4 Leadership Lessons from Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh

by Derek Loosvelt | June 14, 2017

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If you want to advance your career, chances are you’ll need to show that you can successfully lead a team. In fact, even at the entry level, most top companies are looking for candidates with proven leadership skills. As for how you can gain leadership skills and improve your leadership ability, you can do a few things right now.

One is learn by trial and error. Which, even if you haven’t realized it, you’ve likely been doing for many years—on academic teams, athletic teams, workplace teams, etc. And if you haven’t realized you’ve been learning to lead this way, it’s important to start paying attention now, in order to be able to articulate what exactly you’ve learned through trial and error. Again and again, you’ll need to articulate your successes and failures in interviews as well as to those you might lead and mentor.

Another thing you can do is pay attention to the mistakes made by those in leadership positions, and learn from their mistakes. To that end, perhaps there’s no better place to start today than current President of the United States Donald Trump and current but-on-leave-of-absence Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Both Trump and Kalanick have made numerous mistakes while attempting to lead, and there’s a lot to learn from their mistakes. For example, Trump has shown us what happens when you surround yourself almost completely by yes men, and Kalanick has shown us what happens when you try to run a tech company like a fraternity basement keg party.

A third way is to find skilled leaders and learn from their successes. To that end, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, the subject of the latest New York Times Corner Office column, is a great place to start. Bergh, who successfully turned around Levi’s in his six years at the firm, passed along several great tips for would-be leaders in his Q&A with the Times. Here are four that stand out.

1. Be Transparent.

Bergh is a self-described “brand guy,” having cut his brand management and leadership teeth for three decades at Procter and Gamble, where he oversaw several different brands (including Folgers, Old Spice, Jif, and Gillette) and tens of thousands of people. Bergh knows that transparency is key in creating trust among employees and essential in instilling honesty into workplace culture. Here’s what Bergh says about transparency.

The big lesson for me, and it stuck with me forever, is that you’ve got to be really transparent and straight with people, and if they’re not cutting it, you’ve got to tell them where they’re not cutting it. Hold the bar up high, and if it’s not a good fit, call it.
Being extremely transparent builds trust over time. I’m not a big fan of organizations where people backstab or talk behind others’ backs. So when I’ve led teams, it’s always been about how we work together to get the best results.

2. Don’t wait to let someone go.

Bergh grew up playing team sports, and he’s taken a lot from his time on various playing fields and applied it to the workplace. For example, he places a competitive nature at the top of his list when looking for team members. And here’s what he says about how he goes about changing up his lineup when team members aren’t pulling their weight.

You have to look holistically at the people on your team and constantly look for ways to strengthen the team. I’ve never regretted moving too fast to let somebody go. I’ve had times when I’ve regretted waiting as long as I did to make a move.
That said, I also have some great turnaround stories where people were coached and showed they could raise their game. It’s a fine line on when you make the call, but rarely, looking back, did I move too early.

3. Determine what the problem is before you try to fix it.

You don’t turnaround a massive company like Levi’s without doing some serious sleuthing into what exactly the problems are. As for that sleuthing, I especially like the tactic Bergh used when he began at Levi’s, a tactic he outlines here.

When I first got here, I interviewed the top 60 people in the company, and I sent them questions in advance, including, What are the three things you think we have to change? What are the three things that we have to keep? What do you most want me to do? What are you most afraid I might do?
I had an hour scheduled for each of them, and by the end, I was really clear about the company’s DNA, and the values that were really important to everyone who works here.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to be the new CEO of a huge company to use this tactic. It can be used, in some form, on just about any group project or team you might find yourself leading. And so, remember to ask specific questions in order to get a clear view of the problems facing your team, along with their expectations. Of course, the key here is to make sure you listen to your team’s answers.

4. Surround yourself with people who can lead.

Bergh runs marathons and triathlons and likes to bike. And he doesn't seem like someone who likes to lose. Here’s what Bergh has to say about how he hires for top roles.

When I’m hiring for the executive team, the first thing I’m looking for is leadership. I’ll ask them to tell me about a specific leadership challenge they had and how they worked through it.
Second, do they have a clear track record of success and winning? The best way to do that is to go through the résumé and talk about their biggest wins. I want to know if they’re naturally wired to be competitive. And are they intellectually curious? Would they rather ask questions or tell somebody what to do? How do they learn?

Indeed, great leaders like Bergh know that they can’t lead without other great leaders on their team. Great leaders empower their employees, especially their most important employees. That is, micromanaging, in most cases, is not going to lead to a successful team. And so, it’s easy to spot the poor leaders: those that surround themselves with people valued more for their loyalty than ability.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

Tags: ceo | leadership | leadership skills | levi strauss | product management

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