My conversation with John LeBoutillier, who is the President & CEO of Unilever Canada, was very thought provoking. This interview has some really good tactical advice for people at all stages of their career. We talk about important leadership lessons, approaches to integrating yourself into a new organization after a career change, and his views on work-life balance. John got to the top by simply outworking everyone else, and he covers that story in-depth throughout this interview.
These are just a few of the highlights from our chat:
He believes that he has an average intellect, but he compensates for this by outworking everyone else. He couldn’t talk until he was four years old and couldn’t read until he was in third grade. Growing up, people used to call him stupid and even his mom, at one point in time, thought he wasn’t smart enough to go to college. This created an internal drive to prove others wrong.
John was hustling at a young age. He started mowing lawns and trimming hedges, then got into house painting in high school. John got so good at it that he was making $7,000 to $10,000 dollars in cash a summer. This was a lot of money back in the 80s. He stuck with that business every summer, which initially was a concern of his when graduating Harvard, as he was one of the few students who didn't have a "professional" internship. John eventually realized that this was an asset, as he was one of the few people who had experience managing a team and working with paying customers.
He started his career off at Ogilvy which at the time was hiring some of the best talent in the industry. At the time, Ogilvy hired top talent from the best colleges. This was still the era where agencies were making 15% commissions which allowed them to develop top training programs to attract the best graduates.
One of the most important lessons he learned in leadership was at Ogilvy. Early in his career, he messed up on a project, so his boss brought him to the client to explain the mistake. John thought that his boss was trying emphasize to him the mistake he made, but the real lesson was to show John that they always operate as a team and stand up for each other. In the meeting with the client, his boss explained the mistake as an overall Ogilvy error, never mentioning John as an excuse for what went wrong. It was clear that at Ogilvy, they never throw each other under the bus.
One of the main drivers behind his professional success is the use of a career coach. He lucked out while at Kraft where his coach took him on while he was still a Director. Typically, his coach only worked with Presidents and CEOs. His coach is ruthless and rips him apart after every performance review he receives at work, all in the pursuit of making him a better leader.
He enjoys turning around failing businesses, the ones that people tend to overlook and give up on. He did this with turning around Tang, Balance Bar and most recently Knorr.
After 15 years, he moved to Unilever to accelerate his learning. He would get an opportunity to learn from a European-style company (Unilever's HQ is in the UK), and a chance to figure out how to integrate a new business, as Unilever was moving their Ice Cream business across the country from Green Bay, Wisconsin to New Jersey.
When he moved over from Kraft to Unilever, he had to get use to a major culture change. Kraft was very aggressive and high adrenaline. Unilever was very collegial and people were very nice. He had to get over a period of disbelief because people were so nice. But as the saying goes, it’s not the organ that rejects the body, it’s the body that rejects the organ. It was important that he found a way to adapt.
He moved to Canada because his boss told him that he would be of limited use at Unilever given that he had a lifetime of experience in just food; Unilever was primarily a personal care business. And so John was tasked with learning both parts of the business, while learning how to operate his own company.
On advice he’d given to his 20 or 30 year old self, it would be that he could’ve gone away with only doing 70% of the things that he did. The things he would cut are worrying and having anxiety over stupid things that were out of his control such as “getting another promotion”. Instead he would just focus on the task at hand and trust the organization and people around him. The other things he would cut would be drilling down further than necessary on issues.
Hope you enjoy listening.
Ray Cao is the CEO of Exact Media. We’re transforming the world of direct mail by enabling advertisers like P&G and Pepsico to distribute product samples and coupons through a vast network of e-commerce and omichannel retailers.
Daniel Rodic: [00:00:00] Today on Connections.
John Leboutllier : [00:00:02] My boss grabbed me and said, "We're going up to White Plains and we're going to tell the client that, you know, we might have an issue". And my boss walked into the senior client and he didn't say, "John forgot to do this". He didn't say.. my name wasn't mentioned. He went in and said, you know, I'm here to speak to the agency and there was an administrative error. We're going to get it fixed, but I need to let you know that this has happened.
[00:00:29] And etcetera, etectera. And the client said, well that's disappointing, and whatever you know, the client would say. We left the room and my boss said to me, he said what did you just learn? And I said I learned that I really effed this up. And he said, "No, you didn't learn that. You learned that we're a team, and we stand up for each other. And when someone makes a mistake we'll get it fixed, but we don't throw each other under the bus.
[00:01:01] He said "That's why I wanted you to come here, because, you know,in this team everybody is going to make a mistake, and the rest of us will compensate and figure it out." It was the most valuable of my life frankly.
Daniel Rodic: [00:01:16] My name is Daniel Rodic and I'm your host at Connection's brought to you by Exact Media. We created this podcast because we realize that a lot of people we spent time with in our day to day work. Brand managers, marketers, those who are trying to rise quickly in their careers could benefit from hearing the stories of the leaders they look up to in their industry. In every episode we cover the stories that you've never heard of. Where do they grow up? How do they get their first job? What were their successes and failures in their career and how do they recover from them?
[00:01:49] My hope is that you will take away some interesting tidbits and tactics that will help you accelerate your careers. I don't wanna spend too much time talking about us but so you have context on how we're involved in industry, at Exact Media we work specifically with marketers to help them sample their products through the parcel's of online retailers. For example, if about running shoes online, we might give you a sample of a healthy granola bar in that parcel. If that interests you at all, wisit us at the www.exactmedia.io. Now, on to our guest.
Daniel Rodic: [00:02:23] Today's guest is John the booty president of Unilever Canada. His story reminded me of two important quotes that I wanted to share with you first.
Daniel Rodic: [00:02:35] The first is from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor from year 161 to 180. He said, "Today I escape from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions - not outside".
