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John Agwunobi: “Distributor-first”

Becoming a CEO is not an event, it doesn’t change who you are. It’s an extension of all your past leadership roles. I wish someone had told me how much I’d rely on all the skills I learned along the way, even those from very early in my career. The empathy I learned as a […]

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Becoming a CEO is not an event, it doesn’t change who you are. It’s an extension of all your past leadership roles. I wish someone had told me how much I’d rely on all the skills I learned along the way, even those from very early in my career. The empathy I learned as a pediatrician, the diplomacy I learned in public service, the financial acuity and people management that comes with running a multi-billion-dollar division of the world’s largest retailer all play into who I am and into my responsibilities today.


As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing John O. Agwunobi.

John O. Agwunobi is a former US government official, and CEO of Herbalife. He was formerly senior vice-president of Walmart and president of the retailer’s health and wellness business from 2007 to 2014.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A career in healthcare was always my destiny. My Scottish great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a pharmacist, his son (my grandfather) was a family physician, and my mother enrolled in nursing school. There, she met my father, who had come from Nigeria to study medicine at the University of St. Andrews eventually becoming a surgeon. So, I followed suit and went to medical school.

My first medical role was as a pediatrician in Washington, D.C. I had completed my residency in an inner-city hospital at a time of major inner-city blight and during the waning years of the major crack and HIV epidemics that were devastating the urban populations. On a daily basis, I saw young teenagers with poor nutrition, getting sick, getting pregnant and lacking care, and I started to realize that I was on the “cleanup crew” — there were much larger, more pervasive social issues that were contributing to these public health crises. So many people were suffering from ailments and conditions that were entirely preventable — or at least, if they had health insurance — treatable. I started to think about broadening my scope. Instead of just sitting at the end of this long string of events, I wanted to go upstream and impact lives before the diseases, poverty and poor nutrition had irreversible consequences.

Eventually, I enrolled in graduate school to study public health, and I started to learn about epidemiology and social factors that influence the health and nutrition of a population. As a pediatrician, I’d always been taught about the impact of poor nutrition on the individual. In public health, I started to learn about these concepts as they relate to entire societies, I studied the impact of emerging global trends such as the startling rate of obesity around the world.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

I assumed my role as CEO of a company that operates in 94 countries just as the world was facing its worst major pandemic in 100 years. It was my responsibility to guide and lead the team through our first-ever global societal lockdown. Because our nutrition products are consumed daily by people around the world, protecting our supply chain, manufacturing, and our distributors’ businesses while also keeping our employees safe was truly a balancing act. We had to find a sweet spot.

What I learned is the power and importance of regular, clear and transparent communications with all our stakeholders. I also experienced firsthand the importance of a collaborative culture and being able to trust and rely on the judgment of your executive team and those field staff and our independent distributors who are closest to the customer. Communication, collaboration, and confidence in the team have been the key to navigating these challenging times.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

