If I were asked to boil down all my thoughts on what should guide our relationships with each other into just two words, they would be: “Everyone counts.”
I’ve asked myself, why and when did I come to this simple but strongly held view? It’s certainly not something I would have said 50 years ago, maybe even 30 years ago.
However, the roots of that belief were certainly present then, indeed well before. More than anything else, they grew out of the growing recognition that I had become who I am because other people made me feel that I counted.
Like most of us, this began with my parents and particularly my mother. She conveyed a quiet but clear expectation that I could do anything. She took steps--whether it was sending me away to camp or away to Portsmouth Priory during my final two years of high school, encouraging me to go to Yale—through all these things and much more--she conveyed I mattered. It’s also what she didn’t do that gave me this feeling. She never left me feeling inadequate or that I ever really greatly disappointed her, even though there must have been many times when I did.
There was my time at Portsmouth and the role Fr. Dom Andrew Jenks played in building my expectations of myself. How could I ever forget his telling me that I needed to stay at Portsmouth over Thanksgiving holiday because, even though I was, as I recall, #1 in his Math class, I could do better.
There were the interactions with my professors at Yale, in particular Howard Roberts Lamar, my first History teacher, and David Potter, my History thesis advisor. Amongst a sea of students, they made me feel I mattered.
There was the way Captain Davis on the USS Blandy treated me when I was in the Navy and the expression of confidence expressed by the head of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard when he asked me to undertake what I thought, given my abilities, was an almost impossible undertaking of outfitting PT boats for the Vietnam War.
Having arrived at P&G, there was a handful of people who made me feel I counted when I wasn’t at all sure I could make it. Jack Clagett, my first one-up boss, invited me to join him and his wife for dinner on the weekends at the time I was single. He really made me feel I counted. I remember in my first year at P&G, I was only 25, when he told me that “someday--all of us may be working for you.” I couldn’t believe it! This was at a time when I was altogether unsure whether P&G was a place I could succeed.
And there was Ed Artzt, my three-up boss, who seemed like he ran everything, known as the “Prince of Darkness,” given his toughness, but, as busy as he was, he spent hours with me, one on one. I can’t recall the details of what he talked about. I’m sure they were meaningful, but what really mattered was that his time with me showed me that I counted. I was so fortunate to work for him.
There was the experience, eight years after I had joined P&G, in 1971, during a car ride that lasted no more than ten minutes. Remember, this goes back more than 40 years. I was Advertising Manager of the Bar Soap & Household Cleaning Products Division and had been attending a presentation by a senior creative director of one of our advertising agencies. John Smale, then group vice president responsible for our Laundry & Cleaning businesses, offered me a ride back to the office. During the short trip, Smale asked me what I thought of the presentation. I told him that I had found it superficial. He said that he felt the same way. What I recall from this brief exchange was the respect Smale had for my point of view and his interest in having a real interchange about our views. He was listening, really listening. As it always does, this conveyed a sense of respect that went beyond mere words.
There was nothing that happened in my career at P&G that demonstrated that I counted so much as when senior leaders showed trust in me. One such incident occurred in Rome in the fall of 1974. I had been on the job as general manager of our Italian business for about three months. The business could not have been in much worse shape. Our sales were stagnant; profits were virtually nil. We had just emerged from price controls. Inflation was running in double digits. The Communist Party was within a few percentage points of taking control of the government. What a time to have the chairman and chief executive officer of the Company coming to visit, but here he was. Thank heaven it was Ed Harness! He led the Company through some of its most challenging days in the post-World War II era. I can’t imagine anyone doing it better or with a more human touch. Ed was arriving in Rome to meet one of his newest general managers to review a business that surely was not one of his highlights that year.
I can’t recall a single bit of what I reviewed with Ed during our meetings. Whatever it was, I’m sure I evidenced more than a little personal stress. As we came to the end of the day, Ed and I were walking down the hall as I escorted him from the building on Via Cavour, just outside Rome. We had almost reached the elevator when Ed put his arm on my shoulder. He looked at me and, with just a trace of a smile, said: “John, sometimes you just have to wait for the other shoe to fall. You’re doing the right things. Everything will be all right.” That was it. And that was enough.
With those few words, Ed Harness lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. He made me feel valued. He allowed me to get back to work, not with any less intensity, but with an altogether higher level of confidence and assurance that I was trusted.
Remember, this was 40 years ago. Ed Harness gave me a great gift that day—his respect and his trust. I’m not sure if he recalled it afterward. Sadly, I never mentioned it to him prior to his all-too-early death in 1984. I wish I had. That honest, sensitive and caring interchange, which lasted less than 30 seconds, has had an impact on me for 40 years…and will for a lifetime. That’s the power of the respect and trust we can convey to each other.