[00:02:54] The second quote is from Epictetus another Stoic philosopher from a similar era who said "So and so's ships sank. What happened? His ship sank. But if we now add to this he has had bad luck. Then each of us is adding this observation to his own account."
Daniel Rodic: [00:03:15] What both quotes try to capture is that a lot of the worry and anxiety we face in our everyday lives are often our own doing. When you look for a particular outcome, for example, losing your job, not getting a promotion and treat it as negative - it's only a negative outcome if you choose to perceive it that way.
Daniel Rodic: [00:03:35] I bring these things up as John's story reminded me who these quotes. One of the most interesting parts of the interview for me was the advice that he would have given to his 25 or 30 year old self which would have been to cut the 30 percent of wasted time, effort, and mental energy just wasted on thinking about things which were really out of his control. Very often the time we spent thinking about, and trying to avoid, negative outcomes causes much more pain than enduring the pain itself.
[00:04:06] Marcus Aurelius said it best, "If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment".
[00:04:24] The rest of this interview covers a wide range of topics from; John's advice on how to approach college, his thoughts on competing competing against startups as a multinational organization and it covers some early lessons in leadership. He took away from his time at Ogilvy.
[00:04:41] Here is exact Media CEO Ray Cao with John Leboutllier.
Ray Cao : [00:04:49] John thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with us. Very quickly, maybe you could share with us just what it is that you do at Unilever today.
John Leboutllier: [00:05:01] Well I'm delighted to be the president of Unilever Canada. We are one of Unilever's top markets with just over a billion in net revenue. And you know our team does it all. So up in Canada we actually have three plants for our foods and ice cream business. We import most of our personal care products, but we're in 13 categories across personal care, foods, and ice cream.
Ray Cao : [00:05:31] Awesome. So I'm going to start to dial this back a few years and I think you because you've got a fascinating life, we're very curious, what your childhood like. Where did you grow up? What were your parents like? What was it like being a child in the family?
John Leboutllier: [00:05:51] Well, I grew up in Manhattan which seemed very normal to me. But as I got older I realized that was, for a lot of people, highly abnormal. I grew up in an apartment in Manhattan. My father was an investment banker. My mother was a teacher. They were both intently focused on achievement and achievement was very important. My mother was actually a teacher in my school so there was nowhere for me to hide growing up.
Ray Cao : [00:06:25] So what, were your parents pretty strict all throughout?
John Leboutllier: [00:06:29] Very yeah. My father less so, because he wasn't really home that much. But my mother, you know she, you know, she used to say, "My job isn't to be your friend. My job is to be your mother". And she took that very seriously.
Ray Cao : [00:06:46] At the time, what did you want to be growing up?
John Leboutllier: [00:06:51] As a little kid in grade school. I honestly didn't know. I probably just wanted to be like my Dad. And I really sort of fell into work without a plan.
John Leboutllier: [00:07:04] When I was in high school I started mowing lawns and trimming hedges and then I sort of accidentally got into the house painting business.
John Leboutllier: [00:07:14] And my best friend and I became quite good at it at a young age and actually ran a house painting business from high school through college. And this is in the 1980s early 80s.
John Leboutllier: [00:07:31] And we were each making seven to ten thousand dollars in cash a summer. So in those days that was real money. Yeah. Now it doesn't sound like much today but back in the early to mid 80s that was serious money. So we didn't really have an incentive to get a real job because we were making so much money in the summers. Which then led to a real issue. As I got to you know senior year in college because all I'd ever done is paint houses and my friends had all had internships on Wall Street and internships in New York and done all these fascinating things in Washington. And... I went to my Aunt who was president of an ad agency in New York and I said you know,"Aunt Peggy I have I have no story. I'm a house painter graduating from Harvard".
John Leboutllier: [00:08:21] And she said, "That's absolutely not true. You have the best story. You've run a business. You know what it means to have customers. You know what it means to have employees. You know what it means to deliver a good job and you've got a fantastic education.
John Leboutllier: [00:08:35] She said, "Do not sell yourself short. Just because somebody had an internship in a congressman's office in Washington doesn't mean they're any more capable than you are.
John Leboutllier: [00:08:47] And so she really helped focus me in what types of things interested me and it came down to teamwork which was an outgrowth of being an athlete and running my business and it came down to something tangible. I like tangible things, seeing the results of my work, like house painting. That ruled out, you know, law and investment banking and the rest of it.
John Leboutllier: [00:09:15] And then she said, "Listen if you like making things and you like consumers You really should give advertising a chance. If nothing else that gives you exposure to a bunch of different industries. So if you don't like advertising per say, at least you'll get a good overview of a lot of other industries that you interact with". And so that's how I wound up at Ogilvy and Mather in the account management training program, working on the Kraft business. And then from then on I was a CPG guy.
Ray Cao : [00:09:45] Interesting. I got it.. I know we skipped a few years. How did you decide what to do in college and which college to go to.
John Leboutllier: [00:09:54] I went to Harvard for Crew. So that was pretty easy. And when I was in college I actually made a fatal mistake because my passion was European and Russian history but I didn't think that would lead to a job.
John Leboutllier: [00:10:12] So I majored in economics which just turned out to be a catastrophic mistake because, not only were they not interested, in that it actually doesn't lead to anything. So the advice I give to every high school senior that I encounter or college student is college is a gift and you've got to major in something you're passionate about because you're going to spend a tremendous amount of time on it.
Ray Cao : [00:10:40] When you say that it was easy to get in because of crew, was it at the time that it was just easier to go in with spot and then get an education out?
