Leaving P&G… Writing the Next Chapter

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My Procter & Gamble story started almost exactly 19 years ago, as a junior at Ohio University, while attending a free lunch (proving that there actually is such a thing). P&G’s Chief Technology Officer was on campus and invited a handful of students for a discussion where, I later learned, he was trying to determine whether or not to recruit chemical engineers from O.U. Never one to turn down a free meal, I graciously accepted the invitation, enjoyed a nice conversation over some Mexican food, and passed along my resume. I never dreamed that this serendipitous meeting on the beautiful red brick campus in Athens, Ohio would become the opening act for my almost two decade long adventure with deodorants, shampoos, and the vast world of beauty care. Yet three months later, I found myself as a summer intern at the Sharon Woods Technical Center in rural Cincinnati, and began filling the pages of my career.

From there, the halls of P&G opened up worlds of possibilities that I had never even considered as a young chemical engineer. While I had expected to find myself in the lab working with chemicals and in a plant scaling up new technologies, I instead became fascinated by consumer psychology, holistic product design, and commercial messaging. I spent countless hours in focus groups, in the homes of consumers, in conversations with beauty editors, and in stores trying to uncover insights, ideas, and desired consumer experiences. I quickly learned the critical importance of not only designing products with superior functional benefits but also with delightful experiences. I even went to school part-time to get my MBA, so that I could better understand the tools of story-telling, selling, and strategy to insure that our innovations reached their full potentials.

And throughout those years, I had the good fortune to experience the pinnacle of success with some disruptive innovation, but also the character-building disappointment of a market failure. I traveled to many of the richest countries in the world designing beauty products for the prestigious upper class, and also hiked through impoverished rural villages in India, China, and Brazil attempting to find health and hygiene solutions for families surviving on less than a dollar per day. I even uncovered an unknown love for writing and storytelling that first began permeating my work in concept and product design, and then ultimately led to the publication of my first innovation book, Agents of Change.  Every day was a new adventure, and I found myself hooked on all aspects of designing and marketing innovative products to delight consumers around the world.

Yet my greatest joy came from my opportunities to partner with, to lead, and to coach so many talented and passionate individuals. People ask me all the time what I think P&G’s greatest strength is, and my answer unquestionably is the company’s ability to hire some of the most creative, collaborative, and committed people in the world. It always amazes me not just how much intelligence and wisdom resides within the offices and cubicles, but also how much passion and dedication. The willingness to teach and to share knowledge, the drive to uncover rich consumer insights and new breakthrough technologies, and the work ethic and sheer will to deliver quality and speed truly make P&G people special. It is easy to define P&G by its billion dollar brands, its breakthrough innovations, and its financial numbers… but what truly sets this company apart is its people.

So all that said, why leave? It has been a gut-wrenching decision process and one with which I have been wrestling for quite some time. While the entirety of my time at P&G has been an amazing ride, it is true that the past several years have been trying.  I have never stopped enjoying my time fighting the good fight with such brilliant friends and colleagues and I am nothing but proud of the body of work that we have produced.  But as P&G has gone through a constant barrage of challenges, transitions, and cultural shifts, this great organization has seen the departure of many respected, inspiring leaders, has allowed talented individuals to become mired in slowed and convoluted career paths, and at times falls into an atmosphere driven by fear of the costs of failure rather than by a courage to invest in success. The talented, passionate, and driven employees who remain are still fighting the good fight and committed to making the magic happen… but the path has become more arduous. And moving forward, my greatest call to action for the leaders and future leaders of P&G is a critical re-investment in a culture that challenges, that empowers, that enables, that rewards, and that retains its top talent.

Yet, while this struggle may have been a catalyst in my leaving, it is by no means the cause. I leave P&G not only proud to have spent my entire adult life with the company, but also confident that the ship will be righted. The truth is that I have reached a point in my life where I now feel an intense calling to close the book on this first act and to start writing a new chapter. As I have learned more about myself and of what is important to me, the call to embark on a new adventure has become increasingly loud. An innate desire has grown to take my talent for innovation, my passion to create, and my love to continuously try new things, and to make it an even greater part of my day-to-day work. Thus, I am running toward a new opportunity rather than away from an old one.

To start this next chapter, I am excited to be joining Upstream 360 as the Director of Innovation. There, I will serve as an innovation expert and consult with teams and individuals around the globe to translate ideas into concepts, concepts into prototypes, and prototypes into executions. And while on one hand this feels like a dramatic change from my time with Procter & Gamble, on the other it feels like a logical next step to build on my past and to begin writing the next page. And while I am beyond excited to begin this next phase of the journey, I am grateful, reflective, and sad to leave behind such amazingly talented and passionate colleagues and friends.

Finally, to bring this story full circle I spent my final weekend as a P&G employee back at Ohio University reflecting on my closing thoughts from that same beautiful campus where the journey began. So to close this chapter, I have tried to capture some key nuggets of insight that I have learned over these 19 years. It is impossible to cover everything, but I have included my top thoughts that have played a huge part in my story and may be able to provide an idea or two for yours.

Faster Horses

The consumer is boss.  That is a key phrase that echoes through the halls of P&G and is one in which I wholeheartedly agree.  No matter what function or level we hold, we must get to know our consumers, through attending research, going to their homes, and shopping where they shop.  At the end of the day, our job is to create a successful business through improving consumers’ lives and through providing them with delightful experiences. That said… like any “boss”, consumers don’t necessarily always know how to ask for what they want. To quote Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses'”.  It is our job to recognize the key insights and benefits that are important and to design solutions that meet the consumer’s needs- not by simply following their requests verbatim.  For example, if a consumer asks for a bigger gas tank, we can give them better fuel efficiency… meeting their needs in a new and innovative way beyond what they might imagine.

