in business and life, and his colorful path to the top job at P&G makes perfect sense. Lafley, who spoke Jan. 18 in Hale Auditorium, told the assembled students that above all else they should know themselves, be themselves and "have fun."
His appearance was part of the Ross School's Global Citizenship Partnership Initiative, which was created to develop and spread global corporate citizenship in business schools and corporations. Procter & Gamble is one of three corporate partners (General Electric and 3M are the others) in the initiative, which is run by Professor Noel Tichy. He served as moderator during Lafley's talk.
Lafley, who has been with the Cincinnati company since 1977 and CEO since 2000, told the audience that he wondered what they "might be remotely interested in at 4-5 p.m. on a dark, snowy afternoon."
He said he decided to provide the assembled students his "10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Sitting in Your Seat About to Graduate from Business School."
#1 – Know Yourself.
"It may seem like a fairly basic observation but when you're 22-24, I really didn't think I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was, what I wanted to be when I grew up," Lafley said. "You have to be in touch with who you are."
Are you one who can get up at 5 a.m. and get to work? Or do you prefer your first class at 1 p.m.? Are you a reader or listener, writer or talker, leader or follower?
"Most businesses I've been associated with are a team game," he said. "We're not a very good place to come if you're a bratty singles tennis player. It's a great place to come if you're a team player."
#2 – Be Crystal Clear About Your Values and Value System.
"What does integrity mean to you?" Lafley said. "What are your family values? What are your cultural values? What does trust mean? What does friendship mean?
"At my company we are purpose and values driven, strategy and principles led," he said. It's about integrity, trust, ownership and leadership. "Think about who you are and what you really deeply care about," Lafley said.
#3 – Change Is Inevitable.
"One thing you can count on is change," he said. "Despite a lot of hard work, a lot of analysis, a lot of planning, the biggest change is not a change that is anticipated."
He cited the December 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters around the world that affected P&G's operations.
When faced with change, there are some options, Lafley said. You can get in a hole and hope it goes away, you can try to resist it or stop it, or you can go with the flow. None are good solutions.
"The choice we try to make is as soon as we spot change, we try to understand it and see if we can turn it to our advantage," he said.
#4 – The Ability to See Things As They Are, Not As How You’d Like Them to Be.
Lafley said he is "reasonably good" at seeing things as they are and dealing with them. "It's human nature to want to see things in a way that makes them more acceptable, more manageable," he said. "One thing you're going to have to do no matter what career you choose is to deal with reality."
#5 – The Notion of Being Customer-centric.
Lafley said it must be understood that the customer is the boss. It simply isn't a slogan, he said. To be successful, one must get under the customer's skin, get in her head and her heart to understand what she’s thinking, what she's feeling and what she wants. "No woman woke up in the morning and said, 'Gee, my life would be better if I had a Swiffer,'" Lafley said. That just doesn't happen."
#6 – The Power of Strategy.
"Strategy in my world is critical because strategy is the set of choices of what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do," he said. "Most companies say they have a strategy, but many companies do not have a strategy that they act on."
Some choices P&G made when it came to strategy included growing from its core, moving into health and beauty care, focusing on its core strengths and getting better, being more productive and attracting the strongest talent.
#7 – The Power of Execution.
It's what really happens, what you really do. "Execution is the only strategy that your consumer, your retailer, your competitor — the only strategy anybody on the outside — ever sees," Lafley said. "They don’t see the strategy we wrote down, the choice set."
#8 – The Power of Leadership.
Though Lafley thinks management is important, he said there are a lot of good managers and a lot of well-managed companies. "What makes the difference, what makes an impact is leadership," he said. "And I'm not just talking about leadership at my level, at the top. I'm talking about leadership at every level."
#9 – The Balance Between Mastery and Leadership.
Leadership is fine, Lafley said. But leadership without knowledge and experience "oftentimes doesn't get it done. "Masters bring knowledge, they bring expertise," he said. "I don't believe leaders are born. I believe leaders choose to lead at some point in their life because they have a call to action."
#10 – Be Yourself.
Lafley said this is the most important point. "Be who you are. Be passionate about who you are and what you care about," he said. "And have fun."
Lafley also took a few questions from the audience. He was asked about the toughest decisions he has to make (letting people go, shutting down operations) and what advice he would give a student who is going to start a T-shirt company. Lafley responded by talking about the importance of branding, telling the student: "A brand makes a promise it can keep."
He then finished by wishing the students happiness and peace. "I hope you have the courage to be yourself and you choose something in life that you want to do," Lafley said.
Written by Dan Shine
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Mary Jo Frank
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