Monthly Archives: April 2014

Lessons from 4 of America’s Most Outstanding Business Leaders


I recently had the privilege of attending an event where four of America’s most respected executive shared their perspectives on leadership.  Three of these men were CEOs or former CEOS, John Pepper, former CEO of Procter & Gamble; Steve Reinemund, former CEO of Pepsico and recently retired Dean of Wake Forest Business School;  and Doug McMillon, current CEO of Wal-Mart.  They were hosted by Don Soderquist, who is probably the most influential COO ever known.  He served Wal-Mart for over twenty years and was instrumental in helping the company grow from $44B in 1992 when Mr. Sam died, to $244B when Don stepped down 11 years later.  I was fortunate to serve alongside him as a human resources consultant while he was in that position, and later as one of the leaders in the early stages of the Soderquist Center.   I cannot begin to tell you all the things I have learned from Don.  One of those things is the importance of relationships.  Without a commitment to relationships, these four people would have never come together to freely offer to the NWA community the leadership and personal insights that they so generously provided at this event.

A few thoughts that stood out to me that I wanted to pass along to my readers, many of whom were unable to make it to the event.

John Pepper described a few things that had the greatest influence on him as a young leader.  They were:

  • People took the time to have an intentional influence on me.
  • These same people elevated my confidence
  • They established expectations
  • They conveyed trust
  • They set high standards
  • They lived by a set of solid core values.

One example he gave was the CEO of P&G before him who withdrew a product from market because no absolute scientific proof could be found that it would not contribute to toxic shock syndrome.  Rather than using that science to support a decision to continue to offer the product, he made the decision to ensure the customers’ safety.

John has written a book entitled, What Really Matters: Service, Leadership, People, and Values.  I haven’t read it yet, but can’t wait to get it.

Steve Reinemund tells a story of a leader who had a significant impact on him.  The story was about John Pepper.  Steve was the head of Pepsi’s Frito-Lay division when they were going head to head with P&G who produced Pringles.  Evidently they had both produced some pretty aggressive advertisements, which resulted in both companies suing each other.  That is when Steve received a call from John who asked if he could come and see him.  John flew down and Steve picked him up at the airport.  Steve said that when John spoke, he said, “This just doesn’t make sense.  We have to solve this.”  Steve said, “So we did.”  John said that Steve sent him a note that indicated that he had instructed his people to pull their ad.  John said he had already done the same.  Steve was impressed by the courage of John, which resulted in a lasting and respectful friendship.

Steve went on to say that at Pepsi leaders must develop leaders and that there were leaders who took an interest in him early on.   They provided feedback, good and bad.  They believed in me, and were truly committed to my success.  Steve said this is something he didn’t want to forget, so he dedicated a week each year to the development of forty high performing leaders who came together from all over the world.  He said we focused that week on personal and professional development, because both are critical to effectiveness as a leader.   I had the privilege of accompanying Don Soderquist to one of those week long sessions, where Don was a key speaker on ethics and culture.   Steve said that Don was the most highly rated presenters at each of the sessions he participated in, so he continued to invite him back.  But Don said that he was more impressed that a busy CEO of a large multinational company would spend a full week with forty people, and even gave them his cell number to ensure they had access.

When Doug McMillon was introduced we were reminded that he began his career as an hourly Associate unloading trucks.  Doug says this gives him a unique perspective.  He attributes a great deal of the success of the company to Don Soderquist, who was truly the “Keeper of the Culture” at Wal-Mart.  He said that Don and many others like him taught him to live authentically and to be genuine whether at work or simply living his personal life.   He said that the Wal-Mart Culture really is the operating system of our company.  He said he learned this his first day on the job when he was in a hot truck throwing freight with Johnny.   When they walked out of that truck he said Johnny began to tell him why Wal-Mart was so special.  He said that if this is coming from an hourly freight thrower, something special is happening here.

