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‘Be a Force for Growth & a Force for Good’—3 Leadership Experts Celebrate John Smale’s Timeless Leadership in an Everchanging World

ConantLeadership’s fourth bi-annual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit convened in September, once again bringing top leadership minds and luminaries together in conversation.

In the summit’s first session, John Pepper, former CEO of Procter & Gamble and former chairman of the Walt Disney Company, and Rob Garver, revered journalist and author of a new biography on John Smale, joined host Doug Conant, Founder and CEO of ConantLeadership, to discuss timeless leadership in an ever-changing world. (You can watch the full summit session here. Fast forward to minute 00:08:00 to skip intros and housekeeping.)

Throughout the conversation, all three panelists celebrated the late John Smale—legendary former CEO of Procter & Gamble, former chairman of General Motors, and the subject of Garver’s new book, Here Forever—as an example of “timeless” leadership.

Together, they discussed how today’s leaders can adopt Smale’s powerful practices into their own leadership journeys. Enjoy these tips on how to lead for the future by creating meaning, beginning with the end in mind, and staying true to enduring principles while fostering growth.

Clockwise from top left: Doug Conant, Amy Federman, Rob Garver, John Pepper

Leaders are Stewards of Both People and Meaning

Garver, whose new book, “Here Forever: The Timeless Impact of John Smale on Procter & Gamble, General Motors, and the Purpose and Practice of Business” is available now, began the conversation by sharing Smale’s extraordinary career trajectory—starting as a young employee at Procter & Gamble (P&G) and ultimately becoming their CEO. But Garver says that while Smale’s career-defining achievements were impressive, what compelled him to write this book was Smale’s commitment to “stewardship,” and his belief that the “company was not merely a black box that produced a profit,” but rather it was, “the center of meaning for the lives of thousands of its employees.” In a time when recruiting and retaining employees is challenging, being able to foster a sense of purpose and meaning is crucial.

Conant agrees that “companies creating a higher purpose for their enterprise” is the way to attract and engage top talent. Company-wide mission statements and goals are a good starting place—but they are not enough to help people feel connected to meaning in their day-to-day jobs. To feel that what they do matters, employees must first believe that they matter.

Pepper, who worked with John Smale at P&G for many years, explains that Smale was able to convince people that they mattered and that they were part of something important. Although driven by a sense of responsibility to all his stakeholders—Smale was most devoted to his employees, who he said were, “the nub of it all. Without them, we cannot succeed. . .We need to nourish a feeling that they can make a difference. They count.”

Conant says Smale carried this “extraordinarily other-oriented” spirit in each moment, focusing on every interaction throughout the course of a day, influencing and inspiring thousands and helping to create a purpose-driven culture. This type of culture doesn’t happen overnight. Leaders must champion this approach from the top through conscious choice and consistent effort. And it’s worth the investment, as all three panelists agree that it results in happier, more engaged, and productive employees.

Begin with the End in Mind

Leaders often run into problems when conflicting interests inevitably converge. Questions abound: Which stakeholders to prioritize? Which goals require greater commitment? What products to innovate? With limited resources and time, difficult decisions must be made.

Pepper says the best leaders approach complicated decision-making by beginning with the end in mind, which guides them through tough choices. He says Smale embodied this practice with his “fundamental, deep conviction that his role, and the role of leaders in any institution, was to sustain it for the future.” In fact, Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., once described Smale as, “not thinking in years, or even decades. He was trying to think in generations.” Foresight and vision helps leaders prioritize the long-term—even if it means sacrificing in the short-term. By keeping the end, e.g., the future, in mind, this proactive attitude helps organizations stay focused on what matters most.

Conant builds on this: “A leader’s responsibility is to honor and leverage the past, deliver in the present, and set the table for a more prosperous future.” It’s a daily balancing act. Garver shares how Smale excelled in this area, deftly managing minute-by-minute concerns while honoring the heritage of the company and laying the groundwork for its enduring prosperity. As CEO, he wanted happy employees in the here-and-now, and he envisioned P&G as “a source of support for thousands of retirees, and a pillar of the communities where it operated.”

This broad vision of caring for the past while investing in the future boosted P&G’s success in the present. When leaders anchor to long-term principles, and project the desired future, short-term situations become less complex and easier to navigate.

Honor Timeless Principles and Adapt to the Changing World

The world is changing rapidly. Workplace and employee expectations are evolving too. Adapting to these changes can feel overwhelming. Pepper, Garver, and Conant acknowledge this reality and say that leaders must adapt and grow to succeed—and they must honor the timeless principles that keep them grounded.

The panelists agree that Smale is an example of a leader who acts as both “a force for growth and a force for good,” and they laud his ability to stay relevant and innovate. Pepper recalls Smale saying: “If we’re gonna be successful 50 years from now, it’ll be because we’re able to develop new technologies and new products better than anyone else, breaking new ground.” Never satisfied to rest on his laurels, he always pushed an imperative for growth. And he matched that urgency with a desire to do good in the world. To Smale, P&G wasn’t just about the bottom line—but also about a higher purpose.

