As digitally native retailers like Amazon and Alibaba begin to nibble away at legacy brands’ market share, companies like Procter & Gamble have started rethinking the way they approach new product lines. For FD Wilder, Former Senior Vice President of Go-to-Market Strategy and Innovation at P&G, that new approach requires being the fastest learner in town – and shifting our mindset to roll with the uncertainty along the way.
Our host Chris Weller is joined by FD Wilder (formerly of Procter & Gamble) and Heidi Grant (Neuroleadership Institute).
Chris Weller: For nearly two centuries, Procter and Gamble has dominated the consumer goods market, selling beloved brands such as Pampers, Febreze, and Old Spice. These brands have catapulted P&G to the number 45 spot on the Fortune 500. But within the last few years, a new set of challengers have entered the arena. Big disruptive companies like Amazon and Alibaba, and a host of smaller digitally native brands like Dollar Shave Club. In this war for consumer dollars, P&G is fighting not just to stay relevant, but to stake its claim as a true innovator in its industry.
Chris Weller: I’m Chris Weller and this is the Your Brain At Work podcast, from the NeuroLeadership Institute. In today’s episode, I’m joined by FD Wilder, senior vice president of go to market strategy and innovation at Procter and Gamble, and Dr. Heidi Grant, chief science officer at the NeuroLeadership Institute. We’ll be discussing why the brain loathes uncertainty, how FD has inspired growth at P&G, and why exactly a Fortune 500 company cares so much about gardening. A note to our listeners, since the time of this recording, FD has since retired from Procter and Gamble. We wish him all the best.
Chris Weller: Thanks for being here guys.
Heidi Grant: Thank you.
FD Wilder: Pleasure.
Chris Weller: So FD, you are huge in the the learning space.
FD Wilder: I would say I’m on a learning journey.
Chris Weller: I’m curious, how did you become so interested in learning as a concept? Why did that become a career pursuit?
FD Wilder: It started with some scenario planning that we did, and there was a lot of drama around the collapse scenario, which the narrative went something like Amazon is going to commoditize brands and Alibaba is going to dismantle retailing. And I felt that the likelihood that that’s actually going to happen is very low. So we to provide a more balanced perspective, created a growth scenario.
FD Wilder: The growth scenario says that as people increasingly automate their shopping of routine items for convenience, that this is actually going to disproportionately advantage the market leading brands. And so what I found is that people want to move towards this growth scenario, right? It’s a much more exciting and probable outcome of the future, as opposed to the collapse scenario, where it’s scary and it’s an unknown and people tend to pull back.
FD Wilder: So as we did this scenario planning, the headline was a growth is shifting and disruption is accelerating. So then the question I asked myself is, “Okay, if this is our environment, what are we as leaders to do about that?” And my hypothesis was in order to win in an environment where growth is shifting and disruption is accelerating, we had to be the fastest learners and the fastest at applying that knowledge. So that’s how it all came about.
Heidi Grant: I think there’s a lot of insights in what you just shared, about how brains work, how they process information. We know that the human brain is very averse to uncertainty. We have a desire to predict and control, but you’re dealing with, and many organizations are dealing with, a climate where prediction and control really isn’t possible anymore. What we have to actually be able to do is cope with constant uncertainty.
Heidi Grant: And so how do you keep… At NLI, we say keep the brain in a towards state, right? In a state where the amount of threat you’re experiencing from that uncertainty is manageable. You can actually still be creative, you can have new insights, you can keep kind of forward momentum going. And so I love the idea of how you reoriented people away from focusing on the sort of catastrophe, right? The sort of uncertainty, and towards something that’s actually positive. It’s not only really useful, but it’s also a great coping mechanism for all the uncertainty we deal with.
FD Wilder: We talk a lot about the VUCA world, which is a disruptive language that actually comes from the Army War College. And the acronym stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And we believe that the role of leaders is to flip VUCA, and turn that volatility into vision, and the uncertainty into understanding, and the complexity into clarity, and the ambiguity into agility. And so it’s kind of in a sense the narrative changes your destiny.
