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What We Know Now: CPG CEOs Share at the Consumer Goods Forum

Egon Zehnder was proud to participate in this month’s 2024 Consumer Goods Forum in Chicago.  Sarah Van Dyck, co-leader of Egon Zehnder’s Global Consumer Practice, moderated an exciting and informative panel, Leading through Complexity, featuring an impressive roster of top executives: 

Thibaut Mongon, CEO of Kenvue 

Wendy Davidson, President & CEO and Board Director of The Hain Celestial Group 

Vipul Chawla, Group CEO of the FairPrice Group 

Natalie Roos, CEO of Lipton Teas and Infusions

The participants were forthright about the challenges they are facing leading their organizations in this increasingly volatile and uncertain world. They all shared formative moments illustrating how they have had to evolve their leadership styles to manage their competing priorities among wider groups of stakeholders and expanding mandates. 

The consensus was undeniable that being CEO is getting harder as the world gets more complex. Whereas the job used to be like solving an equation, today it is more like navigating a maze. Even so, they all attested to the fact that learning does come with experience and action, and they shared many of their own. The best way to be prepared for the unpredictable, according to these leaders, is through trial and error, by rolling up your sleeves and delving into the challenges as they arise. To help with this, most leaders have expanded their networks to rely more on others and to create alliances for success—generally turning over an array of new resources for collaboration and experimentation. Getting in the trenches and learning from startups and disrupters as to what it really takes to innovate was also highly recommended. Especially for big CPGs, this can be a great way to better understand how to really “color outside the lines” and encourage more creatively promising exploration. 

These CEOs also stressed how important it is to take cues from customers and consumers rather than stay married to a particular strategy or playbook. They all explained that now they actually say “I don’t know what to do” at least once a day; moreover, that learning how to embrace this humility and a growth mindset has become imperative to their leadership. “It’s beyond skills sets and all about mindsets,” they explained, “it’s about creating a safe environment where it is ok to fail to move forward.”  

Several other areas of concentration were additionally highlighted:  

Inspiring the Team

Give your team both a framework and the freedom to get there. Communicate clearly what the “why” is and make sure they are on board.  Center into that purpose – inspire and motivate others around the goal at hand and keep reminding them of this. At the same time, role model the curiosity you hope to inspire by asking questions and not by showcasing having all the answers. It has become extremely important to create inclusive environments of both belonging as well as constant adaptability and growth. Achieving that balance can take some work, but it is essential. Finally, praise people publicly and coach them privately. Allow them the latitude to make mistakes but take the time to explore those and learn from them as well. Getting these tricky balances right can often be the secret sauce for success. All of this requires great self-awareness and consciousness on the part of the leader.

Balancing Multiple Stakeholders 

Different stakeholders often pull in different directions, of course, and this can become a hefty challenge. It is not about perfection, these CEOs stressed, it is about creating value for all which may take some time. It’s important to recognize that it is impossible to keep everybody happy all the time. A leader must learn to live in those shifting degrees of stakeholder satisfaction and keep the big picture in her/his purview. Most important is to commit to leading with your conscience and with transparency so that you build trust. You will certainly have to make hard choices at times. For some, Generation Z has become a muse since they are encouraging CEOs to act now. But each leader will find their own unique path of stakeholder management fitting to their organization and mandate.

Getting Feedback as CEO      

This is always hard for CEOs as people want to impress and flatter the top boss. But it is vitally important for CEOs to learn how they are perceived and what they are doing both right and wrong. They recommend creating safe spaces for feedback and not asking for it too late, giving people the time and security to provide truly useful information. Feedback should be sought out from a variety of stakeholders—from teams first and foremost, but also by spending time and listening well to many others. Ask them all real questions and listen to understand not to respond. Find the real truthtellers—those who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Also ask for and hear positive feedback. This will give you energy and keep you inspired through the next daunting challenge which most assuredly lies ahead. 

Advising the Next Generation of CEOs 

Uncertainty is only going to accelerate and new technologies, especially AI, are only going to get more complex. Brace for this by not locking into the past. Keep yourself open and growing. Above all, stay curious and learn how to bring that out in others. Ground yourself in positivity and gratitude even on the worst of days if you can—it’s a solid foundation for resilience and progress. Listen, listen, listen –inside and outside of your organizations. Be mindful of echo-chambers and people pleasers (or even nay-sayers). Consult a variety of outside sources, from personal coaches to board directors in other industries to non-profits as well. 

Above all, be a leader who can lead but also follow, tether yourself to ongoing growth and enlightenment. Because, while complexity represents unpredictability and invites increased risk, it also promises opportunity. The domain of the complex is the domain of the possible. The times are changing, and you get to be at the forefront of that. What a privilege and inspiring call to action.

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