Former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper Discusses Business and Leadership

Over the course of his life, former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper YC ’60 has kept a list titled “If It Weren’t For Them.” On this list, Pepper writes the names of the individuals who have most influenced him. His parents, certain teachers and classmates, the captain of the U.S. Navy ship on which he served, and P&G colleagues have all found spots.

It has taken him a lifetime, Pepper told an audience at the Yale School of Management on September 30, to understand the true significance of this list. “If you’re on people’s ‘If It Weren’t For Them’ list some day, that may be the greatest thing you’ve done and you won’t even know it,” he said. As a business leader, he said, his most important contribution has been “to make a difference in the lives of people whose lives I’ve touched.”

Pepper spoke as part of the Yale SOM Leaders Forum, in a conversation hosted by Anjani Jain and David Bach, both senior associate deans at Yale SOM. He reflected on the management and leadership lessons he learned in 40 years at P&G, and in serving in other positions including chairman of the board of the Walt Disney Company and vice president of finance and administration at Yale University.

One characteristic that effective organizations share, he said, is an open-minded culture that embraces diverse points of view and encourages individuals to speak their minds. Building such a culture requires trusting relationships between managers and employees, mentorship, and a willingness to listen. “A lot of people say they want feedback,” Pepper said. “The test is how you react to it.”

Managers, he said, must be more than competent. They must embody good character based on personal integrity and courage, and they should care a great deal about the work they’re doing and the people whom they supervise. “In the end it all gets back to people and values,” Pepper said. “Personal leadership makes things happen.”

Responsible leadership should also extend to a company’s concern for its customers and its products, Pepper said. Producing personal care products of “superior quality” is what has enabled P&G to succeed in the highly competitive Western European markets and to make inroads in the fast-growing Chinese market, he said. He added that the ability of P&G products to thrive in major U.S. retail outlets, even those with their own store brands, such as Wal-Mart, is attributable in part to the company’s ability to forge mutually advantageous business relationships with retailers. “Partnerships mean everything in a business,” Pepper said.

And while it’s tempting in today’s technology-charged business environment to rely more on data than colleagues, it’s also a mistake, Pepper said. Data is only one aspect of a business decision, he added, and nothing can replace human judgment and experience, even in a large company like P&G. “As big as you are, you still need trust based on confidence, on character.”