A PERSONAL INTERVIEW ON WHAT HAS MATTERED MOST IN MY LIFE

May 27, 2015

The following interview was translated from Romanian. It reflects a conversation that I was fortunate to have with probably the most sensitive, thoughtful interviewer I ever experienced. Even though I had met her only that day, I felt that I had known her for years.

Once in a while you read an interview you have given and react feeling: this captures what I believe about as well as I can express it.

That is my reaction to this.

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The success and the dilemmas of a global CEO

John Pepper
John E. Pepper Jr.’s visit in Romania brought me face to face with one of the most admired global CEOs, a model of business leader that is not afraid to unveil the man behind the function, in an opened conversation about values in service of the business success and dilemmas managers deal with every day in their activity.
John Pepper began his speech at Inspiro – the leadership event organized by Progresiv magazine in Romania – with a story about the way he convinced his wife to marry him, confessing that it was the first time to tell this story to an audience outside his family. Then he told us how much his family means for him: “What I am most certain of in my life is the fact that my wife and our four children are and have always been my main and constant source of joy, energy, emotional stability and confidence. The time spent with my children and afterwards with my grandchildren represent the oxygen that helped me go further”.
“The second thing I am most certain of in my life is the duty I have to the people that shaped me, without who I wouldn’t have become what I am now. Approximately ten years ago I made a list with these people, I wrote on paper 10-15 names – starting with my parents, my teachers, the persons that gave me their trust and that made me want more from myself. Why am I telling you all this? Because you are, at your turn, on someone else’s list. You have no idea how much influence you have on other people”, Pepper added.
His belief is that trust and love are the most valuable gifts we can offer to other people. “I remember an extremely important moment for me, which happened 15 years before becoming the global CEO of Procter&Gamble: on the hallway of our office building I randomly ran into the CEO at that time and he put his hand on my shoulder, saying «John, take good care of yourself because one day you might run this company». His words had an extraordinary effect on me because at that time I wasn’t even dreaming at a promotion beyond the middle management level”.
Through his speech, John Pepper communicates trust, but also empathy: you have the impression that he looks, one by one, at each and every person listening quietly in the conference room. His face reads the joy of sharing his experiences and feelings with us, although 90% of those present in the audience are people he has never seen before in his life. His stories are about the people he has come accross in the 40 years spent at P&G, about the way he built united and performant teams relying mainly on trust.
“The quality of relationships between people is vital for any company and these relationships have to be built in a corporate culture based on integrity, wish to innovate and win, mutual trust, respect and affection”, synthesizes John Pepper.
With an enviable memory, he argues all his affirmations with examples of real situations from his professional life, some of them having happened 30-40 years ago. He confesses that he kept a diary for 40 years, which probably helped very much in writing the book “What Really Matters”, which was recently published in Romania, translated in the local language.
From John Pepper’s stories, in which we can all find ourselves to some extent, the voice of wisdom seems to echo, which also makes me admire his modesty: he doesn’t speak about his achievements, but of those of the people he has shaped. He also answers questions from the audience by approaching the persons who enter a dialogue with him.
Although he spent only a few days in Bucharest (and during this period he gathered hundreds of managers at the meetings and conferences with the local business environment, organized with the support of Wave Division company), John Pepper insisted to meet with students as well, so he visited two of the largest Universities in Romania.
He also granted an exclusive meeting to the business journalists, in which he gathered all the delegates around him, creating a round table in order to facilitate interaction with each and every one of us. This is how I found out about the success, as well as the dilemmas of a global CEO. The most interesting fact is that every story is serving as an example, and each of them is mainly about people and relationships between them.
Community power. The most powerful and successful companies are those where the employees have the feeling of belonging to a community. This is an extremely powerful motivational factor. “A former colleague that left P&G despite my pleads to remain with the company confessed, years after the departure, the reason he made that decision: he did not feel like home at P&G. His words made me think”, Pepper remembers. In his case, the fact that he always felt he had found his place at P&G is probably the reason why he remained loyal to the company for 40 years. “With many of my colleagues I have tied, over the years, very beautiful friendships, even now we visit each other’s families”, said the former CEO.
John Pepper also spoke about a moment in this carer when he was very close to leave P&G because he had received a very attractive job offer from another company. His wife then asked him three simple questions that made him decide to stay with the company: Do you like what you do? Do you feel good within the company? Do you feel that you have the possibility to further advance in your career?
His advice for those who want to grow within the company they work for is to constantly come up with new ideas and propose new work procedures or approaches that haven’t been tested before, as well as to invest in things that can make them even more useful for the business. “For example, in the US, even if they work for large or small organizations, people usually invest constantly in leadership courses or in developing new abilities, with their own resources”. Pepper also confessed that, over the years, he learned a lot about leadership by reading biographies of great men, not only from the business environment, but from politics and world history as well, being also passionate about history.
Every person counts. “We all count! All of us! And we all want to feel that we are important for the company we work for”, underlined John Pepper. He said that the moment he entered the top management team of P&G he took on the mission to give his best and to help other do the same. It was basically a mission of putting himself in the service of others: family, consumers, the community within the company and those outside it.
Where does the good instinct come from. A reality of current times is the fact that many companies don’t hire good people anymore, specialists in various fields with ages of +45-50 years, out of the simple reason they can’t afford to pay them, preferring to recruit young people or even students who are just a smaller cost for the organization and can be easily formed. “The companies that follow this strategy to replace senior managers with valuable experience in their fields with young people without working experience are taking on a great risk: that of compromising their future by concentrating on a short term cost reduction strategy. It is a mistake to underestimate the value of senior employees because the success of a company is about excellence in execution and a good business instinct, and these two can only come with experience”, said John Pepper.
His advice for employees over 50 years that feel in danger of losing their job because of this phenomenon is not to let the technological factor to destroy their career. “You need to invest in developing new abilities and get up to date with the new technologies in order to make yourselves more useful to the company”.
Balance between work and personal life. During his first mandate as General Manager in P&G group, the relocation to Italy together with his family was one of the greatest challenges for the entire family because of his very busy schedule. “I managed to make time for the real important things in my personal life by better organizing my office activities. One of the main objectives of every day was to get home in time for dinner with my family. My children have always appreciated this very much. I even remember deciding to give up golf when my first child was born. In this way, at that time I’ve earned 4-5 extra hours with my family during weekends”, John Pepper recalls.
He emphasized that every company has to respect the personal life of its employees and not to test their stress resistance too much. “I think that the technological advance made possible a lot of improvements: a lot of companies no longer present the «syndrome» of counting the hours of physical presence at the office, they have become more flexible by introducing paternity leave and the option to work from home one day a week”.


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