Heidi Grant: I think people want the better frame. They don’t necessarily always know how to find it for themselves. When something is ambiguous, we don’t know how to frame it. We don’t know how to think about it. We tend to all of us slide toward the threatening interpretation because we’re trying to prepare ourselves, right? It is that sort of catastrophe. We’re all constantly catastrophe planning. What do I do if this goes wrong? So that’s why we need leaders to actually push us in the direction of a more positive frame that’s actually going to lead people to be more resilient and adaptive.
FD Wilder: For us, it starts with the problem that we’re trying to solve. What we’re seeing is a lot of the growth in our industry is coming from what we call micro brands, digitally native brands. Their key source of competitive advantage is actually agility. And if you look at most companies, they were built not for agility but for stability, right?
Heidi Grant: Right.
FD Wilder: We’re managing mega brands, and so I would say the challenge is, how do we get the best of both of those models? We need stability for mega brands and we need agility for micro brands. And so that means to create a lot of these micro brands, we need small teams that are empowered and are comprised of people that have the right skills for the consumer problem to be solved, and for the business challenge.
FD Wilder: At P&G, we talk a lot about for the last couple of decades, we’ve been kind of bulking up in the weight room, and now we’re spending more time in the yoga studio trying to improve our flexibility and agility.
Heidi Grant: It’s not like one of these things is right and the other thing is wrong. We have brains that want to focus on immediate outcomes, not progress over time. And all of those things are really necessary for this more sort of growth mindset, agile approach to things. So we can learn to do those things, but they’re not necessarily the default. And I think that’s a lot of what we see in leadership is trying to get people away from their default ways of being, into these more adaptive and agile ways of being.
FD Wilder: And we call that integrative thinking, which is you’ve got model A and model B. Both are valid, right?
Heidi Grant: Right.
FD Wilder: So model A is stability mega brands. Model B is agility micro brands. And what we’re trying to create is model C, which incorporates and integrates the best elements from those two models.
Heidi Grant: I love that.
FD Wilder: And that’s the challenge.
Chris Weller: So functionally, how do you solve that? How do you solve for that challenge? What do you do to inspire people’s agility while satisfying their needs for certainty or stability at the same time?
FD Wilder: Do you know what we’re learning, Chris? Very few leaders are what I would call ambidextrous, can do both well. We’re finding that people have a bias, they’re either kind of innovators, or they really love the operation side of the business.
FD Wilder: So one of the metaphors I use is the farm and the garden. So P&G is a $65 billion business. We call that the farm. You can’t bet the farm, right? Because there’s just too many people counting on us to keep that system stable, right?
Heidi Grant: Right.
FD Wilder: So on the farm, the appetite for risk and the tolerance for failure is very low.
FD Wilder: We also have the garden, and over in the garden where we’re planting seeds and we’re cultivating a new business models, there actually the appetite for risk and the tolerance for failure is high because not that much is at stake. And so within our organization we have a farm and a garden, and we have farmers and gardeners, and typically the farmer and the gardener are not the same person. We find that people tend to have a bias towards, I love to run the big farm or I love to be experimenting in the garden.
Heidi Grant: I love this because I think it really is actually literally true that you can’t ask any one person at the same time to be both fast and accurate. You can’t ask them at the same time to take big risks, but to also be really thinking about everything that could go wrong because those things actually suppress or inhibit one another in the brain. So I think that recognition of different kinds of tasks require different kinds of mindsets, and not to actually expect someone to be able to be two things simultaneously that are antagonistic in the brain, actually creates a better performance across the board.
Chris Weller: So FD, you’ve told us this quote that’s near and dear to your heart, about people taking positive control of their gear, which I believe has a military origin.
FD Wilder: Yeah. So my nephew just graduated from the United States Naval Academy and so I picked up this expression from him. What it means is we all need to be accountable for our own learning plan and take ownership for that. We need to be players and not victims.
FD Wilder: There’s a fitness concept that I like a lot, which is called muscle confusion. The idea is you’re constantly varying your workout. You’re not doing the same workout over and over again. Actually routine is actually the enemy of adaptation and growth. So by constantly varying your workout, you’re forcing your body to adapt and that’s what actually leads to growth. And I think the same is true of the brain.
