The path to success may not be paved with gold, but it can certainly be an exciting road to travel. My own experiences that led me to my current role at PepsiCo may not have unfolded exactly as I planned, but my journey has been a great one – challenging and rewarding, sometimes frustrating, always interesting. It’s a story I’m happy to tell.
Recently, I had the pleasure of returning to the place where my own journey began just 25 years ago – the Kellogg School of Management – to share my story with this year’s entering class. The insights I’ve gained throughout my career can be applied to any profession, not just within the corporate world. With this in mind, I’d like to offer a glimpse into some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years, which subsequently inform my work here at PepsiCo.
Usually in these situations, the author imparts advice drawn directly from his or her career, but I choose to take a different approach. In business, and in life, we need to sometimes accept failure. Rarely will even the most successful person go through life or a career and never experience real failure. Once one understands that, one sees that how a person responds to failure matters more than the fact of the failure itself.
Coming out of Kellogg, I landed a marketing position at Procter and Gamble, a job I hadn’t even considered until that point. After some time gaining experience all over the world, I was called to Cincinnati for a huge assignment – taking over the Vidal Sassoon brand. While it may not be so now, Vidal Sassoon was iconic in the 1980s. Yet when I took over the brand was going through its first real slow patch since P&G had acquired it in 1985.
My job was to turn it around. I didn’t. Sassoon never lost ground under my watch, but it didn’t gain any either. And to this day, I haven’t shaken the belief that I failed at Sassoon.
Simply put, I failed to understand the ways in which business is not about numbers and the countless ways it is about people. Eventually I came to understand this as a failure of leadership. Through this experience, I learned about myself and, more broadly, leadership. Perhaps most importantly, I learned the key distinction between management and leadership. We often think the two are synonymous, when in fact leadership is a larger and more difficult task. A manager instructs where a leader inspires.
Most people assume that leadership roles are something to aspire to later in life, requiring a multitude of experiences and years of hard work. They’re wrong. Leadership begins at the beginning—the moment you start working, and even before. Simply how you do your work and carry yourself can serve as an example to others, and hence is a matter of leadership.
Most of life, and so much of business, happens between the rails. Just as any decent manager can give clear direction, any employee can take it. But accepting and performing clear cut tasks is not the stuff of success—it’s merely a sign of competence. The truly great transcend those limitations and excel beyond what they’ve been asked to do. If there is one trait that separates the good from the great—the competent from the exceptional—this is it.
Make no mistake: it’s hard. Perhaps nothing in business is harder than to build a tolerance for ambiguity—to set an agenda without being handed one and to carry it out without being asked or expected to.
This lesson was one I had to experience to appreciate and understand—but one that I first learned in my time at Kellogg. Liam Fahey, Professor of Strategy and Policy, taught me the phrase “tolerance for ambiguity.” He taught me how to be uncomfortable—how to embrace uncertainty, attack it and overcome it. But the reality is, I had to live his lesson before I really understood it. That phrase, and the lessons it contains, is something I return to again and again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out to be the single most lasting and important lesson I took from Kellogg.
Looking among the eager faces of this year’s entering class, I recalled the same excitement and wonder I felt when I sat in those seats and prepared to embark on my own career. It is with this same passion that I’ve worked my way to where I am today. But without the other experiences I’ve just shared, my journey may have taken a very different turn. It has become clear to me that in business, and in life, sometimes you need to accept failure and uncertainty. Without acceptance of these things, it becomes more difficult to overcome them and truly succeed.