The challenges are by no means over, but our success to date and our success in the future will be tied to our ability to focus and prioritize our efforts on helping our independent distributor partners build their businesses now and in the future. The decisions we make as a company impact thousands of independent distributors who are running their own businesses around the globe. Their success is our success, so we must keep their best interests front and center. In fact, we call ourselves a “distributor-first” company. Keeping this in mind at all times is how we’ve succeeded so far — how the company has succeeded for 40 years.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Becoming a CEO is not an event, it doesn’t change who you are. It’s an extension of all your past leadership roles. I wish someone had told me how much I’d rely on all the skills I learned along the way, even those from very early in my career. The empathy I learned as a pediatrician, the diplomacy I learned in public service, the financial acuity and people management that comes with running a multi-billion-dollar division of the world’s largest retailer all play into who I am and into my responsibilities today.
  2. I had no idea how deeply fulfilling the job would be. A few months in and it’s become clear to me that that I thrive on watching others succeed. I’m beginning to understand how deeply rewarding servant leadership as a management style can be.
  3. As a CEO, whatever you say is amplified and may take on unintended meaning. There’s a risk that your every word becomes an instruction causing people to jump into action, even though you’re just thinking things through, out loud. People are also more sensitive to what you say. For instance, when you’re talking about how you see things in the future, employees may take that as dissatisfaction with the present. I’ve learned to praise the people and the efforts that have gotten us to where we are today, and then talk about where those same people and efforts can take us in the future.
  4. The role of CEO is whatever you make it. The scope, accountability and responsibility may be pre-defined, but how you do the job is all yours. No two CEOs can leave the same footprint. For me, it’s about being the right person at the right time in the company’s history, then being true to myself and my style of leadership. To me, winning is about helping others win.
  5. As CEO, you are the voice of the company to the outside world. You must always consider all angles, all points of view and the potential impact on every stakeholder — employees, investors, board of directors, customers and, in our case, our distributors. Being the bridge between the company and the world at large is not something you are taught on your way up, and it’s harder than it seems but being humble and truly listening definitely help.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Be self-aware. Find your own sense of purpose and be honest about what’s important in your life and how much time you want to devote to it. Then create a plan to keep everything in balance. It’s being out of balance that causes stress and burnout.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I like to think of my life and career as a book with a series of chapters that build upon each other. At any given point in time, there have been many different people who helped me write the current chapter while preparing me to draft the next one. But you need to always actively look for those people, those mentors on your journey and you need to be humble enough to ask and receive their help.

And don’t just look to people in high-powered positions or with a long list of professional accomplishments. Insight, guidance and lessons can come from anywhere and anyone. You need to recognize that everyone around you has a lesson to teach if you are willing to listen.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

I’m a perpetual student, always looking to acquire new skills and experience new things. I’m always studying business, looking to learn from other industries and leaders and considering how I can apply what I learn to Herbalife Nutrition. We have a saying at our company, “We Build it Better.” And that’s what I’m always striving to do with myself. Every day I learn from our independent distributors and employees — a number of them have been here since the company began. Many helped steer it through its ups and downs. All of them care deeply about its success and every one of them has been willing to teach me the ropes. Our entire team is extraordinarily lucky to have so much institutional knowledge close at hand.

On the personal side, I’ve loved ancient history and been fascinated by archeology since I was a boy. I hope to spend more time in the future studying history and maybe participating in an archeological dig someday!

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

The role of any CEO is to leave the company better than when it was entrusted to you. That’s what I want my legacy to be — for our company and for our industry.

Our industry is evolving, and we have the opportunity to make a significant, lasting impact on its future. I mentioned earlier our philosophy of “Build it Better.” We can take all the good that already exists and build on it to create a world where our business model and our motives, which are positive and honorable, are well understood and admired. I want my legacy to be a world where our children and grandchildren are encouraged to start their own Herbalife Nutrition businesses, to become distributors — health and wellness coaches, really — who know the power and satisfaction that comes from helping others. I want Herbalife Nutrition to be known as premier nutrition company with a purpose that’s making a positive impact on the world.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

There’s already a societal movement underway in which people are embracing the importance of self-care and self-awareness. I would love to be a catalyst that helps accelerate and broaden the movement. I want to find ways to encourage people to take more responsibility for themselves and their overall health and wellness. We are all the result of the decisions we make every day, throughout our lives and I want those decisions to be more thoughtful, purposeful and positive. Especially when it comes to health. Just think of the all the preventable diseases that are challenging our healthcare system every day — Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stress — to name just a few. Good nutrition and consistent exercise are simple, effective ways to decrease your risk and improve overall wellbeing. It never too late to rewrite your future.

It brings me full circle, back to my response to your first question and wanting to be upstream and impact lives before bad habits, poor nutrition, diseases, and chronic ailments set in.

How would I accelerate the movement? I’d incorporate good nutrition and active lifestyle education into our schools at an even earlier age and teach it consistently throughout the lives of our young people. I’d teach our children that they have the power to shape their futures when it comes to health and wellness by eating right and exercising. I want everyone to recognize they have the power to control their future health and wellness.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @JohnAgwunobior @herbalifenews

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnagwunobi/

Instagram: hlfceo

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