Lessons in Leadership: One On One With Former AARP CEO Bill Novelli

I recently spoke to Bill Novelli, former CEO of the AARP and co-founder of Porter Novelli, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. ​How did you get here? ​What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Bill: I started my career at Unilever in New York, went through sales training and rose to become their youngest brand manager (up to that time). Then I went across town to a hot ad agency. My goal was to compete hard, climb the ladder and be a success. Although I was doing well marketing consumer products (detergents, kids’ cereal, pet food) I knew something was missing – social relevance. 

My light bulb moment came when I realized I could apply marketing to issues, causes and ideas. I built my career around that concept: marketing the Peace Corps; co-founding Porter Novelli (now a global PR agency) to market social and health issues; overseeing CARE USA in 40 developing countries; founding the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to fight the tobacco wars; becoming CEO of AARP; and now creating and overseeing the Business for Impact center at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. My career goal evolved into making significant contributions to solving major social problems.

My biggest setback was not getting the CEO job at CARE. But it all turned out for the good when I was eventually named CEO at AARP. Dan Glickman, former Congressman and Agriculture Secretary and a friend, says that when one door closes, another one opens; but you have to be standing near the door. That’s always been true for me. Opportunities present themselves and you have to be ready.

Adam: What are the key steps to growing and scaling your business?

Bill: At Unilever, at Porter Novelli, at AARP, the key to building business came from creating offerings (package goods, PR counsel, member services) that we were able to differentiate from competition. “Unique, important and believable” were the characteristics I learned early on from a division VP at Unilever (the best marketing maven I have ever come across). We doubled our revenues, added five million new members and expanded internationally at AARP by combining social value with member products and services. Nobody else could match that.

Adam: What are your best tips on public relations?

Bill: A positive, authentic image is essential for virtually every public-facing organization. Three tips: incorporate PR into your C-suite and every strategic initiative (it’s upfront, not an afterthought); retain the best PR talent (both inside and outside counsel); and don’t presume to be a PR expert yourself (unless you truly are, and even then you may be like a lawyer representing himself and have a fool for a client).

Adam: What are the best leadership lessons you learned from leading a nonprofit organization?

Bill: I’ve led both business and nonprofit enterprises, and the essentials are basically the same. Don’t tread water or get sidetracked. Shoot for at least one really big accomplishment. Lay out your vision and rally people around it. Talented people are inspired by big goals. Leadership really, really matters.

Adam: What are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their skills to the next level?

Bill: An effective leader goes big, focuses on the future, creates trust and brings out the best in his/her people. 

To get to the next level: first, learn to lead from the middle. You don’t have to be at the top to demonstrate leadership (Colin Powell taught me that). Second, practice leadership by observing leaders and how they perform (both positively and negatively). And third, don’t waste time reporting to someone who isn’t teaching, inspiring and caring about you. Move on if necessary. 

Adam: What is your advice on building, leading and managing teams? 

Bill: Just about everything I’ve ever accomplished has been the result of teamwork. No one, including the CEO, can make the majority of decisions driving an organization’s performance. At AARP, I used to say that about 100 decisions a day were being made that affected our organization’s progress. And I was making perhaps five of them. Who was making the rest? Team leaders. 

So it’s important to have strong, well-led teams that cascade decisions down through an organization to generate results. Four lessons: first, teach and practice team accountability (specific goals and responsibilities). Second, know when to disband a team and move on when the goal is met or the team is no longer productive. Third, don’t accept mediocre performers; if teammates are in over their heads, or aren’t contributing for some other reason, it’s a serious mistake to keep them on the team. Mediocrity is a chronic disease; you can live with it for a while, but eventually it will do you in. Fourth, respect devil’s advocates. Constructive criticism from teammates is important and necessary, but it takes humility on your part to listen to a nay sayer tell you what’s wrong with your idea.

Note: humility is a valuable trait. I first got a taste of humble pie early in my career, in the Unilever sales training program. I decided to win over the toughest, meanest store manager in my upstate New York territory. He hated salesmen. I therefore “confided” in him that I wasn’t really a salesman. “No,” he said, then what are you?” I announced, “I’m a marketing trainee,” as if that would make a difference. “Then,” he said, “I’m going to give you a free marketing lesson on how to build an end-aisle display.” And he did. The only problem was that the display was for another company’s product. I had the giant display almost finished when I looked down from my ladder and saw my own Unilever sales manager staring up. “What the hell are you doing,” he demanded. What could I say? I’m winning over the store manager through this clever strategy of doing another company’s work? I just said, “Nothing much.”

Adam: What are your three best tips for entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Bill: First, practice daily hard work; there’s no other way (unless you’re a true genius) to master the issues; second develop your public speaking skills to the fullest (all speech is persuasion); and third, read voraciously (that’s where good ideas often come from). We can all be better and achieve far more than we think. 

Adam: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

Bill: I’ve never been the smartest person in the room, which I consider an advantage. So the advice that helped me the most in my career came when I was a young marketing manager. It was this: “You can’t always outthink your competition, and you can’t always outspend them; but you can almost always outwork them.” If that sounds like advice for a day laborer, maybe it is. But it has nearly always underpinned any success I have had. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should do to pay it forward?

Bill: I teach MBA students – tomorrow’s leaders. I tell them that business can be a powerful force for good, based on the triple bottom line of people, planet, profit. And that companies can improve their business performance by and through creating social value for all their stakeholders. These young students not only agree, but they build this into their careers. They know there is more than one bottom line, and as they put it, they want purpose as well as a paycheck. I’ve learned from them as much as I’ve taught. 

This is a topic I cover extensively in my book GoodBusiness: The Talk, Fight, Win Way to Change the World, that all sectors (business, civic, and government) should come together for mutual advantage and the greater good.

Not everyone has the opportunity to teach and thereby to learn. But beyond the classroom, the best thing we can do is to mentor young up-and-comers. They appreciate it, they grow from it – as do we — and they pass it on. Look for opportunities to mentor.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share? 

Bill: We should all take time periodically to ask this leadership question: “What did you do with the dash”? i.e. the dash that will be on your tombstone between your birth and death, as in Abraham Lincoln: 1809 – 1865. In other words, what did we do with our lives? I’ve had one bad birthday – my 30th. I was morose because I didn’t feel that I was making enough progress. Since then, I’ve found my stride. I’m no Abraham Lincoln, but I feel better about that dash.

Second, wherever we are in life, in whatever job or organization, we can each make a positive social difference. We can make a dent in the universe.

And finally, my favorite question is “What’s next?”

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