While the purpose and values of an organization don’t frequently change in this world and, in fact, are often the antidote, the behaviors of leadership should change.
One of the biggest challenges in the current environment is the social distance required to ensure safety in the coronavirus era. This distance makes leadership more difficult. I remember in 1991 when I was living in Manila and leading Procter & Gamble’s business in the Philippines, I was also tasked with leading P&G’s Hair Care business throughout Asia. Tom Peters’ “In Search of Excellence” and its teachable point of view of “manage by walking around” was still fresh in my mind.
While I could “walk around” to lead the Philippines, I wondered how I could achieve the same level of trust in leading employees and “walk around” from India in the west to Japan in the east, and Korea in the north to Australia in the south?
Trust is one of the essential elements between the leader and the organization. Trust comes with intimacy. Intimacy is created by proximity and congruence of purpose and values, and generally earned over time. It was easier to create intimacy with the Tide Brand Group of five I led in 1984 than to create that same level of intimacy with the 120,000 people of P&G, spread around the world, in 2013. Different methods were required then and now.
When we developed the 5E Leadership Model at P&G, we focused on behaviors. Leadership at its core is a label observers apply to a collective set of behaviors. Those behaviors are described as Envision, Engage, Energize, Enable and Execute. While these five sets of behaviors remain intact, the behaviors that comprise each E will vary based on the new normal.
In this post, I’ll examine the first two behaviors: Envision and Engage.
Envision, or creating the future
The first step of leadership is always to create a vision, or describe winning over a set period of time, generally about five years. This step is all about creating the future. Normally this would be done by being in touch externally and understanding the needs of the customer or constituency. The leader must do this by seeing reality clearly and marshaling constituents to help develop a vision and strategies that “change the rules of the game.”
When I took over the Department of Veterans Affairs in crisis, I traveled constantly. Each time I traveled to a new location, I spoke and listened to constituents: veterans, Veteran Service Organizations, employees, members of Congress and local governments, community leaders, and more. We integrated diverse perspectives and developed the vision and strategies for VA to be the top-rated customer service organization in the federal government.
In today’s context, the leader will need to be very creative and deliberate since travel to engage constituents is so limited by social distancing. The use of technology to connect and listen to people, mining big data about customer needs, being open and empathetic to hear needs, accepting all points of view — even those with which you disagree — is important.
Then, the leader needs to gather people to hone a vision and set of strategies. This is an iterative process. Our team and I would put together our best understanding from earlier engagements, try it during the next engagement, and improve it continuously. As I said at the time, the plan to transform and improve the VA for veterans was not my plan but rather the collective plan of those who cared.
Engage, or building relationships and collaboration
The next step is to Engage, or build relationships and collaboration. Obviously, creating a vision includes a great deal of engagement. At P&G, we had a strategy of “connect and develop.” We knew greater innovation occurs from eliminating boundaries between organizations.
Author James Burke, who wrote the book “Connections,” wrote about how innovation does not occur in straight lines. Diverse groups of people build on the ideas of others. Oftentimes inventions end up being used for tasks for which they were not invented. At P&G, we developed a joint laboratory with BASF, our largest chemical supplier, in Ludwigshafen, Germany. We assigned some of our surfactant scientists to the lab, and BASF assigned some of their polymer scientists, and great progress was made.
At VA, we created an Office of Strategic Partnerships, knowing we could better serve veterans by engaging with others, doing what we did well, and allowing them to do what they did well. Practically, this was necessary: The VA by law cannot treat veterans with dishonorable discharges, yet they may have received the dishonorable discharge for the illness they have.
The leader needs to create a deliberate plan to engage. This is truer today than ever before given the difficulty of engaging in-person during the coronavirus. As the CEO of P&G, every time we travelled, our first step upon landing was to visit consumers in their homes and observe them using our products. The second step was always to visit retail outlets to watch consumers shop for our products. We were always eager to learn any new insights which could result in innovation to solve consumer needs. A consumer wouldn’t tell you to put disposable diaper technology on the bottom of a stick and use household cleaner technology as a cleaning solution in a new brand called Swiffer. But we could understand the drudgery of using a powder to create a cleaning solution in a bucket, and a mop to clean floors. The Swiffer is preferable, but it is up to an empathetic team to observe consumer behavior and ideate the innovation.
In today’s polarized world, there is a tendency to avoid listening to the opinions of those who disagree. My point of view is different. I believe leaders should “run to the gunfire.” Or as Sun Tzu supposedly wrote, “If you keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.”
As secretary of the VA, I once learned that a member of Congress called for my resignation for some political purpose. Upon learning of this, I called their office, made an appointment to see them, and took them through our plan to transform the VA to better care for veterans. When I asked for their input, I got none. When I asked why they were requesting my resignation, they seemed surprised, and disavowed their statement.
Robert A. McDonald was the eighth secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as retired chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble Co., chairman of RallyPoint, and an April and Jay Graham Fellow of the George W. Bush Institute.