Reuben Mark sat down with Adam Bryant, Senior Advisor to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, to discuss top-down transparency, simple yet effective company values, and the most difficult aspect of leadership for the second installement in our "As the Leader" series.
Adam: I’ve always been intrigued by the insight that CEOs are “over-read,” and that people see outsized meaning in everything the leader says and does. And yet the CEO job comes with a lot of pressure. How should leaders think about managing their emotions?
Reuben: You simply have to remind yourself of your larger role in the organization. As CEO, my job was to build and maintain the culture so we could all go together to where we were headed long-term. So while I may have been angry or distressed by what was happening at a particular moment, I had to literally force that back inside myself so as not to violate what I’d been trying to build. As a leader, you have to role-model the behaviors you expect from others every day. If you let your emotions dominate you, then there can be a fear factor and everyone will emulate you, which I think is totally non-productive.
Adam: Other ways you managed the bright spotlight on you as the CEO to ensure people weren’t reading signals you didn’t intend?
Reuben: I was always very careful to limit my socializing with anybody in the company, including the board of directors. Picking “friends” is an obvious example of favoritism. How do you maintain the impression of true openness and neutrality when you’re playing golf on the weekends with certain employees or directors? Maybe I was too strict on it, but that rule always was important to me.
Another point is that there are no secrets in companies. People notice everything, and you can use that fact of life to reinforce certain values. A very minor example was that I would sometimes send personal mail from the office, but each month I would write a check for seven dollars, or whatever the small amount was, to pay the company back for the postage. As that check was processed, word would get out that I was doing that. You’re trying to establish a democratic norm. It was the same reason we sold the corporate aircraft after I became CEO, and we never got one again in the 23 years I was in that role.
Adam: Another key aspect of culture is the list of values that companies create. In my experience, the lists are often far too long for everyone to remember. What was your approach?
Reuben: It’s true that most company’s lists of values are too long and that employees can’t remember them. It’s got to be really simple and basic. The values at Colgate-Palmolive are 1. “Caring,” as in caring for all our constituents; 2. “Global teamwork;” and 3. “Continuous improvement,” which means that if people make mistakes, they should learn from them and get better. Almost everything can be related to those three values, so it’s simple and it’s inescapable.
Similarly, you have to have easily understood guidelines for the strategy. For example, all the activities of the company were divided into three general efforts. One was driving growth – marketing, sales, R&D and so forth. Second was funding the growth, which meant finding the money to do all that work. And third was becoming the best truly global company. We kept repeating and reiterating those same messages. They really cover every aspect of even a complicated business.
And the fact that the values could mean different things to different people is a good thing. They were sufficiently general so that people could come at them this way or that way and find meaning in them for their own work.
Continuous improvement was a different way of saying try, and if you fail, we’ll work together to fix it. You don’t want a culture where you’re grooming future leaders and then pushing them out if they make one mistake. If somebody has done well for all those years, certainly there’s something desirable and coachable about them despite the one failure.
Adam: What do you believe is the most difficult part of leadership?
Reuben: One of the most difficult aspects is thinking simultaneously on several different levels. What’s going on now? What are the longer-term implications? What are the human implications if I do this or do that? What is the best way to get from here to there? You have to think through the second- and third-order consequences of any decision, however small or big, and the potential risks.