John Leboutllier: [00:10:51] Oh no it wasn't easy to get into by a long shot. It was easy to decide. I mean, that you know, I was, I loved their program. I love the college. It's spectacular. Great location, and is spectacularly beautiful, a lot of my friends are going, and and so, everything just triangulated on Harvard. And I was very very happy to go.
Ray Cao : [00:11:14] I imagine it must have been a bit different for a Harvard grad who studied economics to go into advertising at Oglivy. Did you stand out,or did you fit in pretty easily?
John Leboutllier: [00:11:28] I didn't stand out at all. Back in the in the early 80s Ogilvy's training program was the creme de la creme. So I was in my training program I was with, you know, they actually had kids graduating business school that were going to the Ogilvy training program. There was someone from HBS in my class. There were a couple kids from Princeton, there was someone from UVA. So now I was .. I did not stand out in that class.
Ray Cao : [00:12:01] Things change quite a bit over the years. I mean it does Oglivy still do something like this, or?
John Leboutllier: [00:12:06] I don't think agency could afford to do that anymore. Back in the 80s those were the days of the 15 percent commission. And those were the days that agencies had clients for decades. High loyalty, high commission, they really could afford to invest in training programs like the one they had. I have been out of the industry for so long that I don't know what they do now. But, you know on the commission rates they're making it can't be anything like that was back in the day
Ray Cao : [00:12:39] I don't know how much of this you remember but what were some of the more memorable moments that at Ogilvy? Were there moments of a royal screw up, or your favourite campaign? What do you still remember of that first job?
John Leboutllier: [00:12:54] Well I'll give you a general answer and then I'll talk about a screw up. I just remember the teamwork and in those days, and I hate to sound like an old person, but in those days if you had an account you did the media, you did the strategy, you did the creative.
John Leboutllier: [00:13:13] All of that was within your account team. So you really were an end to end provider of the advertising product. As such you worked with such fascinating people from the highly analytical people in media and media buying to the incredible creative talent that we had access to, and to the strategy folks sort of a mixture of both. And then the clients who are exceptionally bright. I mean Kraft Foods was one of the marquee because actually General Foods and then Kraft Foods was one of the marquee accounts. So it was just a real team effort. And what I learned then was how to be adaptable because it isn't as successful account person can motivate a creative as easily and as effectively as they can motivate a media buyer. And those are two entirely different disciplines, and those are two entirely different individuals. So, you know, to succeed you really had to learn leadership from the ground up. And leadership means understanding the roles and responsibilities of the people you're trying to lead. Also leadership with no direct authority, because an account person doesn't have authority over media or creative or strategy. Those people need to want to work with you.
John Leboutllier: [00:14:42] So it was real boot camp on grass roots, authentic leadership and it's not just about making people like you. Those people want to know that if they're going to work hard, their product is going to see the light of day. So not only are you easy to work with. Are you smart. Are you going to give good direction. And at the end of several weeks or months of work are you going to be in front of the client and is the client can buy it.
John Leboutllier: [00:15:12] So you have to be adaptable. You have to be approachable. You have to be authentic. You have to be smart, and you have to know how to sell. Those skills pretty much fit any career. But a great place to learn and my aunt was absolutely right. That was a fantastic first stop in terms of learning the fundamentals of leadership. And then I'll talk a little bit about a screw up at Oglivy.
John Leboutllier: [00:15:37] One of my jobs when I was a junior account person is to get the creative boards approved by the networks. So before you go up and spend a million dollars of Kraft's money,make sure the networks are going to air the ad.I am not someone who screws things up. I mean I am very, very anal retentive but I went in on a Saturday and I noticed that somehow three boards I had failed to forward them on to the networks.
John Leboutllier: [00:16:12] And we were due to shoot. We'd already bid the job. I mean we had directors we had production companies we were going to shoot these ads.
John Leboutllier: [00:16:19] I literally had a panic attack at my desk on a Saturday.
John Leboutllier: [00:16:23] In those days we didn't have cell phones, we didn't have texting we didn't have.. I couldn't reach my boss. I just spent a sleepless weekend and on Monday I was there just spot on early. I needed to get to him first thing and I just said you know this is what's happened. And you know, with the resources of Ogilvy and Mather and made there we managed to expedite them and get them in front of the networks and everything but we also tell a client and my boss grabbed me and said, "We're going up to White Plains and we're going to tell the client that, you know, we might have an issue". And my boss walked into the senior client and he didn't say, "John forgot to do this". He didn't say.. my name wasn't mentioned. He went in and said, you know, I'm here to speak to the agency and there was an administrative error. We're going to get it fixed, but I need to let you know that this has happened, and etcetera, etectera. And the client said, well that's disappointing, and whatever you know, the client would say. We left the room and my boss said to me, he said what did you just learn?
[00:17:33] And I said I learned that I really effed this up. And he said, "No, you didn't learn that. You learned that we're a team, and we stand up for each other. And when someone makes a mistake we'll get it fixed, but we don't throw each other under the bus. He said "That's why I wanted you to come here, because, you know,in this team everybody is going to make a mistake, and the rest of us will compensate and figure it out." It was the most valuable of my life frankly
Ray Cao : [00:18:08] It's.. it seemed like it.. Was that part of the culture of Oglivy? I recently did an interview with David Sable who runs Y&R and he was talking about the days of Madmen, the real Mad Men of Madison Avenue. And it seemed like it was a bit more of a cutthroat environment, but maybe it was just that the firm.. Was just unique to the culture of Oglivy.
John Leboutllier: [00:18:31] Well, I was about 15 years after Mad Men. So we were post the Wild West when we actually did have administrative processes, and it was a real business.