Reflecting on my life, much more important than the impact of any of these interactions which I have mentioned in building my confidence was something much more personal. It was Francie Garber's saying "yes" to my proposal to marry her in May 1967. This was the fulfillment of a dream, a quest that I had pursued harder than anything in my entire life from the day I met her in the infield of the Kentucky Derby in May 1964. I frankly found it hard to believe she saw enough in me to agree to marry me. I didn't think of this as "counting" or "mattering". I simply felt overwhelming joy and love. At that moment and every moment since, I believed that I and we could do just about anything. I just knew, even not knowing the future that awaited us, everything would be all right.
My religious faith has also deepened my conviction, indeed, my certain knowledge that “everyone counts.” We are all God’s creatures. The second of God’s two commandments, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is hard to comply with, but it is ever so right.
I am moved to try to do so by this, from a letter from Paul to the Romans:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
I am also moved by the conclusion to this homily by Paula Jackson, the Minister of my church, Church of Our Savior:
“Every Sunday we come to church and see faces familiar and not so familiar. Every week we brush past people at school or work or on the street. We may think we can guess what is going on with them. Perhaps we assess each other according to whether someone makes us feel more comfortable, or might threaten to shake up our world a bit. Yet what we most need is to listen to the message that each person has to bring to us, to cross to ‘the other side’ of our own river, for the news that will change our perspective and our life for the better.”
There are many books I’ve read and authors I’ve admired who have brought home the reality that “everyone counts” in ways that have strengthened my commitment. None more so than Marilynne Robinson, who wrote this stirring passage in perhaps my favorite novel, Gilead:
“When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking me in this moment, in this situation? This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate.”
A former P&G leader, Chris Warmoth, once told me:
“I believe your unique strength is the ability to make people feel special and responsible and enthusiastic. Over time, I have come to see that this is probably more important than anything else. P&G really does hire very good people. If they work at the top of their game, they are pretty powerful. You had that ability to make this happen.”
Perhaps this is an ability, but I think if more of an instinct, for it’s not something I had to work at; indeed, for the most part, it’s not something I was even conscious of. It came naturally because of the respect, the trust and affection I had for the people with whom I worked.
I’m sure I did not convey that trust and, yes, affection as well as I would have liked if I had known objectively the impact I was having on others. But I take satisfaction from knowing that I was able to convey it to some, because of how I felt.
I don’t believe I ever received a stronger validation of that than a letter I received from a P&G associate, Kathy Grogan, when I was retiring. She told me she recognized my core belief:
“That we counted as individuals and were not just a number are things I will never forget under your direction. I particularly remember your talking about the number of administrative and technical employees employed at P&G being larger than managers and that we have a voice and should be listened to. What awesome advice.”
Awesome, perhaps; correct absolutely. In the same vein, I was gratified to receive this note from Diane Dietz. Diane had led the Crest brand for almost a decade to leadership versus her key competitor Colgate. What she had to say pleased me because it indicated that, in some measure, I had been helpful to her in the way so many people had been helpful to me.
“Your passion for the business and the people truly raises the bar for all of us,” she wrote. “In the same way, you have told me of the inspiration you have gained by having people believe in you, you have given me that gift. Your belief in me and my team energizes me to put forth even more effort.”
This deeply rooted belief that “everyone counts” is probably the singular secret of the effectiveness of my leadership. It has come naturally because of what others have done for me. It has led me to listen pretty well, even if not perfectly. It has led me to consider other points of view and be conscious of the importance of doing that, even if imperfectly. It has led me, in my interactions with others, to ask myself: How I can be of help to this person who is on the pathway of life, just like me, with all its challenges, most probably never known to me. Is there some way that I can help them on that path as I would hope they would help me? Is there a word of encouragement, a question, an opportunity to simply be a sounding board, something that genuinely conveys that I believe they count, that might be helpful to them? I wake up almost every day reminding myself that, if I could do that for at least one person, it will have been a good day. I hope that I can honor that intent as faithfully as possible through all the days of my remaining life.
Conveying that another person really “counts” can’t be an act of artifice or pretense. It has to be genuine, based on genuine feelings about the other person--about his or her character and competence.
But--and this is a critical point--without foregoing the importance of an objective, honest critique, it pays to emphasize the positive. People grow, they reach to do more because they feel they matter.
I’ll close with three stories.
Years ago, I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, visiting the plant which we had recently acquired from Richardson-Vicks. I had just finished touring our Always module. It had been a good visit. The team was achieving excellent results in quality, line speed and cost efficiency. I was walking back from the review with the team leader who happened to be a black African. I asked him how he found working in the plant since Procter & Gamble had acquired it. He turned to look at me, our steps slowed. He said, “I’m loving it.” He did so with enthusiasm and a twinkle in his eye. I asked him why. I’ll never forget his answer. “Because before, Mr. Pepper, no one would have ever asked me that question.” I had shown without an ounce of intention that he counted.
