Navigating a Crisis: Why Company Culture Is Key

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Amway CEO Milind Pant talks about “leading from the heart” and the lessons he’s learned during the pandemic.

When Milind Pant in January 2019 assumed the role of CEO at Ada, Mich.-based Amway, the world’s largest direct seller of consumer products, he brought along his personal credo of “leading from the heart.” He had picked that up during a stint in Thailand, where “it’s all jai,” the Thai word for heart. That defines his leadership approach at Amway, whose 16,000 employees and its million-strong network of “Amway Business Owners” or independent entrepreneurs made $8.4 billion in sales in 2019.

When Pant learned about the coronavirus pandemic early this year through Amway colleagues in China, he prioritized the safety of employees. Another challenge has been to manage the pressures on the company’s supply chain as demand rose for its nutrition, health and hygiene products. According to Pant, the present times call for leadership with “love and humility” and “a growth mindset” – values he traces to the family-owned company’s founders.

“I’ve personally been on a journey to lead with love and humility instead of pride and fear,” Pant said in an interview with Wharton management professor Michael Useem as part of a virtual event series titled, “Leadership in the Wake of COVID-19: What Enterprise Leaders Will Need to Survive and Prosper in the Years Ahead.” The series is hosted by Knowledge@Wharton in partnership with the 2020 Wharton Leadership Conference, the Wharton Center for Human Resources, and the McNulty Leadership Program.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Michael Useem: You grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. You worked for Unilever, and then as president of Pizza Hut at Yum Brands. What brought you to having an interest in managing a private-sector company like Amway?

Milind Pant: Frankly, this was not part of any plan. As you said, I grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas. We didn’t feel it at that time, but in hindsight, we had modest material means. We didn’t have air conditioning at home. I remember we got a television when I was in my early teens.

But our parents had all of the love for us. They encouraged us to do the right thing – study hard, work hard, and life figured itself out. I went through my schooling and [higher] education in India, and I was fortunate to be able to join Unilever in India, which was almost like my second MBA.

When I joined Unilever, I went through its training program … across functions and categories, including spending eight weeks living in a village in India as part of the training program without running water or electricity, just to understand the heart and soul of India.

After doing all that, I thought I’d get a role in perhaps strategy or marketing in one of the brands like Dove or Sunsilk or Axe. But I moved to a business unit that made leather shoes for export. So, I spent the first two years of my career in tanneries. That was 30 years back, but that foul smell is still in my nostrils. But I had a great career in Unilever, and then I was fortunate to have a chance to join Yum.

In the last 10 to 12 years, my family and I have lived in three continents and five countries. We were living in German South Africa in 2007-2008. We moved to Delhi, [and then on] to Bangkok, Shanghai and Dallas, and now we live in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Useem: You began [your career] living in a village. It’s a famous feature of being part of Unilever, where you spend time with your ultimate customers. What was the most formative experience along the way that gave you the capacity to serve as a general manager, where you really have to think about everything?

“I’ve been on a journey to lead with love and humility instead of pride and fear.” –Milind Pant

Pant: I don’t think there was one particular moment. I would point out a couple of learnings. Just the training at Unilever India was broad. It was across functions, and there were opportunities to work both in customer management and general management – sales general management on one side and brand marketing on the other.

There were other instances where one learned on the job. My first role as managing director of a country was with Yum in Thailand. When I moved there, it was a reasonable-sized business [with] 10,000 employees. The business had been struggling. I went there with the determination to turn around the business, to put all the strategies in place, and to build something that would last beyond me.

But my biggest learning from my time in Thailand and as the managing director in my first role was not so much on strategy or on intellect, but on leading with heart. In Thailand, everything is about the heart. The Thais have a word for it called jai, and it’s all jai. And since then I’ve personally been on a journey to lead with love and humility instead of pride and fear.