John Leboutllier: [00:18:45] I don't know if it was unique to Oglivy or not because it's the only experience I had. I do know that at Ogilvy, in those days you know we protected our family with our lives, and that included the client by the way the client was part of it. That that's something I really miss, the client intimacy. We spent a good 40 percent of our time up in White Plains with the GF folks, and socialized with them and worked hard, and worked late and tackled problems together. There was a real intimacy there and friendships forged that will last a lifetime. And I'm not sure that happens anymore.
Ray Cao : [00:19:31] So what made you decide to move on from Ogilvy?
John Leboutllier: [00:19:38] Well I loved, God, I just loved Oglivy and I wanted to be the best account person that I could be. And I got to account director. And in those days account directors sat on the general manager's staff up at Kraft. So I would go to the staff meeting, and in the staff meetings the CFO, the Head of Sales, the Head of Supply Chain, Manufacturing, you know all these folks and they're talking about all their KPIs and basically speaking a different language.
John Leboutllier: [00:20:10] I was 26 years old and I knew I had no business being in that room. And I came back one day and I said to my boss, I just said, "You know I feel like a fool. I literally feel like an impostor sitting there pretending that I'm some you know big business man when I'm not" and he said, "What what exactly is the problem?".
[00:20:32] I said, "Well, you know, the CFO's talking about all this stuff and my eyes glaze ove. I have no idea what he's talking about".
John Leboutllier: [00:20:38] And he said you're not supposed to. He said you're supposed to know the advertising. He said when they ask an advertising question do you answer it. I said yes. And he said, "Yeah well someone else at that table eye's are glazing over because they don't know what you're talking about". And I said, "I don't know. We say that we're partners in our clients business. We say that we treat their business like our own. And I sit in that room and I started really feeling like I don't know anything about their business.
John Leboutllier: [00:21:04] And so I said I was going to go back to business school to learn their business and then come back to Oglivy. And I just I went to business school not to get into CBG. I went to business school because I wanted to be a better account person. And by my first year of business school I got a call from my client and he said, "Listen I'm about to waste a lot of time traipsing around the country looking for a summer intern". He said, "You're going to spend a lot of time looking for an internship. Why don't you just make this easy for both of us.
John Leboutllier: [00:21:33] And I said "Great!" I'll go to Kraft as a summer intern and then I'll really learn their business and I'll be an even better person. And then the end of the summer I got the offer to come back as an associate. And I said, "What a what a great way to be a better account person, than to be an associate for a year or two".
John Leboutllier: [00:21:50] And literally my first five years and Kraft was all spent in service of going back to Oglivy and being great account guy. And by the time I was a brand manager I realized that I was never going.
Ray Cao : [00:22:06] Throughout that time. When you made the switch from Ogilvy to get your MBA, and MBA to Kraft. Did you have a particular mentor or maybe a group of mentors that helped you? Who gave you counsel? Was it just you doing this on your own? Did you go to anyone for help and guidance?
John Leboutllier: [00:22:24] The MBA was on my own because, frankly, Kraft said I could come without it, and Ogilvy said I didn't need it. But I just.. You know again, we're talking, whatever what are we 25 years ago... In those days an MBA was sort of standard in business. Now these days it's much much less so. But in those days it was sort of a standard credential. So I just wanted it. I felt like I was 26, I was young enough, and if I wasn't going to do it then I was never going to do it. The MBA was a purely personal decision in making the switch. Both my client and my boss at Ogilvy were really influential and took a personal interest there wasn't self interest it was personal like "what's best for John". And then when I was at General Foods/Kraft I had just unbelievable mentors throughout my career.
John Leboutllier: [00:23:24] Just fantastic. I could never have achieved without them.
Ray Cao : [00:23:31] You mention that there was a point when you joined Krraft of just pretty much no return it seems like a no brainer but it sounded like that at Oglivy, that you just loved what you were doing. What was it about General Foods or Kraft that they got you to say, "Wow, this is something I want to dedicate my career to"?
John Leboutllier: [00:23:50] I love solving problems and I realize that as a brand manager every day is a different problem. And in advertising there are different problems but there are all of the same ilk. And what I realized is that at Kraft one day it's a supply chain problem the next day it's a customer issue, the next day you've got to work with the agency or the advertising and it's just a variety of problems. And sort of the immediacy of the solutions really got me, and has always kept me, very very excited.
Ray Cao : [00:24:30] When you talk about mentorship, what would you say were some of the traits or qualities of of the people that that left a very strong impression on you, that you felt made a really big difference in your life. What was it that they did to support you. That that makes you sort of look back and say hey these were critical mentors in my life.
John Leboutllier: [00:24:52] Well the most important thing is they knew me. It wasn't about what's best for the organization or what's best for them, and how can I get through this meeting as quickly as possible. They were people that actually had a personal interest in me as a person and knew what drove me and what my interests were, and were really helping me find the intersection between my fulfillment and my work.
John Leboutllier: [00:25:25] And I've just been so fortunate because there's so many people along the way that took the time to actually say, you know, actually not say actually, take the time to learn who I am and what I'm good at and where I get my energy and how that can be best channeled into a career.
Ray Cao : [00:25:50] I imagine that you were not passive either, it sound like you've always been very ambitious you always wanted to achieve a lot. What do you think it was that you were doing that caught their attention and what did what did, you for lack of a better word, give that to them that you think made them want to reciprocate and to really help you and look out for you.
John Leboutllier: [00:26:19] Well for that there's a little bit of background because what people really gravitate to in me is, I'll outwork anybody. So when you say what did I give them I gave them a 150 percent. That comes from really difficult academic circumstances when I was young. I didn't talk till I was four and I didn't read until I was in the third grade. Pretty much everybody around me was that either, that I was certainly, the word stupid was used. I remember even, you know, as a young teen my mother saying, "You're not smart enough to go to college you're going to probably go to a trade school". When you grow up in your formative years with everybody just assuming that you're an idiot, you have to A) work hard to prove to yourself that you're not, but then you have to work hard to prove to everybody else that you're not. And so I've just always outworked anybody.