FD Wilder: So like you have muscle confusion for fitness. I think you have brain confusion for the growth mindset. So the more that you can force the brain to problem solve, to manage dilemmas, I think it forces the brain to be innovative, to be creative, to adapt, and that leads to growth.
Heidi Grant: Absolutely.
FD Wilder: So the key point for me is I think we need to train our minds and our bodies for the unknown and the unknowable. And that means we need to embrace a growth mindset. We need to be self-directed learners, we need to take positive control of our gear.
Heidi Grant: Growth mindset is… It encompasses so many things, but one of them is definitely this idea, that when you encounter something like setback, something that’s unknown, it seems difficult, that you interpret it as a challenge and not as a threat. And I think that’s part of… Challenges are actually welcome, right? They’re something like, “Oh, this is an opportunity for me to flex my brain muscle in a new and interesting way.” And I think that it resonates with what you’re saying about brains.
Heidi Grant: We reach our full potential when we are mixing up the routine and actually forcing ourselves to do new and challenging things. And it really helps to approach it with a growth mindset because then you can actually experience those things as challenges and not threats.
Chris Weller: One thing I’ve learned just personally is that I’ve had fixed mindsets in certain places and growth mindsets in others, and FD I’m curious, are there areas either in your work or in your life that one may occur and the other might not?
FD Wilder: Yes. And I think when we think about it across a large organization, this notion of growth mindset, there’s a quote that I love, which is, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” So in a certain sense, it’s an imperative that we spend more time in more areas in a growth mindset than in a fixed mindset.
FD Wilder: I also challenge people to think about what is your plan to disrupt your learning process? Right? People, myself included, don’t think enough about that.
Heidi Grant: Absolutely.
FD Wilder: The brain might want to move away from that. But I actually think that soft skills will be more important than software over time. And by soft skills, I mean the ability to communicate effectively, to collaborate with other people, to think well critically. Moving forward relationships, partnerships, building trust. These are all going to be the things that really differentiate the exceptional leaders from the others.
FD Wilder: So in answering my own question, in order to stay relevant as leaders, I think we must be very intentional about disrupting our own learning process. And I plan to take a psychology class before I take a coding class because I think soft skills will be more important than software.
Heidi Grant: Oh, yay, FD.
Chris Weller: We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back we’ll have more with FD and Heidi on the impact of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and what happens when roles start disappearing.
Speaker 4: When was the last time you had an amazing new idea? What did it feel like? Maybe you were in the shower or just about to fall asleep. You probably felt this sudden burst of excitement and motivation like you couldn’t contain yourself. At NLI, we call these moments insights, and our annual two day conference, the NeuroLeadership Summit is built around creating as many insights as possible. It’s a chance for business leaders to hear from brain scientists and industry experts, and to put their insights into practice. To learn more about attending this year’s summit, visit Summit.NeuroLeadership.com.
Chris Weller: I think it’s worth mentioning that there is a kind of presumed or at least imagined dark side to the AI revolution, which is like this obsolescence that could be on the horizon. And part of the learning I think, that you need to focus on people as machines become more prevalent, is trying to figure out and negotiate with the those people who it impacts, how their job changes and if it’s relevant anymore.
Chris Weller: I’m curious what your philosophy is, FD, on what happens when you learn that certain people’s roles are either not as meaningful to them anymore or are purely obsolete. Is that even possible?
FD Wilder: Yeah. Chris, I think we’re back to, if you don’t like change you’re going to like irrelevance even less. So P&G will train you and get you new skills and improve your digital IQ, and teach you about growth mindset. And those skills should serve you well as the world changes and jobs change.
Heidi Grant: It is really important for companies to actually take proactive steps to not only think about how to continue the learning of their workers. Again, retention is important. People have longterm knowledge that’s really valuable. You want to keep those people and just continue to up skill them. But it is also that question of framing, right? So how do I think about the fact that there is now software, robotic software that does a lot of what I used to do, if I’m somebody who used to process invoices?
