When R. Keith Harrison Jr. took over The Procter & Gamble Co.’s
Global Product Supply operations in 2001, material and energy
prices were declining, and the focus was on keeping costs down
and trying to drive expansion into low-cost or developing markets.
Today’s environment is acutely different. In the past three years,
the division of the $83.5 billion company has seen rising costs for
energy, oil and other commodities, which have added $2 billion to
“I have never seen a more challenging business environment for
us and me than the one we have today, where we’re dealing with
the obvious issues of commodity increases ... but beyond that, the
challenges of increased global competition,” Harrison says.
In order to deal with these challenges, Harrison focuses on anticipating the future, helping the 65,000 employees who work under
him understand the business challenges and driving creativity and
energy among them.
“I think part of the role of the leader is to, as best you can, anticipate what’s on the horizon,” he says. “If you’re totally in a reactive
mode, you’re always playing catch-up.”
Only by being proactive and seeking out as much information as
possible about the changing marketplace can you hope to set your
organization up to be ready to handle the changes necessary to
come out on top. Here’s how Harrison keeps P&G Product Supply
ready for future challenges while delivering short-term results.
Anticipate the future
Harrison prepares for the future by first acknowledging that past
accomplishments don’t always mean much.
“The things that had served us well over the last 10 or 15 years
were unlikely going to be sufficient to maintain our level of contribution to the company’s result over the decade we’re into now,”
To get a better idea of where things might be headed, start by
talking to your customers and suppliers.
“I think one piece is trying to recognize when things are changing and we need to be thinking or doing things differently,” he says.
“You also talk to your customers; you talk to your suppliers.”
With customers, Harrison is trying to understand what drives
their businesses and how P&G can create value.
“Every customer has a little bit different set of value drivers, and
so it’s important for us to understand how we can enhance the
value creation process, which we obviously want to turn into a
growth engine for the company,” he says. “Our hope and our
expectation would be that as we create value for customers, that
customers will reflect the value we’re creating by reinvesting or
supporting our business in ways that give us disproportionate
With suppliers, Harrison is always looking for innovation.
“We have several suppliers (whom) we have very close technical working relationships with ... that’s clearly an area of great interest
to us as we continue to try and source more and more of our innovation from outside the company, and we have a goal of getting 50
percent of our innovation from external sources, and our suppliers
are a good source of that,” he says.
Once you have input from customers, suppliers and all your
internal experts, you can start putting together a plan.
“You try and build in the best data you can from your business
leadership in terms of where that is going to be, and you put that
into an analytical model that really looks at things like distribution
costs and transport miles and wage rates and construction costs
and all of those,” Harrison says. “I don’t want to say out pops a
model because it doesn’t, but it starts to build a road map for you
that you can then follow as it goes forward.
“The group that’s doing this, we’ve got manufacturing folks, distribution folks, sales people, R&D, a lot of information systems
people, we’ve gotten some external consultancies involved, we’ve
been soliciting customer input on where they think their business
is going. And out of all of that data in the hands of people who are
knowledgeable in their fields comes a piece of work that gets guided and certainly vetted by some modeling to be sure you’re on
track. It’s more than sticking pins in a map, and it’s a lot more than
plugging data in. It’s really a very interactive process with people
who are knowledgeable, backed up by some good analytic tools.”
Communicate the plan
The challenge with identifying future trends is that it often points
to the need for change — something that doesn’t come naturally to
Harrison says you have to find a way to make the need for
change clear, exciting, energizing and compelling in terms of what
the future needs to be. From there, you need to communicate a
road map that shows it is plausible that the company can get there.
“Sometimes in the absence of that second piece, the leap would
appear too great for folks, and finding a way to at least indicate to
people how we get started, and the fact that it is something that is
doable and equally importantly critical to the business results that
the organization needs to achieve, I think is key to get people moving,” he says.
Once you get people moving, then it’s easier to keep the plan for
change moving or even accelerate it. The challenge is, how do you
break out of where you are today?
“The way I try to do that is try to clarify in a very energizing and
compelling way what it is, get clear on some broad-stroke ideas on
what the focus should be and get people some thoughts on how
you get started in a way that makes people see that it is doable,”
he says. “I never believed that you need to have a plan necessarily
that needs to add up to 100 percent of what a future vision would
be. In fact, you could argue that if you have a plan that gets you 100 percent there, it’s not very visionary.
