Ex-Fortune 50 CEO dispenses pearls of leadership wisdom

Posted January 28, 2021


By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)


During the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network’s (AAPN’s) online Fireside Chat last week, attendees were sprinkled – no, make that “doused” – with nuggets of knowledge from a well-regarded business leader of 45 years.


Albert P. Carey, executive chairman at textile maker Unifi, Inc., Greensboro, N.C., spent an hour dispensing leadership lessons learned from his career, which includes 38 years at Pepsico North America. He retired as its CEO in 2019. The event, dubbed “Industry Insights From a Former Fortune 50 CEO,” was part of the AAPN’s American Ingenuity Series, which the network debuted last year in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Carey’s presentation was interwoven with anecdotes and pearls of wisdom gleaned from extensive experience leading multiple lines of consumer brands across snacks and beverages at PepsiCo, including as CEO of Frito-Lay North America, and his involvement serving on the boards of Home Depot and Unifi.


Noting early on that he’s “not an expert,” he removed the bow from his talk with a sapient pronouncement: “The most important lesson I've learned over my whole career is how to manage through difficult business situations and how to approach adversity as a leader,” he said, later offering cogent examples of these experiences and how they played out.


At the risk of keeping Carey’s cohesively organized retrospective contextually accurate, let’s mine some of those gems, or pieces of advice, in an abridged form. So in Carey’s own words …


Accept challenges:


“When somebody offers you a promotion or a job where it's a tough situation, go for it. I was never afraid of taking on these challenges. I think over time, it's a good idea to be challenged. Who wants to manage through just ‘maintenancing’ the business? I think it's a little more energizing. At Pepsico, there were actually five jobs I identified where I walked into a cyclone, where the wheels kind of had fallen off and you had to put them back on.”


Play offense:


“When adversity comes, most leaders find themselves playing defense. Most people start backing up a bit because they start feeling the fear that comes on as a result of the adversity. I can't think of a better time to discuss this topic than in the middle of COVID. The environment gets scary, fear sets in, and you really don't want to make decisions where you might fail or make things worse. You sometimes get risk-adverse. So, here comes the adversity, and it looks like trouble. Are you going to go out there and spend the extra capital on something that will improve the business? Probably not. Are you going to go out there aggressively on pricing? Are you going to go out there with a marketing campaign that costs a few bucks? Usually not. What happens is the leadership will find themselves on the back of their heels instead of on their toes. They don’t play offense. They're playing defense and they sometimes find the whole organization paralyzed, waiting for something to happen or waiting for something to improve.”


Also: “As I've heard some smarter people that me say, ‘don't let a crisis go to waste.’ So if you want to take this offensive approach, the top leadership has to step up and lead. They can't just sit around, talk about it and wait for something to happen. And it's not just one person, either. It's the group, the senior leadership team, who has to decide. We're going to go forward. We're going to take the optimistic approach.”


Leap forward:


“I think these times of adversity where the whole world is changing and, in this case with COVID, everything's changed. I think this is the time to consider playing offense and leap forward. It might actually be the time where you could not just make little incremental changes in your business. This might be the time to leap forward with giant market share gains, with great breakthroughs on innovation and really change the trajectory of your business, because most of your competitors and most of the people in your industry are probably backing up a bit. I'm not suggesting you do crazy things like bet the whole company, but make smart decisions, be aggressive and be on offense.”


Paint a bright picture:


“The first thing leaders have to do is paint a picture of hope for their people. So if you're thinking about COVID, (tell your employees) ‘here are the moves that we've made that should provide us with a really great opportunity to jump-shift our business. And wouldn't you want to be part of this organization going forward?’ Right now, your people, our people are being recruited by headhunters who might want to place them somewhere else that might be more techie or what they might think might be more positive for their future. So you have to paint a picture of hope so that people realize that the company has a great future.”


Talk AND listen:


“You also need to overcommunicate, but also listen a lot. You have to get frequent updates (from employees) on where you stand and give frequent updates to your people on what progress you're making. But I have found out you need to shut your mouth for a second and listen, especially to your frontline people. They sometimes have solutions to problems that'll help you get your business on track. And you should listen to your customers. Don't sell them, listen to them and find out what obstacles they have. And maybe you can help maneuver through those obstacles and be a help, be a problem solver. Then you'll get business. You will get business if you help your customers solve problems.”


Celebrate wins:


“Celebrate wins with your organization, even small ones. In fact, in a time like we're in right now, you probably have to celebrate some small wins. But they'll become medium-sized wins and they'll become bigger wins as the time goes on. And make sure you celebrate the people that get those wins.”


Set realistic goals:


“Give your people attainable goals during adverse times such as COVID. If you give them a target for the year that's unattainable, you're going to make them feel even worse. Give them a target that's attainable that they can actually stretch to achieve.”


Lead, don’t manage:


“When you get to a certain level of an organization, you darn well better be leading, not managing. If you're still managing, you’re doing the jobs your people should be doing. You have to set a vision. You have to create hope for the organization.”


Have the right mindset:


“I believe that if the leader of an organization or the leaders of an organization have the right attitude about turning a negative into an advantage during adversity, it actually can work.”


To younger folks with leadership aspirations:


“If you can figure out how to get an organization and a business out of trouble, you become a very valuable person in the organization. The people, the leadership and the board of the company would then want you to be involved with more of the business because you can help fix things and you can teach others how to overcome obstacles. And your confidence goes up, which puts you a better leadership position.”




“As I look back over my career, every year that we had about 10% of our gross sales in innovation (new or improved product), we had a great year. The way I feel about innovation in the consumer products goods businesses is probably the same as textiles because they're mature categories. If you don't keep those categories fresh with new products and new ideas coming out, you'll drop back in your growth. But you have to make sure your R&D team or your innovation team has enough money to do the research, to do the work, to go after it. And R&D and marketing work together. Marketing identifies through data. What are the unfulfilled needs, what are the trends that are out there?”

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