A Day with Jim Stengel
In the latest installment of Cool Perks That Come With This Job, I got to spend the better part of yesterday with Jim Stengel ’83g, who is a longtime Procter & Gamble marketing guru, now a fulltime consultant, and a respected thought leader in the business world.
Stengel was last on campus in 2008 to be honored as a Penn State Alumni Fellow, and since then, a few of my colleagues in the Alumni Association have forged an ongoing relationship with him. Someone got the idea to invite him here to spend a day with key Alumni Association staff leaders, talking about how his thoughts and research might apply to our own work.
Stengel is into what some call “purpose-driven marketing.” He talks a lot about purpose, and content, and ideals. The most concise way to describe it is probably what Stengel himself said in the introduction to his 2011 book Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies: he wrote that “…companies with ideals of improving people’s lives at the center of all they do outperform the market by a huge margin.”
That book resulted from a 10-year study involving about 50,000 brands. Stengel identified the top 50 brands that “have created more meaningful relationships with people”—and beat out their competitors financially in the process. The so-called Stengel 50 includes companies ranging from Accenture, Airtel, and Amazon.com to Wegmans, Zappos, and Zara.
During the sessions with the Alumni Association yesterday, Stengel and a brand strategist who works for him, Matt Carcieri (another former P&G guy), talked about why this concept of “ideals” has become so important in today’s business world. One reason, Stengel says, is that it’s what attracts talent: “The companies that are seeking to make the biggest difference in people’s lives are the ones attracting energy, attracting talent.” Carcieri thinks we may also be seeing a little bit of pullback in consumerism. “Now people don’t want to buy things,” Carcieri said; “they want to buy into things.” And Stengel added that the rise of social media has really exposed businesses and brands to the spotlight: “It means that if you’re not authentic, if you’re not coherent, it gets discovered quickly.”
Early on in the discussion, it hit me how lucky I was to have these two guys in our building for a day, to be able to listen to and learn from such respected thinkers. Plus there’s a lot to be said just for pausing once in a while to reflect on what you do. And to have someone ask you questions like, “What was the key thing you learned from the scandal?” and “What’s the burning issue in your strategic plan? What keeps you up at night?” and “Where do you look for inspiration for what you do?”
Over the course of the day, Stengel and Carcieri said a number of things that stuck with me. Some were things I need take to heart in my role as a manager; others were good advice simply in my role as a human being. I thought I’d pass along some of the takeaways, in no special order:
(1) When Stengel explained his ideals-based approach to one group of Alumni Association staff, I thought his words ought to be framed and put on the wall of every manager and every HR person: “People work best when they work with people they love and admire and respect, and are working for a higher ideal.”
(2) Stengel attended a session at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference last month in which the CEOs of successful startups (YouSendIt, Survey Monkey, and others) talked about the importance of focusing on the people working for them. “Half of their time is spent on talent,” Stengel said of the CEOs. “Recruiting, retention, reward structures, communicating, compensation, Friday meetings. They had a constant finger on the pulse of the organization.”
(3) Stengel recently had a chance to ask the famed investor and business owner Warren Buffett for advice on behalf of a group of corporate CEOs. Buffett told them, perhaps surprisingly, that “The most important decision you make in your life is who you’re going to marry.”
But Buffett’s second piece of advice was pretty good too: “Always surround yourself with people you love, admire, and respect.” Buffett and Brazilian partner Jorge Lemann worked out the $28 billion deal to buy Heinz earlier this year on the basis of a fairly short telephone conversation—”no bankers, no lawyers,” Stengel says. The point: That’s what trust can do for you.
(4) Stengel and Carcieri both talked about the importance of making time to foster creativity. We were talking about how the ongoing institutional crisis at Penn State has made it hard for us in the Association to step away and just brainstorm, and I know that’s been true at The Penn Stater for sure. Stengel said that every organization has trouble finding time for this, but that it’s important. Carcieri said something to the effect that companies can get by, maybe even achieve 2 percent growth, “just by doing whatever you’re doing. But to get a step-change,” he said, “you need the big lightning bolt.”
Stengel echoed that sentiment. “Are you giving people time to be creative?” he asked. “I’ve seen the power, so often in my career, of opening up people’s creativity a bit more. Expecting it, channeling it, rewarding it.”
(5) At one point Stengel asked us a question about the Alumni Association, a question that I assume he often asks his business clients. It’s one that I think is perhaps useful to ask ourselves on a personal level:
“If you went away tomorrow, what would people miss? What would the world lose?”
Tina Hay, editor