Durland Lecturer: Diversify skills, Experiences to Become a Leader
Michael B. Polk,
president and CEO of Newell Rubbermaid, delivered annual lecture March 14
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
“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
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
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.