John Leboutllier: [00:27:30] And I'm not exceptionally smart. And I'd say I'm an average intellect with an overcompensating work ethic. But, that's what they saw. You know they say someone who is, no matter what it was going to take, was going to get the job done.
Ray Cao : [00:27:52] Would you say that that upbringing and that mentality sort of drove them to.. Was that a big driver behind how you operate your life, even to this point, that you were sort of always, you know, second guessed or people didn't feel that that you could do.. and that you had to prove something. Do you think that's been the big driver all throughout your life?
John Leboutllier: [00:28:17] Well, the problem is that in the last 30 years I haven't had to prove anything to anybody. But... you always have to prove it to yourself.
Ray Cao : [00:28:28] Right.
John Leboutllier: [00:28:28] That never leaves you. But there's nobody walking around Unilever saying, "How did that idiot get there?". Those issues, whatever issues I had, are gone. I mean.. I read voraciously. I have no trouble talking. I have no trouble, you know, ripping through a deck or piece of analysis or whatever it is.
John Leboutllier: [00:28:51] But.. when you spend 0 to 10, you know, in those circumstances, that never never leaves you.
Ray Cao : [00:29:00] Right
Ray Cao : [00:29:01] On another topic I mean whether it whether it's due to a certain circumstance.. What do you look for in people? Where do you see potential, and what are some of the common traits of people you've managed throughout your career. What would you say separates the best ones from from others.
John Leboutllier: [00:29:22] The most important thing is do they know why they're there. That's more important than how smart they are, or where they went to school or how hard they worked or what whatever their personal circumstances are. But do they know why they're here. Why do you want to work on Hellman's?
John Leboutllier: [00:29:41] And if it's just because the job then... they're not going to be fulfilled, nor will they want to be here. But, you know, people who've taken the time to say, "I enjoy working in a team". "I enjoy the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and what it's doing for the planet through business"."I love food". I mean I don't care what the reason is, but people have to know why they're there.
John Leboutllier: [00:30:10] And then secondly are they authentic people? Do they know themselves? Do they know how they come across. And do they work to be a better person every day? I think if you've got those two things down ,then no matter how smart you are you're going to probably do pretty well.
Ray Cao : [00:30:32] During your Kraft and Kraft days. It's a totally, I think maybe a different generation in this day and age where everyone's sort of hopping from role to role. You've got to startups, and the Googles and the Facebook's and a lot of distractions. Did you at the time ever think about doing something completely different? Again? It sounded like the MBA was an interesting inflection point and pivot for you, but were there other points throughout Kraft, or even at Unilever where you said.. hey I kind want to consider do something completely different.
John Leboutllier: [00:31:09] To be honest I do think about it. But I don't I find almost as much satisfaction thinking about how am I going to compete with those startups when I'm a multinational. And so it can be just as thrilling being on this side of the field.
John Leboutllier: [00:31:32] And to be honest,these jobs pay well. I know that everyone thinks that they're going to go off to a startup and be worth $100 million tomorrow. But, for every one of those, there's ninety nine people who wind up out of a job in nine months.
Ray Cao : [00:31:50] Right, probably a lot more than 99.
John Leboutllier: [00:31:54] Yeah probably.
John Leboutllier: [00:31:55] And so I'm not really motivated by money.
John Leboutllier: [00:31:58] I'm motivated by the intellectual challenge and the team challenge. And sure enough, I mean you read all the business press, I mean these startups are starting to chip away at the big companies for sure. And instead of running to them, I find it interesting to say, "OK, how are we going to adapt?". You know we don't want to be the dinosaur. So how are we going to adapt and be the shark. And.. I'm still getting a tremendous amount of energy into that.
John Leboutllier: [00:32:31] So as long as I'm entertained energized and motivated, and my intellect is challenged.. I don't spend really too much time thinking about what else.
Ray Cao : [00:32:44] So it looked like you were going up and up and up and up..Pretty nice trajectory at Kraft. What led you to suddenly switch and hop on over to Unilever.
John Leboutllier: [00:33:00] Well I've had a career coach for a long long time. And while I was Kraft for 15 years, of course, the headhunter calls would come in and I would bounce the ideas off my my coach. It would be this CPG that CPG, some new category and she would.
Ray Cao : [00:33:18] Was this an internal Kraft coach or someone external?
John Leboutllier: [00:33:25] External. She would reject them all because she'd say it's just the same gig at a different company. Don't jump for a couple of thousand dollars.. stick with the people that know you and love you and you're doing well.
John Leboutllier: [00:33:37] And then the Unilever opportunity came through and I expected her to just swap that out of the air just like all the others. And she didn't. And she said.. this one is really fascinating because number one we were taking the ice cream business from Green Bay Wisconsin and moving it across the country to New Jersey and she said that that's high stakes. You know you get to pick this thing up and move it across the country and keep it going at the same time. That's challenging.
John Leboutllier: [00:34:05] Second she said, "You've grown up the Kraft where the center of gravity is the U.S. you know.. you go to a Unilever center of gravity is not the U.S. You're going to be competing for resources with all the other regions and all the other countries, and U.S. is important but it's not 80 percent of the company". And so she thought that was interesting, she also said, "you're going to learn the European business philosophy which is totally different than the U.S. philosophy". She said, "if you're thinking about a stretching assignment this is worth looking at". And she also said, "You are at 15 years of Kraft".
John Leboutllier: [00:34:46] So you get past 15 years, you start to be less interesting externally because people just assume that you can only do the work later.
