Riding Humility to the Top of the Corporate Ladder

Just this past week, my former employer Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest and most respected FMCG Company, named David Taylor its new global CEO.

It’s safe to say I know David very well. I replaced David in 2003 as the general manager of the Western European Family Care business, as he moved on to take over the North American branch of this business. We worked together for several years, and in 2005 he became my boss as president of Global Family Care. David is a talented and caring leader who thoroughly deserves the accolades and the top job at P&G. I saw firsthand the job he did in revitalizing the North American family-care business. It was nothing short of stellar work.

But what many don’t know is David’s level of humility, which I suspect has played a huge role in his rise to the pinnacle of business. And there is no better illustration of this than the story of David’s mid-career shift from supply chain into marketing.

David graduated from the prestigious Duke University with an engineering degree. He joined P&G straight out of school in various supply-chain roles, and performed exceptionally well. By his early 40s he had risen to the role of plant manager, overseeing P&G’s largest plant in the world. And let me tell you, plant manager is a great job. You earn very well. And you kind of run your own empire of sorts. For many people, plant manager is a destination role. It’s nirvana. And David was running the biggest plant of them all.

Well, somewhere along the line, somebody noted that David had a lot more to offer and could be a great leader managing the entire business. So a risky proposal was made to David: he had the potential to go all the way in running the business, in scope far beyond purely supply-chain roles. But to do so, he would need to become well versed in the commercial side of the business. And this meant a transfer out of his comfort zone and into a new world called marketing. And no guarantees. No parachutes.

So what did David do? Well, he accepted the challenge, to see how high was up. But there was a catch, a big catch: he had to transfer into marketing at entry level. Yep, that’s right. He did not make a lateral move. He got no credit for his 20 years in supply chain and leadership of the world’s largest plant. No, he went from the plant manager’s private office to work in a bullpen — the open space with barely two square meters of personal space, and started over.

You’ve heard the saying “Take one step back to take two steps forward”? Well, David Taylor did not do this. He took five steps backward. All the way to entry level.

Here he was, in his mid-40s, a couple of kids and a wife, sitting and competing with young, hungry and focused 25-year-olds armed with Harvard MBAs and no family distractions. Doing all the grunt work a new hire has to do, all the menial tasks.  And he did all this with no guarantee of anything. No re-entry into supply chain. He took a one-way ticket to see what he could become. Talk about jumping out of an airplane without a parachute! David did the corporate equivalent. Wow.

He swallowed his pride. He didn’t demand a thing. He went and started over and went out to prove what he was made of.

The rest is history. He caught on fast and was indeed promoted quickly. Soon he was a brand manager, then marketing director, then GM in China. And delivering great results every step of the way.

That’s the story. He took the risks, attacked new roles and challenges with humility and hard work. No entitlement mentality whatsoever. The man is a role model and deserves all the accolades.

Every time I have a 20-something in my office complaining and saying, “I have never gotten below an outstanding performance appraisal in my life,” or “I did not go to business school to have to type my own charts,” or “I want a bigger company car,” I always think of David Taylor. He was a 40-plus-year-old who had reached the top of the supply chain world after 20 years of hard work, and he accepted, willingly, to start over. And humbly accepted all the pain that came with it. And yet I can think of times I have the 20-something in my office, someone who really has not been around long enough to have achieved anything, acting like a spoiled brat?

So, the moral of the story is this: You want to make it to the top? You think you have the brains and skills to do it? Good! Just remember David Taylor. Be humble. Do the dirty work. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don’t think anything is beneath you, because it isn’t. Swallow your ego. Stop worrying about your car or your office size. Take on the challenges and just do your damn job better than anyone else. Keep in mind the story of the man now running the world’s premier FMCG Company.

Do this, and you just might find yourself as the CEO someday.