Former President and CEO Nestlé Nutrition North America and current CEO, North America at Shiftlineup
Gary served in various senior roles at Hain Celestial in the US and at Nestle both internationally and in the US. He spent over 15 years at Nestle, where he led Nestle’s infant nutrition unit in North America, with responsibility for the Gerber and Nestle brands. Before that, he was head of Nestle’s maternal and infant nutrition strategic business unit and regional business head for Nestle Nutrition in South Asia. He is currently CEO, North America at Shiftlineup, a human capital management software provider. Read moreView Profile Page
Gary, as a preface to our conversation, could I invite you to share a little context on your background and career experience?
I’m born in Australia. I have Australian and New Zealand citizenship, so I’m an Anzac. I’ve had the opportunity to work across the globe with global CPG players, predominantly with Nestle, Australia and New Zealand. Based in South Asia, Deli India for four years before working in Switzerland in the global head office. Then having moved to the United States in six-week roles, as well, before joining our publicly listed company in the national organic spaces, the north American leader and then more recently, I’ve taken up a leadership role as the head of a software as a service company based here in the U.S. for North America. A diverse range of product categories, product groups, working across the globe. That has been my background.
How do you look at leadership and how do you think or how do you like to talk about leadership?
It’s a complex topic. As you said, there’s a lot written on it and it travels through the centuries. Frankly, there are leadership lesson in life right back to the early ages of writing. I try and cook it down to a one-liner, which I really like that came from a professor at the London Business School, Rob Goffee, who said, “At the end of the day, if you think about leadership, leadership is really your capacity to excite other people to higher levels of performance. Everything that you’re doing around that is to achieve that goal. It obviously ladders up through many actions, many belief systems, many cultural influences, but ultimately, that’s what you’re trying to achieve as a leader. If you’re successful, then you will get the best out of your people. They will achieve something that they probably didn’t even think they were capable of.
What role does service play in that or how do you look at the concept of service in that regard?
It’s an interesting one. I think the challenge for many leaders is when they step into these roles for the first time, they feel like they have to have all of the answers. There’s a presumption that because you’re now in the chair or you’re in the spotlight, that you’re suddenly magically transformed into someone who knows everything about it. In reality, the biggest opportunity you have, coming back to Rob Goffee’s definition of leadership is that you have the chance to let others shine.
By virtue of you performing a role where you’re bringing others together with diverse views, diverse skillsets, diverse backgrounds, and often representing different constituents both inside the organization and maybe externally too, they can bring to bear their knowledge base to help you grow as a leader and help your organization achieve the objectives you’re setting out for. That’s not possible if you’re not willing to take a step back sometime and actually be a servant rather than a master of those people in the room. That is a facilitator and creating the ground on which they can stand and put forward their points of view, which may not always be consistent with yours. Ultimately, maybe additive to the total story of how you’re going to achieve your objectives. That’s difficult, particularly for new leaders because the natural sense is, now I’ve been given the role, I have to demonstrate it. Demonstration is through taking action, being in the forefront at all times, not stepping back but actually being in the spotlight at all times, which can be a huge flaw, a huge mistake. It’s almost human nature to want to do that.
To pick up on this point for young leaders and this transition from two elements. One is a transition from a manager to a leader. The other is the transition into leading any small group of people from leading one’s self. What predictable patterns emerge along the lines of what you’ve just suggested?
I think the first thing is, you walk into the role and of course, everyone is waiting for you to cast a position, to show a direction. Of course, that’s extremely important for a leader to be able to paint a rich picture of what it is you want to achieve to be able to be clear on the vision and somewhat flexible on the strategy to get there in the first instance. It’s difficult if you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle to be able to bring that vision together. That leaves you to say, you’ve got to be prepared to be vulnerable. To be able to stand up to say, I don’t have all the answers. The natural answer is not to say that, to do the opposite and say, I’ve been given this job because I was the best and brightest. I was the chosen one for this role. I automatically have to come with all the answers, and I have to start to hand those answers out to everybody in the organization, so they can act on them. When in fact to play it against yourself, one of the great opportunities is to say, I come with great ideas, I come with ambition for us as an organization, but I don’t necessarily come with all of the answers.
In fact, I will admit in some areas I don’t have a natural strength in some of the things I may need to come to all of the answers. That’s okay. By purely demonstrating that, you’re also making it okay for other leaders in your group to say the same thing, which then allows them to contribute to each other. It creates a permission, if you like, a visible permission that they can actually interact and help each other on those strengths and weaknesses to come to a better solution and work more effectively as a team. Also, accepting the fact that when you come into these roles, there’s never clarity. I think this was the other thing that a lot of people feel that from day one, you have to have clarity over all of the elements.