Ray Cao : [00:34:53] You're a lifer.
John Leboutllier: [00:34:54] You're a lifer, and everything has to be the Kraft way and you know she said, "A) from a timing perspective if you want to jump, this is a time to think about it. And secondly this opportunity will really develop you in ways that you can't even imagine". And so we went after it. So.
Ray Cao : [00:35:15] Interesting.
Ray Cao : [00:35:16] I imagine that wasn't an easy conversation with Kraft who you've been with for 15 years. What was that conversation like when you had the switch. They try to keep you, and give you another role or..?
John Leboutllier: [00:35:28] Well actually the second piece of Unilever was that one of my best friends and mentors and left Kraft to go to Unilever as well. Two years before me. And so he, you know, he was a big draw and actually at that point at Kraft.. there was a period of transition and turnover. You know Roger Deromedi had left, Irene Rosenfeld took his place.. A lot of, you know, Dave Johnson and a lot of the old guard had moved on. New administration, fresh beginnings. Wasn't that controversial.
Ray Cao : [00:36:08] I want to go back to the coach piece because it's really interesting to me... at what stage in your career did you decide to go out and look for a coach?
John Leboutllier: [00:36:17] I got super lucky on that too.
John Leboutllier: [00:36:20] I was a director so I was a work level three... And the coach that I'm you know very good friends with and worked with really only does CEOs and presidents, or aspiring presidents. I have no business even talking to her. But a very very good friend of mine had worked with her for a long time and then snuck me in there.
Ray Cao : [00:36:47] Do you still have the coach today?
John Leboutllier: [00:36:50] Oh yeah.
Ray Cao : [00:36:52] Is that.. is that a common thing that that you've seen across in the industry? Or just something you picked up?
John Leboutllier: [00:36:58] No, I'm one of the only three people I know that has a coach.
Ray Cao : [00:37:02] Seems like.. it's like .. a best kept secret type of thing.
John Leboutllier: [00:37:08] It actually should be a growth industry, because with the industry changing so rapidly. Making sure that you're adapting is the most critical skill. So no, she's ruthless. She gets my mid-year review my end of year review. She looks at my development plans, she rips through everything... I get it I get a tougher year end review from her than I do from work.
Ray Cao : [00:37:34] I think, you know I think, it is a big missed opportunity and when you look at some of the most successful people out there whether it's large corporations or startups or entrepreneurs I mean there's always people behind these these success stories, and yet it is a big missed opportunity that people don't get the coaching and like any competitive sport you need that coach to keep you on track. And I think it is no different in your career.
John Leboutllier: [00:38:00] Well, plus friends and family don't want to hurt your feelings.
Ray Cao : [00:38:03] No. Not at all. Not at all.
Ray Cao : [00:38:09] So.. at that stage in your career you weren't just coming out of school, you had a certain mindset and a certain set of habits. Was it difficult to adjust to a whole new company or new culture.. the fact that the center of the universe is no longer the US. What was it like?
John Leboutllier: [00:38:31] The culture piece was the biggest disconnect. Kraft was an incredibly aggressive culture. And Unilever is a highly collaborative culture. So even though Kraft we worked as teams, we loved as teams, we achieved as teams... We were a very high adrenaline culture and Unilever is a very collegial, collaborative culture. I just walked around the first three months pinching myself. I literally went up to the person who hired me multiple times and said, "Is it is this a put on? Are people actually this nice?". And he said, "No, that's not a put on. That.. actually these people are actually this nice". And so the biggest change I needed to make was to tone it down. And people here are every bit as competitive. We fight for every bit of market share and then someone challenges one of our Citadel's we will attack them with a vengeance. But, interpersonally within Unilever. This is a highly respectful place. And so.. I really have to work hard at toning it down you know this isn't we're not at war. We are you know and learn the Unilever way and unfortunately when you're learning a highly collegial way that's actually something you want to sell. It wasn't hard but you know sort of getting over the period of disbelief and then a period of adaption and adoption was critical.
Ray Cao : [00:40:18] When you say turn it down, how do you do that given it was the way you're almost trained and brought up. And did you ever think that this would be a way for you to stand out, if anything given that you were different from the world with it.
John Leboutllier: [00:40:33] Well they actually wanted me to do that. They wanted to inject a little adrenaline into the culture and bias for action. So they purposely went out and got a couple of us, but then we were all smart enough to know that it's the organ that gets rejected not the body.
Ray Cao : [00:40:56] Right.
John Leboutllier: [00:40:56] How you inject a bias for action without coming across like a typical American jackass was the most important thing. And so fortunately a bunch of us that came in are actually still here. We were all smart enough to you know sort of learn the culture before we tried to ramp it up.
Ray Cao : [00:41:21] So it looks like your center of the universe is gravitating and moving, moving and moving, and somehow you ended up in Canada. How did that happen?
John Leboutllier: [00:41:31] That's just so typically Unilever. So I was in New York running their foods business and that was their margarine business, their food and their ice cream business. That literally was another reason I went to Unilever, this was a dream job and it was in New York. I didn't have to move half an hour from home. It literally felt like heaven on earth. And I just loved that job. I mean literally loved, it every day. Even the bad days. And so I was sitting in my office one day and the head of the Americas swung by and said, you know he's Brit. He said, "How you doin mate?". And I said, "I'm your happiest employee". I said, "every day of the week I'm your happiest employee". And he said, "well.. I'm really glad to hear that. However, you're of limited use. You're a lifetime foods person, and we're a food and personal care business". And he said, "As long as you're a food person, we love to have you. You're terrific. But you're kind of missing the other half of the equation". And he said, "I really want to go to Canada and I want you to learn the personal care business. And I also want to see how you do with your own operating company". Because as running foods I was on his staff. So he said you know get out from under the staff and run your own show and learn the PC business. So that's what took me to Canada.
