by Laurianne McLaughlin

My Keys to Career Success: Former Gillette CEO’s Advice for Leaders

Jul 30, 20076 mins

Improve your leadership IQ. Check out James Kilts's take on the factors that truly matter to a leader's success, plus his advice for IT executives on the rise.

James Kilts knows his way around being a high-profile leader: As chairman and CEO of Gillette, he oversaw a results-oriented renaissance at the consumer products giant before guiding the firm to a merger with Procter & Gamble in 2005. Prior to that, he served as CEO of Kraft Foods and Nabisco, with a stint between those roles as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago.

Kilts is now a founding partner at private equity firm Centerview Partners. In his upcoming book due out in September, Doing What Matters (Crown Business, written with John Manfredi and Robert Lorber), Kilts shares his lessons for current and aspiring leaders on what really matters to personal and business success.


We asked Kilts to share some of those lessons, plus specific advice for CIOs who’d like to be CEOs and for IT leaders who’d like to make the move to CIO.

Nine Factors That Really Matter For Success

1. Growth. It’s healthy to have a “continuous dissatisfaction with the status quo,” Kilts says.

2. Relationships. Don’t underestimate the value of mentors, Kilts says.

3. Loyalty. colleagues with respect, and you gain credibility and trust, he says.

4. Small moments. Small actions on your part stay with subordinates, Kilts says.

5. Timely decisions. Don’t delay action when a team member doesn’t fit, he advises.

6. Do what you enjoy. The more you like your work, the more you’ll excel, Kilts says

7. Life’s early lessons. Do the right thing, he says.

8. The right team. Find good colleagues and keep them around you, Kilts says.

9. Confront reality. Sometimes the best manager can’t fix a situation, he says.

Source: James Kilts

CIO: You praise the value of mentors. What advice do you have for aspiring leaders on the care and feeding of mentors?

Kilts: Find someone you really respect and who has the time for you, so it’s a mutual thing. There’s a fine line between having a mentor and a friend. Use their time efficiently. Be very organized. I’ve never been one to just socialize or see how things are going. Have an agenda for anything with your mentor.

What’s the most common mistake people make with regard to loyalty to their teams?

It’s not supporting people on a consistent basis, saying one thing to them and another to someone else.

What drives this behavior?

It’s human nature in some ways because people don’t like the confrontation. One of the hardest things in business is to confront a problem head-on. Be frank with subordinates on the pluses and minuses of a situation.

What advice do you have for a CIO who wants to be a CEO?

Get some line experience where you have to produce results from a P&L standpoint. Managing everything from the sales to the profits will help qualify you for a CEO role. My success is based on applying four things to all activities at work: intellectual integrity, creating enthusiasm, getting an organization to take action at the appropriate times and understanding your customers.

What advice do you have for aspiring technology leaders who want to become CIOs?

Know your subject and understand where the business needs to go to be successful. Create an organization that’s able to carry on after you move onto your next assignment.


What Moving from Good to Great Means for CIOs Who Want to Lead

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How to Turn Your Employees into Leaders

As a CEO, what ability did you prize in CIOs?

The ability to communicate with the other functions and gatekeep as a resource—that’s scarce. A CIO has to help the organization prioritize what has to be done when. Everyone wants “tomorrow.” Successful CIOs get things done in the proper sequence. Some others just become order-takers.

From a CIO perspective, the most difficult thing is the ability to deal with the operational managers in the company and get consensus on priorities.

You advise leaders to remember their early life lessons. What early life lesson was important to you?

When I was a little kid, someone gave my dad the wrong change. He butted back in line and told them they gave him too much money. Afterward, he said to me, “She would have had to pay for it.”

You note the importance of keeping the right team around you. What advice would you have for IT executives, given that at this time, the best IT people are in high demand and often poached by headhunters?

Give the people enough responsibility and job growth, so they feel they’re very satisfied. At Gillette I wanted everybody to be recruiting our people. But I wanted them so satisfied that they’d turn down the headhunters.

Don’t stack the organization. Give people broad spans of control. That tends to bring high levels of satisfaction because they’re involved with more things and more people. Give people as much as they can handle.

You say good leaders must be able to confront reality, yet that can be especially hard to do when a high-profile IT project heads south. Your advice?

When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Tell the truth. Come up with the alternative plan.

What’s your advice on how to keep your team’s morale up in this situation?

Be honest and straightforward with the team. Don’t sugarcoat things. I’ve seen so many managers sugarcoat things. The more involvement your team can have in the situational assessment, the better. They need to have that input for you to get buy-in for your corrective plan.

You say small moments matter, that a lunch with one of your team where you show genuine concern in his current challenges may stick in his mind for a long time. What small moment sticks out in your mind?

Kilts: I had a boss, Bob Sansone (at General Foods), who wasn’t given to praising people very often. I had an advertising idea for a new product. Months later, after the fact, he said, “That was the smartest decision I ever made, and you made it for me.” The product was Crystal Light. The idea was, “I believe in Crystal Light, because I believe in me!” with Linda Evans as the spokesperson.” (At the time, Linda Evans’s character on the TV show Dynasty was named Krystle Carrington.)