From the March 23, 2014 New York Times and the Corner Office column by Adam Bryant and his interview with Don Knauss, chief executive of the Clorox Company.What did you learn in the Marines about leadership?
I’ll tell you a story. I was stationed on Oahu. The first day I was actually in a line unit — after 15 months of school and training — was on Hawaii, the Big Island. There’s a big Army base there where artillery units train and shoot live rounds. They helicoptered me over and I took a jeep to join 120 Marines in this artillery battery. They’d been out in the field for several weeks, and the commanding officer had ordered hot food from the base camp because they’d been eating C rations [canned food] for several days.
I had been up since 5 in the morning, and I was pretty hungry. I started walking over to get in front of the line, and this gunnery sergeant grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. He said: “Lieutenant, in the field the men always eat first. You can have some if there’s any left.” I said, “O.K., I get it.”
That was the whole Marine Corps approach — it’s all about your people; it’s not about you. And if you’re going to lead these people, you’d better demonstrate that you care more about them than you care about yourself. I’ve never forgotten that, and that shaped my whole approach to leadership from then on.
When you got out of the Marines, did you know what you wanted to do?
I learned in the Marine Corps that I really liked strategy. Every operation in the military is based on a five-paragraph order, and the acronym is Smeac — situation, mission, execution, administration and communication. It’s a very logical flow.
I decided to get into brand management, and Procter & Gamble was a great training ground, and they hired a lot of junior military officers. Procter was more of a written than verbal culture, and business initiatives were structured through short memos. It was almost an exact parallel of the five-paragraph order. I said, “I could fit into that culture.”
What were some other leadership lessons?
One thing I learned very quickly was that there’s a head part and a heart part. The head part was, how are you going to focus the organization? And it had better be simple, and it probably should not be more than three things. You’ve got to communicate it about 100 times and align your incentive structure to it. It’s about distilling the complex to the simple, and I’ve seen leaders fail because they do the reverse, by trying to make things into some intellectual exercise. Whatever business you’re in, there are fundamentals, just like blocking and tackling in football. It always comes back to the fundamentals. You cannot let yourself get bored with the fundamentals.
On the heart side, the lesson is that it’s all about your people. If you’re going to engage the best and the brightest and retain them, they’d better think that you care more about them than you care about yourself. They’re not about making you look good. You’re about making them successful. If you really believe that and act on that, it gains you credibility and trust. You can run an organization based on fear for a short time. But trust is a much more powerful, long-term and sustainable way to drive an organization.
The other thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to assume the best intent of people, and that they’re really trying to do a good job. I’ve seen organizations that are based more on fear than trust because senior management really thinks people are trying to get one over on them, that they’re just punching a clock. People really are trying to do a good job, and they want to be proud of where they work. Understanding that helped make me a bit more patient.
How do you hire?
First and foremost, I’m looking for fire in the belly. I’m looking for passion. I’m looking for energy. Is the person going to take a leading role and have an impact on the business? I will take passion over pedigree any day of the week. Second, are they smart? Can they think analytically, creatively and strategically? If you don’t have the intellectual horsepower, it’s going to be hard for people to follow you.
Third, is there any pattern in the person’s career that shows they can develop people? Did people move up through an organization because they were mentored by this person? A fourth thing is, can they communicate? Can you imagine this person on a stage, inspiring a large group? Do they have an easy, informal manner? Or are they too formal, too focused on hierarchy? That doesn’t work. Formality slows things down in companies. Informality speeds things up. It is much more powerful to use authority than power.
One of the things I’ve learned is that as you move up in an organization, you’re given more power. The less you use the power you’ve been given, the more authority people give you, because they think: “You know what? This guy’s O.K.” Persuading people to do things — come along with me because we’re going in the right direction — is much more powerful over time.
The last thing I look for is the values of the person. Do they tell the truth, but do they also stand up for what they think is right in the company? It starts with integrity, which is really the grease of commerce. You get things done much more quickly when people trust you.