The panelists are unanimous: To be a force for good in the world, a company must simultaneously stay true to guiding principles and adapt as the world evolves. Garver explains that the subtitle of his Smale biography includes the word “timeless” precisely because Smale embodied this duality—he was always looking to grow and expand the company’s legacy while remaining true to his enduring beliefs. Pepper says the mindset was “to preserve the core and be prepared to change everything else, to grow in line with the values.”

Conant says this is why Smale’s story is so relevant today: “If you want to survive in this world, then you need to grow,” and “creating this growth imperative and connecting it to a ‘for-good’ mentality is a powerful combination!” Every leader should strive to embrace change while staying true to their core values.

In the course of the discussion, the panelists identified three of Smale’s key core values which offer particularly timeless leadership wisdom. These are practices that leaders can implement in both their personal and professional lives right away.

1. Extend Trust

The recent decline in trust is one of the most troubling changes facing the world and it’s reflected at both the societal and organizational level. The debate over “working from home” and the trend of bosses surveilling their employees is proof alone that workplace trust is strained. And yet without trust, it is hard for companies to innovate or succeed.

Pepper shares that Smale “had extremely high standards and expectations of others,” and that made his trust feel even more like a vote of confidence: His trust meant he believed you could rise to those high standards.

Trust isn’t blind, it’s earned through repeated actions. But once an employee has demonstrated their competence, good leaders forgo the micro-managing and let people shine. Smale knew that few things are more empowering than being trusted—than being asked to try something new or allowed to run with an idea. People rise to the occasion and do their best work when we extend what Stephen M.R. Covey calls “smart trust.

2. Make It Personal: Show Up, Be Present

One of Smale’s core values was being present and the panelists agree that “showing up” matters. When leaders are visible and engaged, employees are inspired to be the same. Leaders cannot create a culture of respect, collaboration, and hard work, if they aren’t modeling those attributes.

Whether your team is remote, hybrid, or in-person, it’s important to stay connected. Pepper suggests spending more time with people and asking smarter questions to get to know them better. Conant agrees that it’s essential to make conversation, to ask for opinions, and to truly listen.

Garver shares some of the powerful ways Smale made leadership personal: He had meals with employees at all levels of the organization, he personally toured P&G facilities, and he sent frequent hand-written thank-you notes. In particular, he took a special interest in developing junior employees, often inviting them to a one-on-one lunch, and then following-up with a yearly phone call. Even the busiest leaders can find time in their calendar for a few high-impact gestures like these.

As simple as it might seem, showing up, being visible, and communicating with associates will have far greater impact than any well-crafted memo. By being intentionally present in manageable ways, Smale was able to show he cared, and his caring spread throughout the culture. The seed a leader plants with one, can spread and grow to the many.

3. Celebrate and Inspire People

Smale believed in celebrating and inspiring people. Conant laments that leaders too often focus on what’s wrong and forget to celebrate what’s right. But this is a dangerous strategy: If leaders don’t acknowledge successes, they send the message that there’s no reward for good work. Hardly inspiring.

As CEO of Campbell Soup Company, Conant learned a smart practice from his colleague, Denise Morrison, for beginning interactions on a celebratory note. The practice consists of three short questions that are used to organize a meeting or conversation:

  1. What’s Working?
  2. What’s Not?
  3. What’s Next?

By starting with “what’s working,” people get a chance to highlight the good stuff before getting into the nitty-gritty—and everyone’s inspired by the positive results. Garver says this approach can help employees feel “not like a disposable piece of a machine, but that their contribution is essential to the greater success of the [company].”

Smale knew the importance of giving employees opportunities to see the results of their work—so they could see that they were not just providing for their families but also making an impact on their community and the world—that they were part of a force for good. How might we all act differently if we saw that our daily actions made a positive impact? If leaders want to keep people engaged, they must learn to celebrate and inspire.

Regardless of the challenges your organization faces, you can use the panelists’ insights and John Smale’s timeless example to become a force for growth and a force for good. Be a steward of meaning, begin with the end in mind, and honor enduring principles while adapting to an everchanging world.

McKinlee CoveyAbout the Author: McKinlee Covey is an educator, coach, and co-author with Stephen M.R. Covey of the WSJ bestseller, Trust & Inspire.

Enjoyed these insights? Watch the full video recording of this summit session here. And enjoy our library of previous summit sessions here, including conversations with Brené Brown, Indra Nooyi, Hubert Joly, Amy Edmondson, Bill George, and many more.

For more on John Smale, read the new book, Here Forever, available now.

For more from Doug Conant, engage with ConantLeadership’s suite of written leadership resources here, or start your Blueprint journey—a practical approach for getting more joy and fulfillment out of your work—by getting your signed copy of the book here, or by downloading the first chapter free here.

Ready to step into your full leadership potential?  Apply to our signature leadership development program, The BLUEPRINT Boot Camp by ConantLeadership, a 2-day leadership intensive offering elite level, highly interactive training with Doug Conant and a community of your peers. Learn more about this premium tier of transformational leadership development here or set up a complimentary consultation call here.

(Cover photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash)

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