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As a CEO, my strength as a leader comes from a position of vulnerability

The CEO of Moët Hennessy North America says his mentors—and personal challenges—have forged his leadership style.

As a CEO, my strength as a leader comes from a position of vulnerability
[Source photo: Marat Musabirov/iStock]
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Early in my career, during my time at PepsiCo, I had an amazing mentor, Al Carey. Al, the former CEO of PepsiCo’s North America business, practiced, and instilled in me, the notion of servant leadership and its guiding principles: the idea that leaders should serve, rather than be served; that they should set the vision and strategy and then work tirelessly to remove the barriers that get in the way of achieving that vision and strategy; and that they should lead by listening and giving support, rather than telling employees what to do. This leads to strong loyalty and connection with your team. Al showed me that empathy, humility and vulnerability are at the center of this approach, with mutual trust and respect also being critical.

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I am a big believer in showing up vulnerably. Perhaps this inclination has also bled over from my personal life. After being sick for much of my life, I found out in my mid-thirties that I was born with (and previously undiagnosed with) something known as Common Variable Immunodeficiency, which is a Primary Immunodeficiency disorder where my immune system does not work properly. This makes me much more susceptible to infections and while I now receive weekly immunoglobulin infusions to help my immune system fight infections, I am still literally more vulnerable to illness than most people. As you can imagine during the pandemic, that was quite scary. I was unable to go into any public spaces, including the office, beginning in March 2020 and lasting for over a year until I was fully inoculated in mid-2021 (and luckily I made antibodies to the vaccine, which not all patients with this disorder are fortunate enough to do). I kept my sanity through family dinners, long solo bike rides and (overly) social distanced outside visits only. This all means that being vulnerable comes natural to me; it is authentic to who I am and likewise, has become a core pillar of my leadership philosophy.

To many executives, vulnerability in leadership is synonymous with weakness. Some leaders are encouraged or taught to hide emotion; they must have clear lines delineating their personal and professional lives, never showing doubt, apprehension, fear or worse, failure.

It’s important to understand that when I speak about vulnerability, I’m not talking about putting yourself out there as a sitting duck or being emotionally reckless. Rather, when you remind people that you are a human first and importantly–that you know they are too – you break down walls built up over years and simultaneously start to create a work environment that allows people to operate from a place of comfort, honesty and authenticity. This leads to a more positive workplace experience and ultimately has a material business impact.

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As a leader, I’m a big believer in 1) admitting I don’t know everything, 2) asking a lot of questions (and listening carefully to the answers), 3) putting responsibility and autonomy in the hands of people leaders and those closest to the customer and 4) establishing a culture of empowerment, inclusion, transparency and agility. My philosophy was put to the test last year: The first COVID-19 lockdowns came just two months into my tenure as president and CEO of luxury wine and spirits company Moët  Hennessey North America. But, I stuck by these lessons and mantras to lead the company through crisis, and hopefully toward a brighter overall future.

Break down barriers and obstacles. Don’t create them

It’s our job as leaders to connect the dots and understand the business enough to set the vision, strategy and long-term roadmap. But then after deploying that strategy and vision throughout the organization, the most important thing that I can do as a leader every day is break down the barriers and obstacles that get in the way of my team achieving that vision and strategy. One of the ways I was able to do that when I joined was to recognize that some of our processes (deck writing, presentations) were too internally focused, overly complicated, and caused undue stress, workload and anxiety for our teams. So quickly, I worked with my leadership team to simplify these processes and change the ways of working to allow for conversations over presentations, giving valuable time—and sanity—back to our teams while redirecting energy externally. Another way the leadership team and I were able to do this was by deploying incremental resource to the parts of the team where under resourcing was the biggest barrier to their success.

Flip the org chart

An important and key way of breaking down barriers is also by literally flipping the organization upside down so that the most important person in the organization, the person at the top of the org chart, is the person closest to the consumer. It takes some self-awareness to recognize this, but there’s no scenario where the CEO of a business will know more about what’s going on than that person closest to the culture and transactions. When I joined, our commercial teams did not have the ownership or autonomy to prioritize geographies, channels and accounts where they saw the greatest opportunities for growth. This was not only surprising to me, but also a clear signal that we needed to give our talented people on the front line (those closest to our consumers) the ownership to make decisions that would best benefit the business. This pivot from the most senior person owning every decision to distributing decision-making based on proximity to our consumers is at the very heart of servant leadership, and acknowledges the expertise of our teams while creating material business impact.

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Empower the people who know the most. Trust them, and let go

It is critical to make sure that the right talent are in the right roles and performing optimally. Then it is critical to empower the teams, pushing decision-making deep, deep, deep down in the organization. During and coming out of the pandemic, it quickly became very clear that e-business was going to be a critical capability and focus area where milestones and decisions would need to move with critical pace. We created a task force of cross-functional employees from all levels to map and build our e-business agenda. The leadership team and I selected that team and helped set the initial vision, but immediately thereafter they were given the permission to act autonomously and outside of traditional processes, keeping us informed along the way. They were empowered and then wholly trusted. Our growth and share in the eBusiness space has been extremely strong as a result and after guiding the team at the onset…trusting and letting go was the most effective thing we could do for this talented team to succeed.

Champion true inclusion, diversity, and equity with community, dollars, and accountability in mind

It’s critical to dedicate the time and resources to your I-D-E agenda. This is not just a culture initiative, it’s a business imperative. When I joined, we made a very deliberate effort to increase perspectives and representation at the executive level, with now over 50% of our leadership team being women and half of that BIPOC. Internally, we created a robust employee resource group process for our teams to feel empowered, heard and seen, and to encourage them to lead the tough conversations we needed to have as a company around social justice issues and the complex nature of how that plays out in the workplace. We deployed funding to support minority-owned small businesses, via a program Hennessy created called Unfinished Business, that provided capital and mentorship to Black owned, Latinx owned, or Asian-American owned small businesses that were disproportionately hit by COVID. Moving this business, and the talent forward in this significant way could not have happened without an empowered team focused on making the best decisions for their core consumers and other constituents.

At the end of the day, the leadership recipe I follow, which is always evolving by the way, is not over complicated. There isn’t room for ego in an approach where you put honesty, openness, inclusivity, empowerment, transparency and importantly, vulnerability at the forefront. As leaders, it’s paramount we demonstrate our organization’s progress without “chest pounding,” but rather by continuing to show up vulnerably and authentically while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done, removing the obstacles along the way to get there.

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After nearly 20 years in multiple marketing, sales and general management roles at PepsiCo North America, Seth Kaufman became CEO of Moët Hennessy North America in January 2020.