People counting. People just being recognized as existing as individuals; this is by no means a given. No experience brought me in touch with that reality as much as a trip I made to India in the fall of 201l to try to understand the realities of the tragedy of human trafficking and bonded labor and the possibility of overcoming that tragedy. The visit was facilitated by a local non-denominational church (Crossroads) which was deeply involved in rescue and recovery activities in India. My desire to make the trip was anchored in my role at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which had committed to use the inspiration of learning to be drawn from the abolition of chattel slavery to help the fight against human trafficking.
Tuesday, October 29, 2011 is a day I will never forget. It showed me the challenge, yet brought home to me in a most challenging context, the rightness of viewing every person as an individual, no matter how hard that might be.
In the first instance, it happened naturally. We were in a home providing services for minor girls who had been freed from sexual servitude and were being reintegrated into a normal life. When we were first there, they were, for me, a group of young girls. By age, they could have been one of my grandchildren. I found it gut-wrenching to imagine how men could violate these young girls. But what made the difference to me was an exercise we undertook during which we sat down with the girls on the floor and we made conversation as best we could. It was then that I started to experience them as individuals. As I wrote in my journal then, “The girl next to me told me that she wanted to be a beautician and had already completed training for that and for tailoring.” As “fragile in ways that I would never know, they exhibited a freshness and poise and sense of joy that lifted me.”
What we encountered in the afternoon was much more challenging. We traveled to the largest Red-Light district in Calcutta and probably one of the largest in the world and, one after another, we saw women of ages from low teens into at least their 40s and maybe 50s, standing alone or together, for sale. Women going about a daily ritual of survival. Nothing flamboyant or aggressive. Just there, as if for a breath of fresh air.
As I looked then, it was all too easy to find myself just looking in, as one might observe any spectacle, almost like a museum or (I hate to use the term) fishbowl, utterly failing to grasp each person in her individuality. Failing to recognize, difficult as it would be—“me in them and them in me” individually.
It was hard, yet I did see some women that way. How could I not? That close, each face an expression different, some bright, even joyful, some withdrawn, many, especially the older, but some young, too, simply resigned.
Reverend Damon Lynch, one of my companions on the trip and a dear friend, reflected on the experience we had had the following morning. He reminded us that Jesus was very poor; that there nine tiers in the society of his day and he was in the seventh tier and there was no opportunity to move up. He was born and died a peasant, just like the people we had seen yesterday in the darkest corner of Calcutta. “We have to see these people as people,” Damon said, “not as trees, not as symbols of humanity, not as disembodied souls.” Nothing ever had reminded me so sternly of my personal reminder to myself: “Everyone counts; we are all in this together.” As I wrote then, every one of us is in the process of dying; let us bring as much joy into the life of another as we can and not be overly fixated on ourselves and how we feel or look.”
My final story takes me back to 2004 when I was working at Yale. I was in charge of Finance and Administration and one of my responsibilities was the upkeep of Yale’s golf course. One of the reasons I had agreed to take on the position, after having retired from P&G, was to try to mend the broken union/management relationships which I had observed during my nine years serving on the Yale Board.
A few weeks after taking my new position, I was presented with a proposal to “outsource” the upkeep of the Yale golf course to an outside contractor, taking it away from the union. Our contract with the union gave us that option. Yet, being on a mission to heal the relationship between the union and management, how could I make one of my first actions taking work away from the union? That didn’t seem like a promising path to achieve my goal!
I was quickly told by the administration that they understood my position but that the union had demonstrated again and again the inability to do the job well. In fact, from once being rated the #1 college golf course in the nation, the Yale course had now fallen into the mid-70s. I said, no matter; we were going to give it another try. And we did.
Wind the clock forward a few years, and we had returned to be ranked #2 among college courses. We were receiving all kinds of anecdotal accolades from golfers on how improved the course was.
I went out to the course one day to talk to the chief union steward. He was big, burly Italian, the kind of person with whom I most enjoyed talking. I asked him how he and his team were enjoying the work. He said “it’s going well.” I asked him how he liked his new boss, Scott. (We had had to replace the prior on-site leader. He had been all about “control.”) He said they were getting along with him very well. I asked why. Again, his immediate, simple, from the heart, intuitive response told the whole story. “We like him for two reasons, Mr. Pepper. He knows how to grow grass. And he listens to us.” Knowing how to grow grass, meaning he actually helps us do our work. “He listens to us”--meaning we count, we matter. I recalled, as he said this, that we had saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not replacing equipment but simply by using it better. That had happened because we had started to listen to the people on the front line; the men and women who knew the business. They told us what to do; we listened and we acted.
As we did, they came to see we were acting on the truth: they counted; everyone counts.