“Listen and Learn”

Useem: We’ve got to lead with the head of course, but we don’t forget the heart. I have a question about your transition from serving as president of Pizza Hut over to Amway. Both are private enterprises, but in some respects the two could not be more different in how they operated. What was your biggest learning as you came into Amway? [Was there] something that you didn’t know about that you had to master as you became chief executive of Amway?

Pant: As I came into Amway, I was very clear that my first 100 days were all about “listen and learn.” Ninety percent of our revenues are outside of U.S. — in Japan, Korea, China, which is our largest market, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Europe, Russia, Latin America, and the U.S.

I spent an immense amount of time out on the road and meeting our entrepreneurs who are the heart and soul of our business. I learned from everyone, and I even came to your program that you and [Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli] had organized just before I formally took over as [Amway’s] CEO, as a part of my “listen and learn” [effort].

My biggest and most valuable lessons were from the entrepreneurs, or the Amway Business Owners. This was within my first 100 days in March last year, and I was in Tokyo. One of our entrepreneurs talked about how she is building a business around a healthy cooking community on Instagram. I looked at her and I said, “Oh my god, this is the future.” The entrepreneurial spirit, which is at the core of Amway, along with us being a social idea around relationships, now put together in the online world is the future, and this is social commerce.

That’s where we put together our 10-year plan — which we can do in a privately-held, family-owned company — to unleash entrepreneurship with social commerce. That idea came in listening to an entrepreneur in Tokyo.

Useem: The last three months have been extraordinary in everybody’s lives, whether it’s Thailand or China or the U.S., with the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter movement, and [the] MeToo movement in the background as well. As you have managed through the last couple of months, what has been different from the way you would have led the company prior to about March 15th?

Pant: In some ways, everything has been different. But here’s what we realized early on — January 23rd to be exact, because that’s when we learned from our China team that there was a pandemic, and the lockdowns were coming. We prioritized safety for colleagues over anything else. We have 16,000 colleagues across the world, 6,000 acres of organic farms in three countries, and manufacturing locations [including] in Guangzhou (China), Buena Park, near Los Angeles, and in Ada, Michigan.

We said the most important thing is we’re going to do everything to keep each other safe. Once we had that in place, every other challenge that came our way, be it [about our] supply chain or figuring out how to work from home, and all the other stuff, it sorted itself out. My biggest learning through these last almost five months, [including] three months working from home, has been that during this pandemic, the best of Amway has been unleashed.

This surprised me. We did an employee engagement survey in the middle of the pandemic. Almost 10,000 of our employees responded. We usually don’t get a response that high from an employee engagement survey. [About] 91% of our colleagues across the world said they were highly engaged with Amway, and 94% said they were proud of working at Amway.

“My challenge is to sustain this beyond the pandemic.” –Milind Pant

[Those were] numbers that we’ve never had in the past. So this pandemic has been an opportunity to go through the decades of culture that have been built into Amway, and decades of nurturing a purpose in helping people live better, healthier lives. My challenge is to sustain this beyond the pandemic — a number of markets have already moved on to the new normal.

Coping During the Pandemic

Knowledge@Wharton: We have a number of good questions from our audience, and we’ll try to get through as many of them as we can. What is the biggest challenge you faced during this crisis, and how have you worked to overcome that?

Pant: The biggest challenge we have faced in addition to keeping all our colleagues safe has been essentially around supply chain. Our core portfolio has to do with nutrition, health and hygiene, with long-term immunity and long-term health products. The demand for some of these products has spiked.

The other big challenge is in in managing supply disruptions, and keeping our manufacturing locations open [amid] city lockdowns and changing regulations.

The third challenge for all of us was just a personal challenge. How do we sustain our mental stamina through weeks of uncertainty around friends and families and communities? What personal habits do each of us adopt so that we can get through this in a way that gives us an opportunity to be better, and be able to support our families and friends, and our own communities?

Early in the pandemic here in West Michigan, I got a call from the CEO of one of the largest hospital networks here asking if we make hand sanitizers. This was the middle of March. I said, “No, we don’t.” And then I checked with my team and they said, “Yeah, we don’t, but you know what? Maybe we can figure it out.”

