Career Management Center News


Durland Lecturer: Diversify skills, Experiences to Become a Leader

Michael B. Polk, president and CEO of Newell Rubbermaid, delivered annual lecture March 14

Durland Lecturer: Diversify skills, Experiences to Become a Leaderinline-block

Michael B. Polk ’82, president and CEO of Newell Rubbermaid, which owns brands such as Sharpie, Graco, and Calphalon, delivered the 28th annual Lewis H. Durland Memorial Lecture on March 14. During his talk, “Leading Transformative Change,” Polk shared insights with students, faculty, staff, and visitors on how he led Newell Rubbermaid through a period of restructuring and growth and how he prepared for such a task.

Polk, who has worked in branding and consumer goods for most of his career, joined the Newell Rubbermaid board of directors in 2009 and became president and CEO in 2011. Despite the company’s profitability at the time, Polk entered his role during a period of “chaotic movements and unprecedented volatility” in the world, he said.

“As a leader of a business who’s trying to grow and step up performance,” Polk said, one needs “to be able to ride those waves and shifts.”

In 2012, Polk and Newell Rubbermaid made the difficult decision to let go 50 percent of the top of the company, vice presidents and above, and 18 percent of the whole company. As a result, it took on a new, flattened organizational structure focused around the development and delivery of its brands (of which the company has more than 40). Savings were then invested back into the company’s talent and capabilities, which allowed project size to increase by 163 percent — Newell Rubbermaid’s projects are now bigger and better, and teams can think in terms of possibilities rather than probabilities, Polk explained.

“We made this choice deliberately, but we didn’t do it lightly. It was incredibly disruptive to people’s lives and to the way the organization was working” he said. “We did it because we knew we needed to in order to release the growth potential in the business.”

Polk described how he led Newell Rubbermaid through this series of changes by internally communicating a clear business strategy, the Growth Game Plan, and a forward-looking statement of culture. He drew on the diverse skillset he had developed throughout his career and modeled the behavior he wanted his colleagues to exhibit. Over the years, Polk has found the importance of continued learning, diversifying skills, and following mentors.

“Try not to chart a career path — put yourself in positions to learn and grow. In the beginning of my career, it was all about putting building blocks in place,” he said. “Don’t think vertically in terms of your career development, but think about the toolkit that’s going to enable you to be successful and lead an organization in the future.”

Last December, Newell Rubbermaid announced it would acquire Jarden and create a $16 billion consumer goods company to create Newell Brands, which will employ 57,000 people. This deal will be finalized within a couple months, and Polk knows there is more change to come.

“Now, as we go into this next round of changes, it’s not just me and a few others trying to sell a new operating model to the organization,” he said. “It’s a group of people that have lived in this environment for the last five years, have grown with it, and are there to share their stories with their new Jarden colleagues.”

Speaking on his 30-plus-year career working with and leading a variety of brands among other companies, such as Unilever and Kraft Foods, Polk said there is no better time than now to be graduating with an interest in brands and marketing. How consumers view, engage with, and make decisions about marketing messages is changing. “It’s like the movement from radio to TV,” he said. “You’re like an explorer trying to help us ‘old dudes’ who didn’t grow up in this media environment figure out how to invest so we can convert consumers to purchase.”

Polk’s advice to those people just starting their careers came from a place of sincerity — he shared with the audience that he never had a master plan. He took his first job after graduating from the College of Engineering to be close to his girlfriend attending Cornell Law School, his friends in The Hangovers, and Cornell hockey. He’s come a long way since then.

“Just get out there and get going,” he said. “Build a track record of performance, make sure you’re learning and building new skills as you go, and things will happen for you.”

The Lewis H. Durland Memorial Lecture is presented by the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. It was established in 1983 in memory of Lew Durland, treasurer emeritus of Cornell, who served as the university’s chief financial officer for more than 25 years.

There is no comment.

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