He said he also learned about the culture from another leader, Ray Hobbs who, upon his first day in his new promotion to the Home Office, told him a couple of things.  One is that we control expenses.  Another thing he said was that “no matter what, if something is wrong it’s your fault. Fix it.”   He said this was reinforced when he was CEO of Sam’s Club when “Lisa” walked into his office and told me that the Wal-Mart culture is deteriorating quickly and it was my fault.  She went on to tell him that Don is no longer here, and that you know what it is supposed to be, so fix it.  He said that was a wake-up call for me to step up even more with regards to keeping the culture alive.

As a group they spoke of accountability, risk taking and corporate values.  Steve told about having two boards of directors, his personal board and his corporate board.  Both have veto power.  He went on to say that leaders are only human and will make mistakes, so we have to surround ourselves with people with veto power who will hold us accountable.  He said he tried to create an environment where everything could be challenged.    He told of a marketing executive who came to him after a meeting and told me my behavior with a junior executive in a meeting was wrong and I went back apologized.

Don brought up the issues of the how they empower and delegate to people in these big organizations. They responded with the idea of developing an environment where it is safe to take risks, and reinforced this with helping people engage in intelligent risk taking. The idea here is to set the banks of the river and be repetitive regarding the standards.  John said that at P&G the mantra was to win with integrity, and never take risks on the ethical side.  But they also said how important it is to provide a safety net when someone fails, and to reward risk taking when you need to send a signal of how important this is to the company.

Doug told a story of a buyer who was hammered after he failed to buy enough product to meet customer demand, and who overbought on the next round.  They rewarded him for his risk taking.

John Pepper told the story Tom Muccio coming to his office in the late ‘80s asking for 28 people to move to Bentonville to form the Wal-Mart supplier team.  This was unheard of, but Tom’s persistence that getting people across our company talking to people across Wal-Mart would make us better.  So we did it.  Don said this risk led to new era in supplier retailer relationships.  It is now the way suppliers and retailers do business.  He said if this had not happened we would be in the dark ages.

When it comes to Values, John said they should be so embed that there should be no discussion. We need other people to call us on our mistakes. He also reminded us that sometimes it takes courage for someone to do this.

Steve tells the story of the CEO of Coca Cola calling him to say “Thank you for what you did in this very sensitive situation.”  Steve said I had no idea what he was talking about, but I let him know I was grateful for his call.  He said after he got off the phone he learned that a disgruntled Coke employee stole their secret formula and mailed it to our company.   An administrative assistant opened it, saw what it was, and rather than handing it off to someone or telling anyone, she simply packed it up and returned it to their General Counsel.   Steve said stories like this let you know that your values are truly embedded.

Doug said he learned something about values when former CEO, Mike Duke was traveling to Russia.  Their plane had some trouble and they needed to get a part through customs, but the customs agents wanted a $200 bribe, which Mike would not pay.  They let the plane set and flew back commercial until their customs agents gave up on ever getting a bribe from him.

Their Final Thoughts for the Evening:

John Pepper:

  • Do right
  • Pursue excellence.
  • Make a difference.
  • It’s about relationships.

Steve Reinemund:

  • Don’t miss opportunities to make a bigger difference

Doug McMillon:

  • Create a noble and purposeful vision
  • Individual purpose should drive you.

Don Soderquist:

  • Don’t compartmentalize your life.   He said that the reason Doug is so well received as newly promoted CEO is because he walked his talk throughout his career.
  • Don said “I admire all these men. All have faith in God. They treat everyone as having worth and value.  They are humble. They are always seeking ways to improve.  They put their families first.  All have long term marriages and supportive spouses.
  • They are all story tellers, knowing that the culture and values are transmitted through our stories.
  • Don closed by saying that each of these leaders, like him, has eternal purposes at their heart.  He reminded us of Alice and Wonderland coming to the fork in the road with the Cheshire Cat and expressing confusion about which way to go.  The Cheshire Cat said, “If you don’t know where you want to go it doesn’t matter which fork you take.”  Don said these leaders know where they want to go and what they want to accomplish.