Written by Taylor Ohman, MBA ’18, on behalf of Bauer Leadership Center
I had the distinct pleasure of being the student host for our speaker, Ward Klein, former CEO of Energizer. Prior to our meeting, I discovered he began his career in the exact position I will begin mine in four months: Marketing Associate at Nestlé (formerly Ralston) Purina.
This made the “war stories” he shared especially inspiring: I could see them being defining moments I, too, one day might encounter. Although I understand that no two individuals’ career trajectory could ever be the same, I enjoyed imagining myself following his footsteps to a meaningful, successful, and truly impactful career.
After listening to him speak, I believe there are three primary elements that define Ward Klein’s leadership style: a commitment to culture, courage against the unknown, and a sense of responsibility for those that he leads.
Klein’s commitment to culture was apparent from the start, when he described why he chose to work for Purina over other companies. He valued the environment that they worked hard to propagate throughout their organization and recognized the importance this sort of culture has in the shaping of people working within it.
This was impactful for me, as I also recognized Purina for its distinct culture of teamwork. Klein’s commitment to culture continued throughout his career as he managed the difficult task of integrating a new company—with a very different culture—into the Purina “family.”
Even when he assumed the role of CEO at Energizer, this commitment to culture did not waiver. During his speech, he said a majority of his responsibility as the leader of the company was to define and foster the culture of the organization. By remaining loyal to his values and propagating those values throughout the company, he was able to create a culture that lended to the growth and advancement of all his employees.
Passionate for Challenges
The second element of his leadership style, courage against the unknown, manifested in his willingness to stand up to others and in his passion for taking on difficult and ambiguous projects. Klein shared a moving story about one of the first times he made his boss “turn red in the face with anger” after Klein openly opposed his idea.
The story culminated in Klein signing onto his boss’s idea with an upside-down signature, as done in Japanese culture, to signify his disagreement—but his willingness to follow his boss’s lead. This resonated with his boss, as it was he who originally shared this technique with Klein.
Not only did this show Klein’s propensity for effective communication, but also his courage for standing up for what he believed in. Another time that Klein showed such courage was when he accepted an undefined role in Energizer’s unproven flashlight market.
This effectively diverted his original career path and sent him into territories, both geographical and theoretical, that he knew nothing about. However, it was the challenge and ambiguity of this role that ultimately led Klein to learn more about himself and his company than he could have ever done in his previous role.
The final defining element of Ward Klein’s leadership philosophy was an unwavering sense of responsibility to help his employees grow and flourish as leaders themselves. As a leader, Klein said, your job is not to make yourself look good in front of your employees, but instead to be of the most assistance to them.
This servant-leadership approach, and Klein’s absolute commitment to it, has allowed him to earn the genuine and passionate loyalty of his employees. It has also allowed him to create a company that continues to grow and prosper under the legacy of his leadership.
It was these three elements—commitment to culture, courage, and responsibility for others—that I feel combined to create Klein’s unique and effective leadership philosophy. He was an incredibly inspiring speaker and I will remember his lessons for years to come as I embark on my own professional journey as a leader.