In five days from that call we had made hand sanitizers, gotten all the approvals, and then shipped it to hospital networks across West Michigan…. Instances like that of our teams coming together to solve problems during this crisis have been a true blessing.

Knowledge@Wharton: What changes in your business approach are your field representatives asking for from Amway as a result of the pandemic? Are they asking for different ways to engage with customers, for example?

Pant: Our one million entrepreneurs across the world have pivoted to new ways of doing business. Essentially their mantra is that online is the new offline. So, they’re building their business on social [platforms].

We have partnerships with social networks. [For example], we have a partnership with Tencent on the WeChat platform in China. We have activated that for our Amway business owners and entrepreneurs to reach customers and do social selling. We’ve just [struck] a similar partnership with KakaoTalk in Korea. We are also investing in our own abilities to have our easy frictionless shopping for Amway Business Owners and their customers.

“While these cultural principles are always good on a piece of paper, in some senses during this pandemic, people have gotten an opportunity to walk the talk.” –Milind Pant

Knowledge@Wharton: You talked about leading from the heart. How does a company with such a distributed workforce reinforce corporate values all the way down the chain? What are the challenges there, and how do you go about doing that?

Pant: That still remains a challenge. What we’ve dipped into is the reservoir of a culture in goodwill that has been built over the years. We are a family company, and our values — and in some sense our purpose — have been a part of the business for 60 years.

That has come in good stead for us. We’ve harnessed that, and empowered people. The other thing that’s happened is management has become democratized through this process. Every person on a Microsoft Teams [meeting] or a Zoom call has an equal voice. In some sense, because control and compliance is more difficult to do, that has led to empowering especially those who are in the markets, and those who are closest to our Amway Business Owners, to do the right thing.

We have three cultural principles: Live to serve, love to learn, and lead from the heart. While these cultural principles are always good on a piece of paper, in some senses during this pandemic, people have gotten an opportunity to walk the talk.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the single most important leadership quality that you think is needed in this time, and maybe in the near future?

Pant: Bill Gates had a recommendation on [having] a growth mindset. It’s something that for me is a work-in-progress…. That’s something in which our founders, Rich [DeVos] and Jay [Van Andel], were pioneers. At Amway, we encourage everyone to have a founder’s growth mindset. That is perhaps is the most important quality that I personally value. The other one is to lead from the heart. For all of us, at times, and especially during times of stress, and in the kinds of conflict that are taking place now, we can’t go into pride or fear. We’ve got to remind ourselves to continue to be on a journey to lead with love and humility.

Leadership Takeaways

Useem: Here are my three takeaways from our discussion. Number one, don’t forget to lead with the heart along with the head. We’re dealing with people, not automatons or robots. It’s vital for leading at any level, maybe especially from the very top.

Number two, I like the phrase “listen and learn.” We learn so much if we’re in touch with the entrepreneurs who work with us, and from the customers who buy from us. It’s amazing – if you’ve got a good ear – what you can acquire and bring in. Number three, relevant to especially the last several months, employee safety is everything. And if we do that well, they will never forget, and their loyalty will be there for years to come. Milind, what would you add?

Pant: I would just add a couple of ones. I’m reminded of one of your books that I read before I took on this role, which is that long-term strategy is the best short-term strategy. I think during times like this, we’ve just got to remind ourselves of that mantra, Mike, which you had very well captured in that book.

The other thing is that I consider myself to continue to be a work-in-progress. As I grew up in India, during my teenage years, my father used to encourage me to listen to BBC Radio to learn English — which is not my first language — or to read the morning newspaper, which used to be the Times of India.

That stayed with me in the back of my head. Today I read five to seven newspapers online every single day. I read as many books as I can. My wife believes that makes me a very boring person, but I just love to learn. And this conversation today has been another opportunity for me to do that.

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