John Pepper Jr. on Leadership through Listening

As an undergraduate at Yale, John Pepper Jr. was intent on attending law school. A meeting with recruiters from Procter & Gamble one day convinced him to hold off for a year and give business a try.

October 12, 2014

“They had a sparkle in their eyes,” Pepper said of the recruiters. “That’s what I remember.” So he held off and tried business. More than fifty years later, law school still waits.

Pepper’s career followed an astonishing arc of success, including posts as Chief Executive Officer (1995-1999) and Chairman of the Board (2000-2002) at Procter & Gamble; he also sat for five years as Chairman of the Board of the Walt Disney Company (2007-2012). “I’ve been really, really lucky,” he told a full audience in Evans Hall this past Tuesday, October eighth. “I ought to pinch myself.” The informal conversation, which covered Pepper’s successes, setbacks, and management insights, kicked off this year’s Colloquium on Marketing Leadership series.

Pepper took the floor for less than ten minutes, cutting off his biographical script and scuttling prepared comments in order to take questions from the audience. It was a move that seemed nicely indicative of his management style. “I heard someone say recently that the best idea in the room is the room.” When somebody asked a question, Pepper strode up, faced the inquirer, and listened closely.

When leading a business, Pepper advocated fiercely for the same basic, human respect. Throughout the hour-long discussion, he hammered home the importance of employees, who are both creators and guardians of a company’s culture. “If I had to sum up my attitude toward people in two words, those two words would be: everybody counts,” he said. “It may sound banal, but that’s what I believe.” One of the great managerial dangers is closing off the opportunity to hear a diversity of informed perspectives; isolation among a narrow group of experts is almost always problematic.

You have to believe that the creation of new ideas is absolutely fundamental to your business.

Next to people, Pepper emphasized the incessant need for innovation. “You have to believe that the creation of new ideas is absolutely fundamental to your business.” Besides pronouncements from the very top of the company, innovation must be driven by concerted organizational design that both protects creative thinking and allows space for creative people to do their work. Pepper cited Pixar’s Braintrust and its devotion to candor as a key example of how to nurture and foster creativity. “Innovation is the highest priority other than people,” Pepper argued, noting that shutting off the funding for new ideas would be “like cutting off recruiting.”

When describing how he’d handled more concrete issues—missing opportunities based on ill-founded convictions, for instance—Pepper provided both anecdote and analysis. He talked about holding off for too long when entering particular markets in order to do more testing. Conclusion: never make a decision that consumers can make for you. He talked about entering Eastern Europe and China despite great consternation from colleagues—so don’t take risks if the rewards aren’t worth it, he said. He described the importance of “bringing people both ways” in mergers and acquisitions; each company can and should learn from the other. He warned to never miss a technological inflection point.

Pepper also held that focus on short-term profits creates universal challenges to all of this advice. Leadership that is both effective and respectful sometimes requires looking beyond the next quarter. It also requires, all the time, looking beyond the company itself. At the very opening of his remarks, Pepper gave great credit to his wife, Francie, his four children, and his eight grandchildren. Regardless of career hopes and aspirations, family must always come first. “It’s not all numbers,” said Pepper. And then, again, after a pause. “It’s not all numbers.”

Contributed by:
Dylan Walsh
Freelance journalist, New Haven, CT