Heidi Grant: Well, I mean one way to think about it is the good news is you don’t have to do that stuff anymore. We can find something actually much more unique and human for you to do, instead of pointing and clicking on your desktop all day. So sometimes it really is about understanding. People’s first reaction to something might be, “Oh no, this is threatening. This piece of software going to actually take a big chunk of my job.” And so organizations that can do a good job of helping people with that reframe, and then helping them build those skills are going to have a real competitive advantage.
FD Wilder: I think Heidi is right, and I think leaders can help reframe it. Organizations can help provide training opportunities, and I think we need to take positive control of our gear. Like it’s in my own best interest to keep upgrading my skill portfolio, right? So there has to be what I call self-directed learning. Like I have to go seek it, you know?
Heidi Grant: Yeah.
FD Wilder: Do some scenario planning, what’s likely to happen, and go seek out the training and the skills that I need so that I can stay relevant as a leader going forward.
Chris Weller: The more you say that phrase, the more I realize what gear applies to. That it’s not just the work I’m doing. It’s like, oh, it’s my own career too. That’s my gear also.
Heidi Grant: Yeah.
Chris Weller: Or like relationships I’ve fostered with people, that’s gear too.
FD Wilder: Your network, absolutely. Remember I said we did the scenario planning, the headline was growth is shifting, disruption is accelerating. And so the question became what do we as leaders do about that? And our hypothesis was we had to be the fastest learners and the fastest at applying our knowledge.
FD Wilder: And I happen to have probably the coolest job at P&G, my role gives me the privilege to meet a lot of just amazing industry thought leaders, and that outside in perspective, particularly for a build from within company, really helps us improve and makes us better. And so I began thinking about, is there a creative way that I could disseminate and democratize this wisdom that I was getting from all these amazing people that I was meeting on the outside?
FD Wilder: And so I started what I call the Fastest Learner Wins series, which is now available to all P&G employees. And here’s the insight, as I was socializing this idea of Fastest Learners, I was getting a lot of feedback from employees saying, “I just don’t have the time to think or to learn.” So I was trying to hack the barrier to learning, which is time.
Heidi Grant: Oh, for sure.
FD Wilder: And so the Fastest Learner Wins became super easy because it’s a digital snack, five minutes, once every two weeks, you can view it on your mobile device. So while you’re brushing your teeth in the morning, you can watch it. And you get access to all these really smart people. And so it’s just a fun and an easy way to disrupt your own learning process. Right?
FD Wilder: We’re trying to shift our culture from knowing it all to learning it all. We have a perfectionist culture. For us, it’s all about pass / fail and we’re trying to move towards a culture that’s more about learn / pivot.
Heidi Grant: So I love so much of that. Like I said, that speed accuracy trade off drives me nuts because you’ll say, “Well, we want you to redo this perfectly but go really, really fast.” That’s very, very difficult to do if not impossible. And I think the same thing is true of learning. So that bite-size learning, it’s very much a part of what we do at NLI, and thinking about how we scale learning across an organization. Is to think about how can we make… Give people a little bit of something, right? A bit of the science, enough of the context to understand, to have an insight about how this is relevant for them and how they can apply it to their work.
FD Wilder: So true story, when I first met Heidi, she did exactly what she just described. You would present a piece of content for 10 minutes max.
Heidi Grant: Yep.
FD Wilder: Then you would turn it over to each one of us and you would say, “Okay, can you get to an insight?” But it was kind of personal reflection.
Heidi Grant: Right.
FD Wilder: Then you would ask us to share our insight with the other people at our table. And so we began to kind of build on one another, and then you would kind of let that marinate, and then you would move on to the next 10 minute segment. And as I observed your methodology and how effective it was, the next time we went to do a training at P&G, we used that approach and it worked brilliantly.
Heidi Grant: Well that is awesome to hear. And it really is, it’s just respecting brains and their limitations. And we have a kind of a window of about 10, 15 minutes where people can absorb new knowledge before we really need a break. And the break doesn’t have to be sit there and do nothing. Insights are our knowledge that sort of bubbles up from underneath your consciousness, and sort of you have that suddenly, “Aha, I see it.” Right? “I see how this is useful to me.”
FD Wilder: And I think the other value of the socialization is people will begin to start to talk about how am I going to take the insight the action.