“And it doesn’t even need to be fully
thought out — around here folks have
heard me use the whole notion of something called North Star, which doesn’t
mean anything but your vision or where
you want to go. I like to think of it as similar to you’re a traveler and you’ve found the
North Star. The point isn’t that I’m always
going north, the point is that I’m never
going south. I may be going a little northeast at times, I may be doing northwest
because there are short-term things that
you have to manage — there’s a business
need that needs to be met short term as
well as long term — but ideally everything
you’re doing is moving you toward what
you’ve defined as your desired end state.
“There will be some things that blow you
a little off course, but ideally, they don’t
blow you backward. But you don’t know
whether it’s being blown backward or not
unless you really know where you’re really
trying to go long term.”
Harrison loves to visit plants and hear stories from employees of how they have
improved the business. With 145 plants in
60 countries, sometimes that means talking
through a translator, but the important
thing is that employees get a chance to
share their stories. He uses these visits as
an opportunity to get employees energized
and enthusiastic about their ideas and
where the company is going. It’s also a way
for him to get firsthand information on how
the various parts of the business are doing.
But to make it work, you have to believe
in the power of engaging employees.
“If you don’t enjoy interacting and at
some level listening, then it’s going to be
sort of hard to really get enthusiastic about
it,” Harrison says. “Every time I visit any
organization, not just a plant, we almost
inevitably have some sort of town-hall
meeting, where I will do a state of the business update, and then more importantly
throw it open for a Q&A.
“You’re never quite sure what questions
you’re going to get, and sometimes they are
not easy ones and maybe sometimes not
even comfortable ones. You want your
organization to see you as approachable,
accessible, and someone who’s at least
willing to listen and be in touch with what’s
going on in the organization. And that does-n’t mean that you grant everything that
comes up, it just means that you listen and you hear it. There have been times when
I’ve gotten a question and I’ve said, ‘Sorry,
that’s not going to work but here’s why.’”
When talking to these groups, Harrison
says it is helpful to make sure you have a
plan for the things you want to communicate to them.
“There are a number of things I want to
keep working every time I visit anywhere,”
he says. “Folks will tell you that I’m always
talking about offering P&G a ‘demonstrable competitive advantage,’ because I see
that as our job. You find some themes that
you really want to drive and you tailor
those for the organization that you’re meeting with, and then I think the other piece is
being able to communicate things in a way
that is not only clear but energizing.
“I’m not sure if I always achieve this goal,
but my goal is always to leave a group with
more energy than they had when they
When talking to employees, you don’t have
to ignore negative topics to energize them.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that you do
that by just praising mediocre performance, that’s not the point,” Harrison says.
“The point is how do you talk about challenges and gaps in a way that values and
recognizes and creates an energy and
enthusiasm that they can go out and fix
those things. You can give a negative
review on a plant or any organization and
have people feeling pretty bad, or you can
give a negative review on an organization
and have people fired up to go make it better. I try to operate from the second camp,
though occasionally you have to operate
from the first camp.
“I think to the extent that you can energize people about the need to improve as
opposed to threaten people and scare people about the need to improve, the more in
touch and the more fun and energized and
aligned your organization is going to be. I
don’t personally believe that fear is a sustainable leadership model. You can get
some short-term things there, but that’s not
an ongoing leadership model in my view.”
When everyone understands the context
decisions are being made in and how they
fit into the puzzle and are given a chance to
participate, that’s when you really start seeing results.
“We really encourage people to really
think about how their ideas really play out
in the context of business results,” Harrison
says. “If you can’t relate your great idea to
some sort of improved business results, then you’ve got to wonder if the people are
really working on the right thing.
“If people understand what the business
needs are, the competitive needs, and
you’ve got good alignment with company
objectives, your strategies are clear and
you’ve done a good job creating alignment
and ownership, it’s amazing how much creativity and energy emerge as you go about
dealing with these challenges.”
While P&G Product Supply still has some
challenges ahead, Harrison says it’s important to anticipate, stay focused and stay
true to your strategies.
“You’ve got to find a way to balance meeting your short-term goals but do it in a way
that doesn’t blow you off course of where
you’re trying to go longer term,” he says.
“Part of the job of the leader is to instill
confidence and provide direction. If you
show up as panicked, the organization will
take its cue from that. If you show up as,
‘This is a tough challenge, but here are
some thoughts on how we could go meet it.
How do we tackle this thing but with an
eye toward success?’ That creates a spirit
and energy in the organization.”
HOW TO REACH: Procter & Gamble Product Supply, (513) 983-1100 or www.pg.com