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Former P&G CEO John Pepper on leadership, business immersion and the “Air” movie

Former P&G CEO John Pepper on leadership, business immersion and the “Air” movie

A discussion: Steve Boehler with John Pepper

Former P&G CEO John Pepper and I recently discussed business leadership, how to immerse yourself into an organization and business, and Matt Damon’s Air movie about Nike and Michael Jordan. John knows a thing or two about leading a successful business. And about good movies!

John was Procter & Gamble CEO and Board Chair at Walt Disney and Yale. John’s P&G experience was legendary, driving business growth, introducing new products and expanding the company’s global footprint. He also spearheaded efforts to improve employee diversity and inclusivity, earning recognition for his commitment to corporate social responsibility.

We started our discussion on the topic of the Air movie and moved on to a series of topics that are helpful for business, marketing and agency leaders.

Steve: John, thank you for recommending the movie Air. Robin and I loved it!

John: Air is a good movie on a lot of levels. One reviewer called it frothy. I understood that, yet to me it carried some marvelous lessons.

The first lesson was about the importance of vision. Nike needed to become really preeminent in basketball shoes, which they were not at the time. Sonny, played by Matt Damon, had a new, contrarian vision. The vision was to do it by making a single bet on one athlete rather than spreading out their resources and hoping one of the horses would come through. This was a change in strategy and seemed like a gamble.

His vision was both specific and bold. He identified Michael Jordan as the target of his vision.

He persisted against all kinds of barriers including Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike.

And he decided on a non-traditional path by going directly to Michael Jordan’s mother rather than through his agent. This was totally contrarian. It’s not how you were supposed to operate! But Sonny simply picked up the phone and called her. Her initial reaction was negative. She resisted: “Who the hell are you? Why are you coming at me like this?” But Sonny/Matt kept at it and he formed a bond of trust with her that led her to believe in him and to decide that this was the path to go.

There was also the approach to creating a whole new basketball shoe for Jordan. That was new and took vision and perseverance.

Overall, there were so many lessons to be found in Sonny’s journey: his vision, persistence, overcoming barriers, and forming a basis of trust with the person necessary for approval.

Steve: Those values remind me of the expectations that Procter & Gamble had of young brand managers. We were taught how deeply we were supposed to approach our business. Whether you were working on peanut butter or detergent, boy, you were expected to know the business, the consumer, the trade, the products, your competitors and of course your audiences. You needed to know your business just inside and out. I think those same expectations should exist whether you work for a company or for one of the agencies that supports your business.

John: You’re absolutely right. You said it perfectly and it applies to anything. That reminds me of something I always tried to follow. When I went into a new assignment or role, I tried to approach it as if I’d spend the rest of my life doing it. The rest of my life. And that meant understanding it in its inner fabric, every detail. The consumer, the customer, the technology.

I did not expect to have a Navy career when I joined the Navy. But I approached the job of Navy communications officer on a ship as if I would never do anything else and it would be my entire career. That thinking touches on what you just described, being totally involved, immersed in learning the business. And how you can improve it? What are the opportunities to advance it? To sustain it? You captured the thought perfectly.

Steve: Thinking about the Matt Damon character and what he did in the Air movie, are there any experiences you recall from P&G or Disney or Yale or anywhere else that are similar to the Matt Damon accomplishment and how he persisted?

John: There are many. One was at Yale, where it seemed like every four years there was a labor strike. This was a terrible set of outcomes for a university or any institution to have, not being able to get along with its workforce in a way that could achieve a common goal.

I discovered a real lack of trust in communication between the union leadership and the managers. They’d given up on each other. And in approaching that, I really was committed to fully understanding the union point of view. I mean, really understanding it. I met with the union leader. I went to union meetings to understand the dynamics, their views and what they were feeling. I threw myself into that with the idea of trying to really understand the situation.

A good example at Procter & Gamble is how we entered Russia and China. Our overarching goal was to become the leading consumer goods company in both of those countries. I felt to do that, we needed to totally immerse ourselves in the culture, history and people of each country.

What did I do? I read a lot of past and contemporary history about the counties. I met with government officials, not just to make a pitch to them for better duty or benefits, but to understand what they wanted, what they needed for their country, and how we could meld with it. I spent time on university campuses. I knew we were going to have to recruit the best people, local people. One of our first jobs was to get to know the people who would recommend students and gain their confidence.

It’s so hard to see the world through the eyes of other people, particularly people of different ethnicities and nationalities. Our overall approach was to really understand the total situation as it was seen by the people who were part of it.

The same thing worked at Disney. When I became the chair of Disney, I wanted to immerse myself in all things Disney. Well, that wasn’t hard to do. It was kind of fun to do. I spent days in the park with the head of operations starting at 9:00 AM to 11:00 PM, going to every ride, observing guests in every venue, going behind the scenes to see how they operated the rides, and their view of safety. A total immersion to get a basic understanding of the business, but also the culture and to start to form relationships, which are indeed the fabric of progress.

Steve: The way you threw yourself into those experiences is a lot easier to say than to do, and it takes such a commitment to really doing things right.

John: It takes a mindset. It’s a mindset that says, “In the beginning, I’m going to throw myself into this as if it’s the only thing I’m going to do.” I’ve been asked more than once, what defines the best board members you’ve ever seen? Rather than start with qualities, I started with people and I put together a list of 100 or so board members with whom I’ve worked. And I picked the 10 from that list that I thought were the best board members. And then I asked myself, why did I pick them? What were their qualities?

I won’t go through them all, but the first quality was every one of them approached their board membership as if it was the only thing they were doing at the time, the only thing that mattered. They were not sitting in, they weren’t trying to make themselves known, say something smart, show up. No. They were there to see how they could make a contribution. And you felt it and you saw it. And that was the first quality. And the people who’ve been most successful that I’ve seen at Yale or wherever are a driving force to make the institution better tomorrow than it is today because of their presence. That’s it.

John Pepper spent much of his career at Procter & Gamble, becoming CEO of the company in 1995. Following his time at P&G, he went on to serve as Board Chair at Walt Disney as well as Board roles at other fine companies and served as Board Chair at Yale. During his tenure as CEO, John led Procter & Gamble through a period of significant growth and expansion, introducing new products and expanding the company’s global footprint. He also spearheaded efforts to improve employee diversity and inclusivity, earning recognition for his commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Notably, John also co-founded the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, a museum and educational center dedicated to telling the story of the Underground Railroad and the struggle for freedom and civil rights in America.

Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Ulta Beauty, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Kaiser Permanente, Holland America Line, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.