Michael O. Johnson

Michael Johnson embodies the lifestyle that his company sells.

The 51-year-old CEO of Herbalife International of America Inc. is an avid endurance sport athlete, and when he’s not participating in a triathlon, Johnson is working to make Herbalife a healthier enterprise. Since coming on board in 2003, Johnson has taken the $1.3 billion company public, managed a major debt offering, conducted a secondary offering and refinanced the capital structure.

Johnson spoke with Smart Business about his changing view on business leadership, the value of experience and problem with charisma.

Develop your vision. We just put together a vision, mission and values for our company. We rolled this out as a program worldwide. Senior management became trainers of this. It’s almost like the Ten Commandments.

They become an operating methodology for the company. We do the right, honest and ethical thing. We make decisions in our work based on facts, not on hearsay. We work hard and hold ourselves accountable. We strive for excellence. That’s part of our value system.

We apply facts. It’s good to have guts, but you need to go back and look at ‘How are we making this decision?’ Everything comes back, eventually, to the core principles of what we have out there.

Trust your gut. I used to think leadership was 50 percent fraternal — getting people to work with you and for you and seeing the vision — and 50 percent technical — some strong skill that you have and applying it to the market. In today’s world, there is a third piece of leadership — guts, an instinct for where you are in a situation with somebody, when to apply pressure, when not to apply pressure, to have a feel for the meeting.

What is that person’s mental makeup for the day? Sometimes you have to talk people off the ledge. And you don’t want to be pushing when you’re trying to pull them in.

Lead with wisdom. There’s an instinctual part of what I’m learning in life, and especially business, that is … wisdom. You get it over time. There are some great young leaders, but they have some way that they operate that’s very standardized. As you get a little older, wisdom plays a part of it. And wisdom is guts.

Don’t mistake charisma for leadership. We mistake charisma for guts sometimes. People are drawn to (some executives), but they may not be drawn to something in depth.

They might be drawn to something that is slightly shallow. It might be looks. People are biologically drawn to each other by looks or voice or style or clothes. Someone who has a little depth, someone who has been around the block a few times, has a much more powerful presence than someone who just has presence.

Deal with your weaknesses. This is a clich, but it is a strong one: Hire strength to your weakness. It’s something that I’ve employed all my career that has worked out pretty well for me. Time will be the real judge of it.

I didn’t come up through finance or accounting. Had I known what I know now, I’d have gotten a finance degree. Numbers are the core of any business.

I’ve self-educated myself over the years to be as articulate as I possibly can be about financial matters. But this is a world of high finance, especially as companies get larger and get involved in foreign markets and debt markets.

Know the rules. The public company sector in today’s world requires a massive amount of reporting in a massive amount of areas. Areas that you wouldn’t think have public scrutiny now have a major amount of public scrutiny.

Shareholders have a right, and it’s a good right, to know everything about a company. In the past, as a somewhat private company, we didn’t have to have a mass of people doing quarterly accounting for us. We do now. We didn’t have to have ‘Qs and Ks and 8-Ks’ going out every time we sneezed. We didn’t have to be as thoughtful about every statement we made to everybody about everything.

Give back to the community. I’m over that halfway point in life. At some point, you’ve got to start giving back. The sense of the founder of this company was to give back. Even at a young age, he put into place our family foundation with the idea of giving back.

I’m going to measure success in this company on a lot of things. Of course, they’re going to be financial and have Wall Street metrics to them without a doubt. The real success we’re going to have is when people look at the Herbalife brand and don’t have any suspicions. They’re going to say, great products, great people, great company, great community service.

Nobody owns the nutrition brand. … I want to own it. We want to own the idea that the mission of nutrition is Herbalife.

Learn from the past. Don’t discount any of your experiences. I am constantly amazed how every experience I’ve had in life — I’ve been a paperboy, cut lawns, shoveled snow, ran a restaurant, a disc jockey, worked in the entertainment industry, published a magazine.

There were points in my life when I thought I was not on the road to success. I didn’t have one of these undergraduate, graduate, Wharton MBA to become the CEO. I didn’t have that track. I had a much less typical track.

The more I found out, the more leaders I encounter, most of them did have pretty untypical tracks. There is a misnomer that there is some planned ascension program for people. Take every experience, gather it in and try and find some horizon point on it.

Don’t give up. When you’re working your butt off and toiling away up through some management rank that may be middle management, and you don’t think there’s any big picture beyond it, don’t be so sure that there’s not. Every experience adds value to who you are.

Keep it simple. What’s lacking in business today is simplicity. People are striving to make things complicated when people should be striving to make things simple. Let’s stop impressing people with all the information we have, and let’s get down to the essential points. Then let’s let communication add the things that we’re missing.

We confuse things. We make simple things confusing. Business is not that complicated. It’s usually a product, a process and a consumer.

HOW TO REACH: Herbalife International of America, Inc. (866) 866-4744 or www.herbalife.com

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