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P&G’s Former Chair Bob McDonald: ‘Life Is A Series Of Starting Over’

In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, leadership speaker and storytelling expert Don Yaeger sits down with Bob McDonald, former P&G CEO and United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to talk about having the confidence to start over again when opportunity calls. 

Bob McDonald worked hard enough as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point to graduate in the top two percent of his class, yet he took off all of his rankings and started back at the bottom as an Army Ranger. He went to the 82nd Airborne Division as a 2nd Lieutenant. Eventually he became the assistant operations officer of a battalion where  he helped lead arctic warfare training, near the Arctic Circle.

Most military leaders in McDonald’s position would be busy figuring out how to get promoted to Major, but McDonald, who also managed to earn an MBA while leading his troops, was drawn to another line of work: business. And thus, the man who seemed destined for ever greater roles in the military pivoted and joined Procter & Gamble as a relatively low-level officer at the company. And that’s where he stayed—for 33 years—once again working his way up through the ranks until he became chairman, president and CEO.

Under his leadership, P&G added nearly one billion people to its global customer base, and its stock price increased by 60 percent over his four years as CEO.

So, what kind of person and leader is McDonald? In the podcast, he reveals himself to be in possession of what has become known as an abundance mindset, the belief that the world is full of opportunity for each of us and that we possess the agency to achieve what we want to achieve—provided we develop one essential trait.

“Life is a series of starting over,” McDonald explained in the podcast. “Life is a series of chapters, and you as an individual have to have confidence in yourself that you aren’t afraid to start over. If you are afraid to start over, if you’re looking for a title or a big paycheck, you may lose a huge opportunity.” Bob says that choosing the P&G company was one of the largest blessings in his life after marrying his wife.

McDonald definitely has the confidence, a fact he further demonstrated when following his illustrious career at P&G, he accepted President Obama’s invitation to head the Department of Veterans Affairs where McDonald was able to help transform the agency into one that truly delivered better care for our Military veterans.

He described the VA appointment as “the easiest decision in the world… because, again, if my purpose is working to improve the lives of others, it’s an easy decision, whether it’s Boy Scouts, church, P&G, which serves some five billion people through its products, or helping to make the world safe for democracy in the Army. It was an easy decision, because I had brothers and sisters I had served with who needed help.”

In our conversation, McDonald offers the purpose-driven leader both the philosophical and tactical guidance they need for overcoming the fear of change and allowing your purpose to guide your leadership style. Lessons include:

• The small but impactful ways to be intentional about setting high standards of behavior from the top of the organization.

• How to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.

• Deploying what McDonald calls ‘The 5 E’s”—envisioning, engaging, energizing, enabling and executing—to optimize your organizational capability.

If you’re envisioning McDonald as some kind of field marshal, think again. He is solidly in the mold of the servant leader, one who leads from the front. And one of the many ways McDonald builds the trust needed for this kind of leadership is to give out his personal phone number.

“When I became the leader at the VA, I needed to create trust. In a crisis, a leader has to be even more accessible,” said McDonald. “One weekend, a Veteran called me, and I referred him to our Suicide Prevention Hotline. As I recall, they intervened, and the Veteran’s alive today. I haven’t changed the phone number. And I still answer it today.”


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