William Johnson has run H.J. Heinz, the $10 billion food company, since 1998 after coming up through the ranks overseeing various Heinz product lines.
In an interview in Newsweek earlier this year, he indicated that micromanaging is not the way to lead people. But he admitted that it took him a while to learn how to be a top level executive.
“My job is to lead the people and manage the process. It took me a couple of years to learn that, and [when I did] I stepped back from the operations ... and really began to focus on leadership — on having the right people in the right place, and on making sure people were properly motivated, incentivized, and directed.”
What he looks for: When it comes to hiring others who will exercise leadership below him, he says: “I look for energy and passion—that willingness to really step out. And I look for somebody who's prepared to take a risk and suffer the consequences of a failed risk—or the benefits of a successful risk.”
Of course, there is a difference between measured risks and foolhardy ones.
Learning and thriving: Johnson recalls that in the 1980s he was directed to utilize an idle plant in Iowa. He went to Warner Brothers and got a license to produce Superman hot cocoa. “I thought this was a brilliant idea, and I told my boss I was going to launch it nationally. He sort of looked at me like I'd been out too late the night before. He said, ‘How about we do this in a test market?’ We did; it failed miserably—and I got promoted.”
Later the boss explained, “If you're not prepared to bet your career occasionally, you're not going to move the business forward.”
Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that he was willing subordinate his love for his own idea to the sound advice offered by his boss.
Consistent with his commitment to stay in the loop but not micromanage, Johnson tastes every product before it goes out the door — but he never rules on which ones go to market and which don’t make the cut. Other people are better equipped to do that, he says. And he admits that he doesn’t like the taste of everything Heinz sells. But that’s not important because the company’s mission is to serve others, not the CEO.
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