The truth is, you rarely if ever have absolute clarity over everything. Ambiguity is a feature of dealing with leadership challenges and if you look at today for example, where we are with Covid-19 today, the world is full of ambiguity. Now, if you’ve stepped into a leadership role accepting that ambiguity is going to be part of your way of leading. You realize that we’re going to be in complexity and that’s how we’re going to have to live and work and compete. You’re okay with not having all the answers to that ambiguity, but you’re willing to hear perspectives on it to come to some conclusions based on whatever assumptions you all agree make sense, then you’re likely to move ahead as a leadership group with much greater solidarity and much greater trust in one another. Also, a level of comfort that there may be failure involved in that but that’s okay because you’ve accepted ambiguity as just a part of leadership.
I’m thinking in the context of the way difficulty can arise in quite predictable patterns in crises, in failure. How do you look at the role of failure as a vehicle for learning and leadership development?
I can think in practical terms of my experience of moving into a totally different culture and moving to India. Working in an environment where I never even visited the country and now, I was leading a team across multiple markets across South Asia. Needing to make some urgent decisions and trying to garner as much information as I could in a short space of time to make them. Then realizing my push to get those through and make some of those changes in the organization, some of the changes in our product positioning and profile actually went against some of the cultural norms that were going to make that successful. I simply hadn’t done enough due diligence or understood it well enough or listened long enough because I made my decision.
On the one hand, I felt great about the fact, I’d made a fast decision and there was concrete action and of course, you feel like you’ve got to make an impression when you come into a leadership role. On the other hand, I really hadn’t spent the time to listen, to understand why these products were not going to work and why the way we were going to market was going to fail and it would be a challenge then to how we’d recover from that. That moment, that pivotal moment of realizing that actually I hadn’t spent the time to listen to my time. I hadn’t spent the time to understand what I didn’t understand about the market. It was a key opportunity for me to stand up and say, you didn’t fail me, I failed you. I made the mistake. I didn’t listen.
I should have spent more time garnering some of the opinions of people who had the experience in the market and I know you’re looking to me for leadership and what I’ve really done is sent you down the wrong path. It was a mistake. It was my mistake and I have to own it. Now, I think it was probably for me the most important part of me garnering the collective support and solidarity of my team.
When I reflected on it later, I probably didn’t appreciate the gravity of that moment, of saying, I made a mistake. Culturally, that was not something that was routinely done in that marketplace and leaders were put on a pedestal and ultimately, whenever they said you did, you didn’t question it. What I didn’t know at the time is, I actually introduced a new norm for leadership in the culture of that organization, which was be prepared to make mistakes, but also own them and be prepared to communicate them and most importantly, stop and learn from them and listen before you take the next step. Then if the next step was still not the right one, people were okay with that because they felt like they owned the decision, they’d been part of it and they recognized that leaders make mistakes, but leaders need to own those mistakes as well if they’re ever going to learn from them and become better leaders. It was a pivotal moment from me and one that I probably didn’t appreciate how important it was at that moment. Ultimately, looking back on it, it changed the way that we led that organization and it changed the way my team worked with each other.
I’m hearing a lot around listening. Listening is coming up, Gary. Repeatedly, the ability to listen. How do you create an environment? There are two elements, there’s one’s own mastery of the ability to really deeply pay attention to others and then on the dimension of creating an environment where people feel able to speak, where they feel safe to perhaps as we get closer to excellence, maybe be creative to be vulnerable. What experiences can you share with us on that level?
Yes, I would say it’s something that I have constantly work on myself. I think today in the world we live in with these devices hanging around us all the time, the propensity to be distracted and the ability to be distracted is more than ever. The argument is, the span of attention is getting shorter and shorter by virtue of being bombarded from all angles, and the feeling that every piece of data that you can get your hands on, you should in real-time. It actually tends to block you from listening. It tends to block you from spending the time to actually do nothing but just absorb as opposed to this transactional exercise of data just being thrown at you at all times and being constantly on in an electronic sense. I can think of an example of this again when I was in South Asia where we were trying to break this nexus because I think everyone in South Asia seemed to own at least two mobile phones and it was always doing something else as well as doing something they were doing in front of you. To try to break this cycle visibly in our management meetings, we actually setup a box on a table where everybody had to surrender all of their devices and everything they had in their hands.
Basically, the box was put outside for the period of time we spent together. The message around that was, our time together is important, listening to each other is important, engaging with each other and being prepared to really deeply understand each other’s points of view. That means all of the engagement time, the eyeball time needs to be eyeballs on each other and ears listening to each other. Not somewhere else. There will be time for that. We’ll make time for that some other time. It was a visible reference. It got to the point where I didn’t have to say anything. The team would come in and they’d automatically go looking for the box to surrender everything they had in their hands and put it to one side. It was more the visible message of we’re here and we’re fully present.
We’re here and we’re fully present in the here and now for what we’re about to do. We value each other’s time and we value each other’s opinion. We’re listening. It definitely made a difference to the constructive conversations we had in the room. That message got out. It got out in the organization. People heard about it. When I would travel around, people would ask me, is it really true that when you all get together, you throw away all of the devices and you just spend time listening to each other? I said, absolutely. I made that a practice as we moved around the country talking to different folks to do the same thing. When you think about that in the context of your consumer or your customer, I made it a practice that every single month, we had a scheduled plan to go somewhere out in the market, just to go and listen.