Photo by Fabian Quintero on Unsplash

As part of the Harvard AMP185 guest speaker series, I recently had the opportunity to listen to Reuben Mark, retired Chairman and CEO of Colgate-Palmolive Company talk about leadership. Mark said “The essence of leadership is the idea of continuous improvement. No matter what, you can always coach people to do a little better, and if everyone does that, the whole organisation moves up.”

Reuben Mark served as CEO for an unusually long 23 years, leading Colgate-Palmolive Company through a period of extraordinary progress and growth, global expansion and ever-increasing worldwide market share leadership. Mark joined Colgate in 1963 as a marketing trainee and, went on to serve as its vice president for Far East operations, president, and then CEO in 1984. He became Chairman of the Board in 1986, and continued in this position until 2009. During his unusually long 23-year tenure as CEO, total return for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was 1555% while Colgate-Palmolive’s peer group of companies returned 2932% and Colgate-Palmolive’s was 4204%.

Mark said business leaders should look at their company’s performance like a bell curve. The left side of the curve represents very bad results, and the right side excellence. The bulk of a company’s activities will fall in the thickest part of the bell curve in the middle. Management’s job is to gradually implement and nurture improvements that will move the entire curve towards the right. Mark commented that whilst this was not revolutionary or headline grabbing, over time, this is what generates success. Mark stressed that focus was an important element of leadership. At Colgate-Palmolive, the company limited the number of product lines in its portfolio to focus only on those in which the company could maintain a strong market position. According to Mark, financial discipline is another important element that led to constant improvement at Colgate-Palmolive.

Mark then went on to describe personal characteristics that are important in successful leaders. “In leadership, some traits come naturally [while others] must be learned,” he noted. He emphasized integrity, respect, common sense, clarity in communications, keep it simple, caring and use of humour. He then discussed the use of power by corporate leaders. “The more you have, the less you need to use it. If top management has fostered the right culture, everyone is aligned and voluntarily moving towards the same goals then bosses didn’t need to wield the power.”

When asked about his unusually long time as a chief executive, he said his case was not typical. “I was probably in the job too long”, he said. When asked about how he is spending his time now that he is retired, he said, he had some business interests and was generally doing the things he never had enough time for such as riding his motorcycle.