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Lessons in humility and humanity from a departed CEO

I learned with sadness of the unexpected passing of Sir Ivan Menezes recently.

I only met Ivan, Diageo’s global chief executive, once—last year, during East African Breweries’ 100th year celebrations. I sat next to him at dinner and we shared many interesting reflections on business, leadership and strategy. I left that dinner thinking: aha, so the global head of a huge corporation can be a good human being, too.

That thought was prompted by something Ivan said to me. When I asked him which of his many achievements at Diageo he would look back on with most pride, he told me this: that Diageo had weathered the COVID-19 pandemic for two years without sending anyone home. He had personally pushed for a massive lifeline fund for the business to get through the crisis without damaging its brand or culture—or its moral core.

There are not many CEOs I know who would count protecting others as being up there with their best achievements. And Ivan had many achievements, make no mistake. Early in his tenure, he had much right-sizing and refocusing to do. He made bold bets on flattening the management structure; decentralising decision-making away from London and to the regions; reorienting the business towards high-growth premium spirits; and reconnecting his senior people with actual consumers rather than middlemen.

It all paid off, eventually. The share price doubled in his tenure; and Diageo became one of the biggest companies in the FTSE 100.

Perhaps his biggest achievements, though, are non-financial. He championed a massive diversity and inclusion push in Diageo across the world. We can see this for ourselves right here in Kenya. As I write this, EABL’s group CEO, as well as the chief officers of finance, marketing, and human resources are all women. I have also watched (with great pride), local executives getting picked to take senior Diageo positions across the world. Over 40 per cent of leadership positions at Diageo—including that of global chief executive—are now held by women; 37 per cent are ethnically diverse.

Ivan also took a very long-term view. He understood that a drinks business could destroy its own customer base if it did not stand for responsibility and sustainability. Diageo’s long-term premiumization strategy—“drink better, not more”—is a great business strategy, but it is also a play for the organization to be more responsible towards its customers.

Playing wide, and playing long. Now that’s impact. We can all be ruthless axe-wielders in business, manically focused on targets and bonuses. A very small number, however, seem to be able to become towering figures in business while still protecting their personal values and human essence, and delivering impacts that go beyond the bottom line. Those are the ones I pay most attention to, even as the world abases itself applauding the selfish and the corrupt.

Why is being a kind, compassionate, and considerate person not more commonplace in the upper echelons of business? There seems to be a deep misconception that nice guys finish last; that displaying kindness gets you marked as soft; that bullying and braggadocio are essential ingredients of corporate success.

Well, please miss me with all that. If you think you can only be successful by being avaricious, then you are the least interesting of humans.

I have dedicated the past twenty years to focusing on one leader at a time to take them back to their essence: being true to their fundamental humanity. It is a slow and painful process, often with many unexpected reversals. But it is essential work. Many more of us need to understand business and corporate life as no different from any other part of our existence. The same values and principles must hold strong.

I wrote here a few years ago: “Business is no different from any other aspect of endeavour. You can’t claim to be a community-centred, devout person in your place of worship, but show us that you are a rapacious lawbreaker in your place of business. You are not forgiven just because ‘that’s business.’ Ethics and probity are not locational or context-specific.”

Maximize your profits, by all means. Profit is the lifeblood of business, and without it we cannot keep funding and investing. But we should only clap for profit that is generated within the confines of the law, and of common decency. Those who trouser huge payoffs by bending every law or moral standard; by exploiting and deceiving their fellow humans; or by wrecking our shared environment; deserve only our extreme opprobrium. Don’t call them tycoons or titans. Call them what they are: pillagers and plunderers.

Ivan Menezes was, by all accounts, the antithesis of the flashy, arrogant CEO. His colleagues will tell you that he was often found eating in the staff canteen at HQ, chatting and laughing with junior colleagues and seeking their counsel. I will today raise a glass of one of his products in his memory, and hope that many more can make courtesy and humility a hallmark of how they show up as leaders.

(Sunday Nation, 9 July 2023)

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