Ray Cao : [00:43:05] I am going to switch a more to the personal side. You've accomplished a ton in your professional career, but throughout the journey.. and I haven't found anyone who's gotten it perfect on both sides but.. do you remember of any any sort of major personal setbacks or sacrifices that you had to make in order to really move that career forward.
John Leboutllier: [00:43:30] I think it's a cop out to blame your career for personal problems frankly, because there's plenty of people and very challenging careers that manage to have a healthy personal life and have you know family and all that. So I'm not going to blame the career, I'm going to blame myself.
John Leboutllier: [00:43:52] But when I came to Canada, my wife has a career in New York and our daughter was in a special school that she really, we thought, needed. And so.. you know I pushed hard that I would commute and that ultimately... the commute didn't kill the marriage but it didn't help. And ultimately that fell apart.
John Leboutllier: [00:44:17] So yeah I'm not going to call that a sacrifice for the job because plenty of people do that successfully. But it is an unfortunate outcome.
Ray Cao : [00:44:31] What would you have done anything differently, looking back?
John Leboutllier: [00:44:34] Oh yeah absolutely. I would have had my wife quit her job and everyone would move to Toronto.
Ray Cao : [00:44:42] It didn't sound like.. I mean I don't personally believe in this concept of work life balance.. because I don't think they balance and it also sounds like you've had this reputation and this work ethic that would outwork others. Would what was your rhythm like? I mean, were you always on throughout the week? Did you ever shut off? You say hey Saturdays I'm not going to touch anything. What was your work rhythm like? Maybe it's evolved over time as well.
John Leboutllier: [00:45:10] No it's definitely evolved. So I would say my.. my work in my 20s and my 30s that's all I did. It was very unhealthy and very stupid in retrospect, but I was just so paranoid about making sure that everything was spot on, on making sure everything was right.
John Leboutllier: [00:45:33] You know, am I positioned? Am I achieving. Am I getting that next promotion, am I getting the promotion after that? I mean it was consuming. And like I said, incredibly stupid because I could have gotten where I am with 70 percent of that effort.
John Leboutllier: [00:45:50] Nevertheless twenties and thirties, always on. Nothing is too much. I'll do whatever. In my 40s, little more seasoning and I would say through my 40s I really came to appreciate turning it down on the weekends. Never quite turned it off. But making sure that if I was out sailing I was sailing. I was spending time with my daughter. I was spending time with her. Making sure that you know I could sort of block it out to any extent.
John Leboutllier: [00:46:27] And now, I I'm totally different person. We've adapted agile work here with a vengeance.
[00:46:39] So we don't track when people are here, when they're when they're not. We actively encourage people to work from home. Because commute times in Toronto are horrible. So we've got people working one to three days a week out of the office and I work from home every Friday and I'm very clear about that. My weekends for the most part are my weekends. I'm you know really indulge my hobbies and indulge my daughter. And I'm living a much fuller life now than I ever did before. And a cynic would say well of course you're doing that because you've got all these people who work for you - actually having more people work for you is harder work than not.
[00:47:24] So, if anything, the temptation to be checking up on people would be the force against balance but it's just you know I think with age comes wisdom I just wish I had it 20 years ago because I work out six days a week. I actively pursue my hobbies. I dote on my kid when in the States and and I think I do much better work because of it.
Ray Cao : [00:47:57] I want to go back to when you talked about your 20s, your 30s where you could have probably done 70 percent of the things. What would be the 70 percent that you would have still done if you talked to your 25, 30 year old self, and what were the would be the 30 percent that you'd say, "Hey,I probably didn't need to do this, and would have still been able to achieve this" because I mentioned.. you know a lot of it was your work ethic.. that you were there when others are probably not willing to be there, you were taking out things others weren't willing to. That got you the mentors, and the advisors and the support and all the opportunities as well. But, what would you have cut back?
John Leboutllier: [00:48:33] Well, first of all, I want to highlight I've got so many 20 and 30 year olds working for me now. And I notice that this generation is way smarter in terms of life than certainly I was. And frankly most of the people I knew. So I wasn't alone cranking out those hours. I mean pretty much all my friends were too. And I don't see that in this generation. I see it really I see a level of wisdom about life that is a making them smarter at work and b) gonna give them a much more fulfilling life.
John Leboutllier: [00:49:14] But, I don't want to assume that this is a phenomenon going on today. But if I was going to roll back time and talk to that person - I'd say stop worrying. I mean, the 30 percent I cut out was mostly worry, and anxiety about stupid things that were outside of my control. I mean.. why worry about am I going to get that job. Am I going to get that promotion? How am I doing how am I doing? That's that's senseless. Just focus on the task at hand. Get the task at hand done, and the rest will take care of itself. And trust. Trust the organization. Trust the people around you.
John Leboutllier: [00:49:55] So I'd say half of that 30 percent was pointless and wasteful. And then the other half was drilling down further than necessary.
John Leboutllier: [00:50:05] Today we're much smarter about 80/20, and understanding that even if you wait to get perfect information, by the time you get it the whole situation's changed anyway.. so be comfortable with the 80 percent, be comfortable with your own judgment, and be comfortable that as you execute, that you can adjust and adapt and optimize along the way. It doesn't have to be perfect.
John Leboutllier: [00:50:30] And so yeah... those two things would have saved me 30 percent pretty easily.
Ray Cao : [00:50:38] Do you have any rituals, that you sort of follow every day.. do you meditate in the morning? Do you worked out in the morning? It sounds like you work out quite a bit. Anything else that you stick with is a ritual.
