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Our Conversation With A Leader Who Embodies The Nine Behaviors of Leading With Courage® (Part I)

Kim Feil

CEO, bizHive, CMO & CSO Aspire Healthy Energy Drinks and Board Member

For 30 years, Kim Feil has been a corporate executive at manufacturing, retail and consulting companies. Today, as the CEO and founding partner of bizHive, she leads a company that is connecting small businesses seeking the essential support to grow with large enterprises that have great solutions to offer.

At bizHive, these small businesses can get answers on how, why and what they should do as well as what they can expect to pay for the solutions they seek. Kim also serves as Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer for Aspire Healthy Energy Drinks, a U.S. and international green tea zero calorie energy beverage with B vitamins and other all-natural nutrients for focus and overall health.

Leading With Courage® Academy: Kim, you've had tremendous career experiences, going from big corporations to being an entrepreneur – and having some fun along the way. Was there any aspect of your personality that inspired you to go from one area to the next?

Kim Feil: One of the core themes that underlines my experience is that I've always been a problem solver, a fixer of things. No matter what I ever worked on, I was always curious about figuring out how to solve it. While that sounds simplistic, I ended up being attracted to jobs that involved fixing, growing, rearranging and redirecting. So all my roles have the common theme that there is some kind of transformation. It even carries through my personal life as I've renovated five houses. I like to lead things that are not always perfect that need to be fixed or are redirected. And I’ve never been afraid of any of that.

Just curious - what kinds of change were you attracted to? Are we talking about seismic changes or were they more incremental, such as “I can improve on what's there?”

A little bit of both. For instance, my first transformational experience was very early when PepsiCo asked me to go to KFC right after they had acquired it. They took six of us, dropped us into KFC and said, “Make it like PepsiCo.”

So that was both a business challenge because the business was a mess and a cultural challenge because we all know you don't walk in and say, “This is how we do it!” I was a senior brand manager so I wasn't in a position to drive the new cultural approach, but I sure got a frontline seat in how to watch what you don't do and how that makes things that much worse. In that case, it was both business and cultural that I tried to make my mark on.

At Cadbury Schweppes, we were a two-share soft drink company and over the nine years I was there, it became a 14-share soft drink company. We did by acquiring Crush, Hires, Sundrop and A&W Brands, including Dr. Pepper and 7-Up. We had two headquarters over nine years after that, including closing a Connecticut headquarters and moving it to Texas. In that case, there were a million different transformations – every system, all the brands, all the retailers, the bottler networks, the hiring and re-staffing people. Four people moved with me from Connecticut to Texas out of 150. So we had to rebuild an entire department to handle 18 brands that we took with us when we moved headquarters. So there were lots of different kinds of change.

You're touching on such a big area and the first of the nine behaviors that we find can derail a leader, which is, “Respect the culture.” You had to integrate so many companies and deal with so many cultures. Whether it was a UK company, going from Texas to Connecticut, a Dr. Pepper culture with a Pepsi culture and so on.

Oh, yes. A&W Brands was about the same size as Cadbury at the time, so when putting those two together…we couldn’t break anything because the A&W folks were as loyal to their culture as Cadbury was to theirs. Again, you can’t say, “What we need to do is change the culture.”

There were two big principles that I admired a lot about the leader that I was working for at the time. One is that each time we acquired a new business, we started from scratch to determine who got the jobs. So the theme was “we will always take the best of the best from both companies” - and we lived that. So we made certain that no one was given a legacy right to a role.

We looked at all the talent equally. We went off and did something we called “The Draft.” The top 12 senior execs were sequestered in a hotel for four days with a big book of everyone's resumes from both companies. First, we designed the new organization based the scale and activities we needed for these new businesses. And then we identified the right “who” to assign to each role based on individual experience and talent. Often companies try to protect specific individuals and sacrifice building the right organization to best support their new business and future goals. Not having a robust organization design and the strongest possible talent pool fails the whole company.

During The Draft, all senior leaders had a say in how the organization would work cross-functionally and who were the best talents for those roles. Doing this important first work together for the newly formed company built great cohesion among the executive leaders.

So you were defining roles and responsibilities. Not people.

Correct. Each time we added brands, we were adding bigger and bigger brands. By the time we added Dr. Pepper and 7-Up, it eclipsed everything else we owned. So we had to think differently about how we were structured. We would review all the talent and place them in the new org structure. In some cases, that meant poaching from each other. Somebody who might have been a great field marketing manager, I might have pulled into a brand. Then we’d have a big debate over who got the talent and sometimes you’d end up with some people who didn't have jobs. In those cases, we would go back through and make sure that we had a good representation of both companies. The more often we did that in a transparent and effective way, the more everybody was on board with being part of a new culture of bringing the best of both together. You'll never have the exactly the same as the old culture, but hopefully you'll have a bit of both, better together. Presumably you brought those companies together because the sum of the two was stronger than either alone.

