“A lot of us look back and say, ‘That was one of the finest memories I have of my career.’ We were on fire. The business results were great,” said Chip Bergh, reflecting on his experience as president of Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) Asia operations.
One of the “finest memories” of his career? That is impressive, considering Bergh went on to lead Gillett after it was acquired by P&G and currently serves as CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.
I asked Bergh to elaborate on why his experience leading P&G’s Asia operations ranked so highly in his remarkable career?
Bergh explained that what he and his team built “was diversity in action.”
“At one point, I think we had 28 nationalities and 55 different languages spoken in the office,” he said. “That’s part of what made that concept so powerful. Within the first year, people were really beginning to make friends with those outside of their group. People became colorblind. Ethnic and cultural boundaries fell away. Within three years, we had Indians marrying Filipinos and so on. It was really cool.”
The organizational prowess Bergh describes is particularly impressive when viewed in the context of what he inherited when first asked to move to Singapore and lead P&G’s Asia operations.
When Bergh arrived, the business was about $1 billion in sales across Asia, India, and Australia — a population that exceeded 2 billion people. These were paltry results for one of the largest multinational consumer goods companies in the world. Bergh was tasked with the challenge of inspiring the Asia region’s employees to manifest P&G’s vision that had led to so much success in North America and Europe.
Talk about a challenge! Where would one begin? How could anybody bring together a group of diverse employees, representing 55 languages, around a vision that was set in Cincinnati, over 10,000 miles away?
Among other steps, Bergh decided to move the regional headquarters into a different building, where he instituted an open floor plan.
Bergh said that he sought to “create [a] culture of collaboration, agility, and speed by having people sitting with their logical work teams on a day-in and day-out basis, with no walls separating them.”
This move should not be mistaken for another experiment in floor plan configurations. This was disruptive and impactful. Bergh moved the operation from a beautiful office that overlooked the harbor of Singapore into less expensive real estate that overlooked a mall.
Bergh’s motives were clear. He sought to get his team to focus on the vision rather than the opulent view, while bridging ethnic and cultural differences in order to bring the team together and manifest the vision. His objective was to create a culture of vibrancy, versus everybody sitting in their offices with their doors closed.
Bergh encountered significant pushback and cultural questioning.
“A lot of [the employees] could not initially accept the big boss, the president of the region, not having his own office,” he told me. “It was like, ‘You’re sitting out on the floor just like everybody else?!’ They had a really hard time dealing with it.”
“Back then, especially in Asia, the car you drove, the watch you wore, the pen you used, and the size of your office all mattered,” Bergh noted by way of explanation.
Bergh’s desire to be out in the center of the action just like everybody else is a classic example of fusion leadership, the leadership philosophy practiced by leaders who seek to “fuse” their organizations together around a shared purpose — in this case, P&G’s vision.
Fusion leaders understand that workers dissect their leaders’ every action and decision in trying to answer the question, “Is my leader committed to our organization’s purpose, or is my leader merely committed to their own interests?” Employees are inspired when they see tangible evidence that their leader considers the organization’s vision an equal priority to their own self-interest.
For example, Bergh’s decision to forego the corner office with a view of three countries to sit in a cubicle in the center of the action just like everybody else demonstrated that he was committed to the vision. That helped inspire his organization, which led to world-class results.
“When I left, we were close to $3 billion in sales,” Bergh said. “Now, Procter & Gamble has adopted [the open floor plan] globally as the office standard. In fact, even the executive floor in Cincinnati moved to an open-office plan.”
Bergh’s story provides tangible evidence in support of one “fusion” approach to inspiring a team to manifest the company’s vision. Given that P&G later adopted the model he deployed in Asia, it seems Bergh’s efforts resonated beyond Asia and helped shape the company’s global vision.
Dudley Slater is coauthor, with Steve Taylor, of Fusion Leadership: Unleashing The Movement of Monday Morning Enthusiasts.