Heidi Grant: Yeah.
Chris Weller: I was just going to bring that up.
FD Wilder: Yeah.
Heidi Grant: Yeah.
Chris Weller: And start to feel this ownership over the idea and the ways that you could feel empowered to do something about it.
FD Wilder: Exactly. Exactly.
Chris Weller: Okay. So FD, as we talk about scaling, learning from the individual up to the organization, I know you’ve mentioned the idea of brand entrepreneurialism at scale. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?
FD Wilder: Sure. The shift is kind of from brand management to brand entrepreneurs. And again, it’s probably both those models. So brand entrepreneurs are actually gardeners that we talked about earlier, right? And they tend to be very small teams. And just to give you one example of how this worked at P&G, we had a P&G mom and scientist, who was pregnant. And when she was pregnant she was like, “Boy, I would really like a natural diaper that performs as well as Pampers.” So she wanted natural ingredients but no trade off in performance. And turns out there’s a lot of moms that want that.
FD Wilder: So when she came back from maternity leave, she created a small little team to solve this problem, and they were actually able to bring Pampers Pure to market, in half the time that it normally takes us, and it met the specs of it was natural ingredients with the same performance as Pampers. And so were so inspired by her story that we actually made her the founder of Pampers Pure. For your listeners on the podcast, if you find Pampers Pure in the stores, you can actually see her picture on the back of the package.
Heidi Grant: Wow.
FD Wilder: You can go to the Pampers YouTube channel, and she’s there telling the story with her daughter. And it’s just a great example of the power of small teams that are fully empowered, and what they can do and how quickly they can do it.
Heidi Grant: The love of that story, because she was the customer, right? She-
FD Wilder: She designed Pampers Pure for herself.
Heidi Grant: Exactly. So that solves that piece.
Chris Weller: Acting on an insight.
Heidi Grant: And then having that big insight, there’s a way that you can reconcile these two things that people might have assumed were not… That couldn’t go together, right? Having an organic product, but having it perform as well as the traditional one.
Heidi Grant: But I also love the small teams approach enables… It helps us get around another problem that we hear constantly, and especially sort of more traditional organizations that are trying to morph to be more innovative, to get people to sort of say, “It’s okay if a hundred of us don’t sign off on this,” is definitely… That’s an accomplishment, I think.
FD Wilder: Yes. Well, the Pampers Pure was an experiment that we ran in the garden, right?
Heidi Grant: Yeah.
FD Wilder: And so again, tolerance for failure, appetite for risk, much higher, less is at stake. If you try to do that on the Pampers mother brand, which is a $10 billion business.
Heidi Grant: Yeah.
FD Wilder: We really need stability and lots of people signing off.
Chris Weller: Yeah. So we’ve talked a lot about leadership without ever quite defining our terms. FD, what’s important for you in a leader?
FD Wilder: I have a very simple definition of exceptional leadership. Three elements. Exceptional leaders are the sharpest thinkers, so they provide clarity versus certainty, which is something we’ve talked about. They’re the fastest learners, so they embrace a growth versus a fixed mindset. And three, they’re the most fit. And so in that sense they bring positive versus negative energy.
FD Wilder: And I think it’s this third one, most fit, that’s the most overlooked and underestimated. I over time have just observed that the most effective global leaders really take care of themselves. And in so doing that puts them in a better position to take care of their people and their business.
Chris Weller: It’s the airplane warning to put your mask on first before you put on the mask of everyone else.
FD Wilder: Yes, yes. For me, those are the three elements. Sharpest thinker, fastest learner, and most fit. And I think that particularly on the fitness piece, effective leaders bring positive energy and that positive energy then becomes a force multiplier.
Chris Weller: FD, Heidi, thanks for the discussion today.
FD Wilder: Pleasure.
Heidi Grant: Thanks so much, Chris.
Chris Weller: Your Brain At Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer for Your Brain At Work is Noah Gelb. Danielle Kirshenblat is our editor, Gabriel Berezin, our associate producer, and Brian Crimmins, our sound mixer. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. A special thanks to FD Wilder, and Heidi Grant, and to you for listening. We’ll see you next time.