John Leboutllier: [00:50:50] I work out every morning and I eat right. I don't know if that's a ritual but I'm pretty ruthless about what I eat, and just being.. you know, taking care of the machine.
Ray Cao : [00:51:09] How early are you typically up?
John Leboutllier: [00:51:13] I like to be in the gym by 5:30
Ray Cao : [00:51:19] That's pretty early. So then you're awake at what, like 4 or 4:30.
John Leboutllier: [00:51:23] No the gym is right behind where I live. So I'm up at 5 you know.. 25. Then I just... I'm in the gym, I do 45 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weights every morning.
Ray Cao : [00:51:41] What time are you in the office?
John Leboutllier: [00:51:48] It really varies, honestly. Eight, eightish - nothing crazy.
John Leboutllier: [00:51:56] You know when I get back in the gym I like to take a little time to catch up on CNN and you know take a decent shower and you know I don't want to be hustle hustle. I mean just get ready and get some breakfast and go to go to work. I'm not in a big hurry.
Ray Cao : [00:52:14] Is I never asked this question, and I'm assuming that you have a smartphone?
John Leboutllier: [00:52:20] Yeah.
Ray Cao : [00:52:20] Yeah. What what apps do you use the most often.
John Leboutllier: [00:52:25] You know I'm really not an app person. So... I do a lot of Instagram. I really rely on Instagram to communicate with my friends more than facebook.
Ray Cao : [00:52:37] That's an app.
John Leboutllier: [00:52:39] Yeah, but you know it's not an app that's like helping you know monitor my blood pressure and all that stuff. I mean.. I don't do any of that stuff. I use Instagram, Facebook, weather, Google and that's about it.
Ray Cao : [00:52:59] Sure. There are a couple of things that sort of I've extracted at this that I think you've done slightly differently with your career. I mean.. one has to do with the coach side, the other is your pure work ethics and that you'll outwork for most people. Is there something else that you think people don't know about you, that you think was critical to your success, or has been critical to your success?
John Leboutllier: [00:53:24] Well the one thing that generated the most mentorship attention is I really like the broken businesses. That's been with me since I was a brand manager. I've.. I was part of the Tang turnaround in the 90s when that business was being delisted in the US, and we retargeted it, repositioned it. It has grown and you know double digit for years. And that just taught me that no business is too broken to be saved. And since then there's been numerous other opportunities, the balance bar acquisition that went sort of sideways, and you know, my team and I were brought in to sort of pick that. Up in Canada we had a Knorr business which you call Knorr in the U.S. but actually overdeveloped in Canada because.. it's a .. we're a cooking culture. And that business was broken and we've got that thing humming and I get so much more satisfaction from these broken businesses.
John Leboutllier: [00:54:31] And when I came to Canada, you know new Canadian president.. you know, the first week is all you know everyone coming in with their business reviews, and of course Dove is the first brand up. Then you know get into your Hellmann's and you get into the Axe, and you get into the big glamorous businesses. And at the tail end was this poor little Knorr business and these beleaguered, sad looking people, and you know the business has been declining 7 percent a year and is losing household penetration. You have one thing fixed and two other things would break and it just this hapless little crew. And at the end of the whole review my V.P. marketing said so you know what do you think. And I said like they I'm going to adopt the Knorr team and they laughed. They were like, why would you do that? And I said because that's like the little engine that could. You know we're going to prove everybody wrong. We are going to get this thing cranking.
John Leboutllier: [00:55:28] Within a year we were getting visitors from around the globe to see what Canada was doing with Knorr. And so, these poor people that for years had been treated like the misfit toys were now Heroes. And entertaining guests from Europe, and from headquarters and people coming in to see the what's for dinner program on Knorr in Canada. And it was just so fantastic to see.. what happened to these people, not just, I mean there was a physical transformation. You could literally see them change. Even within the organization, suddenly Knorr was the destination everybody wanted to be on or had something to do with it.
[00:56:17] And it's just so rewarding and it's rewarding in ways that money could never come close.. to the feeling of watching the business and watching the people on the business flourish.
Ray Cao : [00:56:35] Wow. I guess at this point in your life, you've gone through so many different experiences. You've accomplished a ton and I think you've learned probably just as much, if not more, on the personal side. But what do you still have left to accomplish? Either personally or professionally?
John Leboutllier: [00:56:58] Well professional I'm not sure because I'm really still enjoying this, and I think we're heading into such a fascinating period when private equity is getting extremely active in the personal care and foods. So our competition is just going to get faster, and better funded, and wilier. And we're going to have to keep up, and, or get ahead. And so that's an interesting challenge. And we've gone through a period of restructuring and rebuilding here that is now really bearing fruit. So... I'm kind of excited about enjoying the fruits of all that for a little while. So I'm not really in a hurry to do anything else.
John Leboutllier: [00:57:41] It would be fun to build something from scratch. It would be fun to.. you know whether that's for a private equity somebody or on my own or whatever.. but I don't even have a fishing pole, so I'm not, you know, I don't even know. Right now this is a this is a great gig. I'm having so much fun.
Ray Cao : [00:58:07] What about on the personal side. Any anything that you have on the bucket list that needs to be ticked off?
John Leboutllier: [00:58:14] Well I have a nine year old daughter with special needs. And so I very much enjoy her. And you know I want to see her become what she can be and I don't know what that is or where it is. She and I are thick as thieves. And so I just cherish.. you know.. my time with her. So I'm with her every Sunday and at least one night a week and that's just to hoot so. But she's got challenges and she meets them with a with a joyfulness and with a spirit and that is just infectious. I mean she's the most popular person in our town.
Ray Cao : [00:59:08] Awesome that's awesome. John, I know you're incredibly busy but I just wanted to thank you so much for this interview. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot.
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