The Power of Holistic Design

I stated previously that I have been a part of some very successful launches, but also a significant failure.  Looking back, the key difference between the two was in how effectively we delivered a holistically designed proposition.  One of the first projects of my career was to design and launch Old Spice Cool Contact Refreshment Towels.  These essentially were scented body wipes for dudes, and represented a new benefit and habit for consumers in the category.  We had high hopes for this proposition as our concept and product testing demonstrated outstanding potential, and we knew that we were effectively satisfying an unmet consumer need.  However, when the product launched, it failed to connect with consumers and was very quickly discontinued.  Why?  We failed to communicate the benefits and the education in our package design, at shelf, and via our commercialization.  So consumers who sought the on-demand refreshment benefit were unaware that a product had launched to satisfy it. We designed a product that consumers wanted and needed, but didn’t present it in a way that allowed them to easily find and understand it.  (Note: even 15 years after its discontinuation, this product is still being sold on eBay and Amazon, proving that there are still loyal consumers seeking the product benefit!) On the contrary, a successful example was in our launch of Secret Clinical Strength.  In this case, we comprehensively executed a product experience, a package design, and a commercial strategy that holistically pulled it all together.  This launch thus ultimately delighted countless consumers and became a huge, lasting success.  Successful innovation must do more than just deliver a benefit… it must holistically communicate a story across all elements of the product, package, and commercial experience.

First “Wow”, Then “How”

Especially in rooms of engineers and scientists, it is easy to start focusing effort on what is actionable rather than on what is ideal.  To create truly awe-inspiring innovation, it is important to understand first the desired consumer experience, regardless of cost and time implications, and then to determine what is possible.  It is far easier to take something amazing and make it actionable that to take something actionable and then to add the bells and whistles to make it amazing.  Every example in my career of breakthrough product performance, from Secret Clinical Strength Antiperpsirants to Pantene Dreamcare Shampoos, started with defining something that was delightful but impossible and only then finding a way to make it possible.

Bring the Tiger into the Room

One of the stories that I tell most often is that of Joe Rohde, an imagineer at Disney, and his quest to create the Animal Kingdom theme park.  After being rejected multiple times by Disney’s leadership (“Disney doesn’t do zoos”), Rohde boldly walked a live tiger into the board room and filled everyone’s hearts with awe, wonder, and magic.  The project was approved and Animal Kingdom became the largest zoo in the world.  With my groups at P&G, we often encouraged our teams to “Bring the Tiger” in an effort to provide a tangible prototype to explain an idea, a concept, or a design.  For example, when we took on the urgent project to upgrade our Pantene package, the team used spray paint, ribbon, and other various arts and crafts to quickly take ideas off the page and to allow us to assess them on the shelf.  A prototype is worth 1,000 ideas, and “bringing the tiger” early and often takes something abstract and shows tangibly how it can come to life.

Never Doubt the Power of a Small, Empowered Team.

With very few exceptions, when I talk to people about their most successful innovations their stories go something like this, “We were a small, empowered, under-the radar team, and nobody thought our project was going to be successful.  We were scrappy and creative about making prototypes and getting data, and were free to learn and to experiment.  When we emerged with a winning proposition, we shocked everyone… and the program went on to be more successful than other higher-profile and higher-scrutinized innovation programs.”   Where we are at our best, is when we allow these small and mighty teams to control their own destinies on a passionate pursuit of “Wow”.  So many examples from my career played out this way that we tried to institutionalize the formation of “5-in-a-box” teams with a cross-functional ensemble of roughly 5 passionate people to make the magic happen.  Whether it be a rapid upgrade to the Secret deodorant line, the creation and launch of a dry shampoo, or the scrappy launch of the Old Spice Hair line, a key component was the camaraderie of small, empowered teams that were able to be quick and agile to deliver breakthrough results.  It is critical that we empower our teams, give them freedom to take risks, and encourage them to beg forgiveness rather than to ask permission.

Unleash the Real-Life Superheroes

The key theme of my book, Agents of Change, is in unleashing the untapped innovative superpowers of the real-life heroes within our organizations.  We hire the most amazingly talented and hungry people in the world, yet often they feel under-utilized, bogged down with bureaucracy, or mired with the mundane.  When we were at our best in designing breakthrough innovation, turning around struggling businesses, or developing superior stories, it was largely because we were deliberate to create a culture of risk-taking, to encourage individuals to take on passion projects, and to empower teams to challenge the status quo. For good measure, we even wore superhero t-shirts on Fridays as we walked the vaulted halls of Procter & Gamble… a habit I plan to maintain long into the future.  Through encouraging “rebellion” to unleash these powers, we were able to help each other find personal fulfillment, to drive better innovation, and to improve lives (others and our own).

Finally… Remember that “It’s Just Soap”

While it is critical to be passionate about our jobs, it is possible to take it too far. Too high of an emotional investment can lead to irrational decisions in regard to initiative work, interpersonal relationships, and, importantly, work-life balance.  While what we do is important both to consumers and to our own financial well-being, “It’s Just Soap” and we need to make sure “not to take ourselves too damn seriously”. (paraphrased from Benjamin Zander).

 

I cannot fully express how thankful I am for the opportunity to partner with, to learn from, and to befriend so many amazing individuals over these 19 years, and I am truly grateful for all of the experiences.  While I may no longer carry a P&G badge, I will be forever cheering on the company from my new desk, and will continue looking for breakthrough and superior products and stories each time I go to the store.  I am thankful for this chapter of my story, excited for the next, and most of all grateful for all of the characters who have brought life to the pages.


 

Check out my book, Agents of Change, inspired heavily by my 19 years at P&G.  It is available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

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