Did you ever find it a challenge, though? Everyone has their own company and culture loyalty. How do you check those at the door and say, “You know, we're really trying to be objective and unbiased in choosing the best people.”

It always started with our senior leaders building a senior leadership team that represented both companies. You would be in these intensive sequester meetings with new people, having transparent, honest conversations. We were encouraged to do that. Now, not every company does it that way, but in the case of Cadbury, the great lesson was that it's better to have those kind of open and transparent dialogues early than to say one thing in a meeting, walk away and do something else.

It wasn't in our culture to do that and it wasn't easy because there were plenty of people who threw up their arms and said, “I don't want to play.” But, then there was another principle, which was if you don't want to play then you should go because you've declared that you can't be part of something new and if you can't, then you can't be here. So, the principle of honor the culture, also has to include being open, transparent and having guidelines for how that works. What does honoring the culture really mean? Yes, it means respect among individuals. It means giving people a chance, etc. But in our case, it also meant honest conversation. Do it early and do it while you’re together.

When you're blending cultures, you can't throw out the old one and you can’t start with a blank sheet of paper either. How are you picking and choosing which parts of both cultures or many cultures that you’re going to keep?

At least in my experience, there’s one good story that illustrates the answer to that question. That was when Brenda Barnes brought four divisions of Sara Lee together into one new headquarters in 2005.

She knew she had members of all those company divisions working together on a brand new definition of culture. So rather than going to the trouble of looking back and trying to take “legacy” and make it into something different, she instead said, “Let's have the best voices from everywhere. Talk about where you want to go and look forward to see the new mission at hand and be part of forming that.” Brenda got a lot of kudos for having people deeply involved in defining what our new future was going to look like. So, coming back to your point, I don't think I've ever been to a place where we made a list of “theirs and “ours” and then picked between them. Instead, we knew we all got to where we were because something was working right. Now we had to think about what would come next and then apply the best of those things to define what we should be doing.

All cultures have some bad aspects to them as well, right? So what you’re describing is also a great opportunity to purge yourself of those things and adapt some new behaviors.

I think one of the other things about change of that magnitude that I was involved in is anyone who doesn't have the fortitude for it just doesn't come along with you. They either self-opt out or they're not invited to take part. We've all seen times when leading teams of people that there are a few who hang on without a genuine fervor for what you're trying to do. You handle those people with grace and dignity, but you have to ask them, point blank, “Can you come along?” If they say no, you find a way to help them exit gracefully. So I think that's not even about how you define the culture but about how you identify who is on board and embodies it.

That certainly speaks to sticking with an under-performer too long. We actually describe several types of under-performers in the book, “Being A Leader With Courage.” You’ve got to have the courage to have a transparent and open conversation with them. Yet, so many managers are conflict averse and want to be friends with everybody.

Sure. Well, most people are conflict averse. I mean, who wants conflict, after all? But I’m also very blessed. My father was a P&G executive and I didn't realize until as I got into my career just how much of the discipline and the approaches P&Gers have had rubbed off on me - and in a good way. A lot of people may think of P&G is so “old school” but they have a real commitment to do things in alignment of strategy and commitment to the customer. There are a lot of very good values and qualities there that I'm glad I got a chance from an early age to absorb. My father was ruthlessly transparent about everything in a good way. He made it normal to have open conversations about everything and I was grateful for that. It gave me a chance to work with many people – some of whom were very loyal and long-term team members and some of whom I had to exit. But it was always with a very open and clear dialogue.

I also love that “One Minute Manager” principle where you give praise along the way and criticism along the way. But you don't belabor it or keep beating someone over the head with a stick with it every time. That’s not productive. Having an ongoing, regular conversation is a lot easier than one time of the year.

You've given me something to think about, which is it’s not about inviting conflict when I say “conflict averse” but it's also not shying away from that difficult conversation that benefits the person you're having it with, the whole organization, various teams, etc. That's your responsibility as a leader.

It’s funny, I've found those skills have been a new challenge in a role I have as the leader of a board nominating team for Network of Executive Women. There are many more people who'd like to be on the board than available openings. And yet, you want every one of those people who have an interest to have an engaged commitment to the organization. So initially, I was getting people calling and saying, “Well, so-and-so wants to be on the board but they're not really qualified. I don’t know what we do about that.” I said, “Give me their phone number.” I called them and we had a conversation. And it works so well! I express why I’m so glad the person wants to be involved. I want to hear their ideas and thoughts. Then I’ll explain what our mission with the board is going to be and what kinds of leaders we're asking to serve on the board. Maybe in the current state of their career, it’s not ideal for that prerequisite but there are lots of other ways to be involved in our organization and bring your passion to it. The person on the other end always appreciates this kind of conversation.

Look for the continuation of our conversation with Kim Feil, when

she speaks to one of the biggest and most common pitfalls for a leader: Coming in with the answer. Drawing from all of her transformation experience, Kim shares a smart formula she's developed for the transition your organization may be facing. You’re not going to want to miss out on the lessons of this vital insight from someone who has been through so many of these events in a leadership role.

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