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Reuben Mark, former Chairman and CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, sat down with Adam Bryant, Senior Advisor to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, to answer a few questions about empathetic leadership, effective organizational culture, and making all your employees feel appreciated.
Adam: You’ve said that consistency is important in leadership. Please talk more about that.
Reuben: You have to set a certain standard of how you would likely react to something. Would you get upset? Would you get excited or would you deal with it calmly? Over time, you start to establish a more predictable pattern.
There are some leaders who prefer to be unpredictable to keep people off balance. But in a big organization, my sense is that you do not want to keep people off balance. You want to people to feel like they can use everything they’ve heard and learned over time as a reference point.
Adam: How did you learn that? It’s an important insight because there’s such an intense spotlight on CEOs. People read a lot into even subtle body language.
Reuben: There’s no question that you’re being studied at every moment. It’s the little things that matter, like saying hello to executive assistants. This may sound corny, but you’re representative of the soul of the enterprise. As CEO, you are the personification of the company, and you influence people in ways that you may not even realize.
Adam: In your presentations, you also focus on clear and simple messaging. That can be a rare skill in business. How did you learn it?
Reuben: I spent time in ROTC, and I learned how effective the military world is in teaching. In the Army, you have to educate people over the whole spectrum of experience and so they boil everything down to a few simple contexts. “Today we’re going to talk about four things. Here is the first thing, here is the second thing, here is the third thing, here is the fourth thing.” You explain them and then you summarize. “Today we talked about four things.”
And that’s what I would do at our annual meetings at Colgate. I’d say, “Here are the four things we’re going to talk about today,” and then methodically go through them. Then there’s a chance of people remembering them. Everything has to be broken down into simple concepts. It was our approach with our values at Colgate. We had just three: caring, continuous improvement and global teamwork. Everything stems from those three things.
Adam: Other leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Reuben: How you think about power is important. You amass more power by welcoming people in and then being able to exert it than having people be in silos and separated from you. You also spend the early part of your career amassing power and then you spend a lot of time in the second half of your career giving it away.
I’ve seen situations where the boss is so good and so knowledgeable that basically he answers any question that comes up at the board meeting. Everybody respects him. But there are two risks with that approach. One is that if he gets run over by a truck, suddenly things come screeching to a halt. And second, nobody feels that they’re empowered. So a very important part of the job of being a CEO is giving away power so that the business can run by itself.
Adam: What else?
Reuben: When you visit a factory, you’ve got to make an effort to connect with everybody, and also go beyond just the tour they’ve set up for you. Because when you visit a factory, it’s always freshly painted because people prepare for the visit. But you always have to find a way to show them that everything matters.
I remember going through a factory in the Philippines and I said, “Can I see the men’s locker room?” I went into the men’s locker room and there were broken lockers, and the room had not been painted in a long time. Then when I went to the next factory in Malaysia or wherever, suddenly all the locker rooms are painted and cleaned. Little by little you’re establishing what’s important. Word gets out.
It’s the same with walking the halls at headquarters. My assistant kept a chart that tracked the last time I had visited different floors. You have to make sure you’re visible, and that you don’t appear to be favoring one group more than the others.
Adam: What else did you do to make sure you had a feel for what was happening at the company?
Reuben: In the early 80’s – profits were up and the stock price was going up – we started to talk more about the non-business things that could hurt us. So we identified a half-dozen areas, including environmental and discrimination issues, and set up programs to more carefully monitor and promote them.
One of our realizations was that many problems occur because something happens that may not seem terribly important to local management, and they try to tamp it down so nobody knows about it. And, of course, that is often the worst thing that can happen.
So I said that if anything occurs on those six or so key issues, I wanted a red folder on my desk within 24 hours. People said I would get too many of them, but I only got one once every two or three weeks. The point was to make everyone aware that they should not try to handle things solely on their own. You can’t ignore things because they’re going to come out. And sometimes a demonstration of humanity and caring from the CEO can make a big difference.
It’s also how you role model the idea of continuous improvement. There may be things you might not want to tell anyone, but by working together you make things better. Nobody’s going to bite your head off, and you’re encouraged to do it better the next time.
Adam: You talk a lot about focusing on people and making sure that everyone feels appreciated. Where does that come from?
Reuben: My father was like that. He took care of everybody in the family and he also helped others financially. He was always caring about people. He was the treasurer of a small manufacturing firm in Jersey City, and I remember very clearly, when I was 8 or 9 years old, walking around with him in the factory. I can picture it still, him waving to some guy up on the catwalk and him coming down to talk to my dad with a big grin on my face. In the thousands of plant tours I’ve done, I’m reliving that and trying to duplicate what he did.
It’s a simple equation. People do better and they’re more productive when they’re happier and when they feel that people care about them and they’re being given a fair shake.