Ian Donald Making A Difference – CEO Nestle

Ian Donald, a South African and currently CEO of Nestlé in Pakistan wanted to make a difference, and he did. At the end of May he will be moving to Kenya, looking after the East African region comprising of 20 countries.  His tenure in Pakistan is an interesting, successful and profitable case study though.

About three years ago South African born Ian Donald received a call from Nestlé head office. At the time he was the South African Sales Director for Nestlé. He was offered the job of CEO Pakistan with war torn Afghanistan as part of the responsibility. His life changed dramatically overnight. He was advised to not take his family with him, security risks being the main reason. He comments: “I landed up in a place where I had to make life work from scratch. Nothing was familiar and I had no direct family support.”

The environment in which the business operates is a very challenging one. There is heat, lack of water, regular power cuts – sometimes for up to 12 hours a day – poverty, health, nutritional challenges, skills shortage, security issues and so on. The occasional bomb threat is not a strange phenomenon. People can’t move in large groups; visiting stores as leaders is done low profile; they can’t stay in one place for too long; they cannot go where there are large gatherings; and so on.

The business in Pakistan is functioning within a very closed market due to, for example, its neighbours (India, Iran, Afghanistan, top part of China) where trade doesn’t really cross borders. So, as a market leader Nestlé has to initiate things as it will not happen by itself.

This new position quickly became an exciting challenge for him – on a personal, company and broader level.  However, herein lay the opportunities and so he applied and even learnt some key principles, some of which are:

To build continuity: It is easy for a new leader to walk in and change everything; start a new approach; invent new projects; stamp down his authority merely for the sake of doing so; criticize the previous regime; and so on. But, as someone who has worked in different cultures he has learnt that “the correct approach in a business that did not require turnaround but merely wasn’t living up to its full potential was not to do this. In fact, coming in and changing everything, especially as an expat, sends out a clear message that what was done up until then is not respected.”

Of course this does not mean that the new leader leaves everything as is, but it means that whatever he initiates should be communicated in a specific way, namely building on what has already been done.

The new leader should be conscious of showing appreciation for what has been achieved – find the good from the past. To “build continuity” may not be the right approach in a business that needs turnaround, but it is probably the right leadership approach in a business that is in relatively good shape.

Donald will know this as he has been successful in turning around other businesses.

Remain humble: Fairly early on received an award on behalf of Nestlé and had to remind himself “that I had nothing to do with the specific achievement.” Donald explained further: “This reminded me that humility, which happens to be one of our values in the Pakistan business, is so important.”

One of the ways he tries to stay humble is to in fact apply point one above: “Continually remember that whatever we achieve in the business, or even in the environment, could never happen had other milestones not occurred.”

And so, as they involved themselves in broader projects to make the world a better place he kept reminding himself that none of this would have been possible had the current team not put a strong foundation in place.

Finding a deep purpose: It would have been easy for him to settle into the new job and simply manage professionally. But, Donald was not comfortable with this: “I realized the team needed a strong sense of purpose, a dream, vision and values about which they could feel passionate. Previous visions were very financially driven, for example increasing the turnover and I had to build on this.”

He also realized that a leader with a dictatorial approach could be fooled into thinking that he has connected with the workforce, because it is within their culture to deliver, respect authority, receive instructions and do it to the best of their ability. Donald adds: “But I felt a need to connect with the workforce on an emotional level”. He and his team engaged employees and they collectively bought into a vision, which ultimately happened to be the broader Nestlé vision of enhancing people’s quality of life – inside and outside the business.  

For example, they assisted in trying to find a solution to the current water crises, partnering with McKinsey, Harvard University, government and other organisations; they trained farmers to improve their skills in delivering more milk, resulting in positively impacting at least one million people directly.

Donald says: “The aspiration was for every employee to truly see and feel that every activity he/she was engaged with every day was truly enhancing someone’s life. As they became involved in doing this it all fed back into the business, lifting the bottom line while enriching people’s lives.”

Deep purpose is not enough: Donald learnt that “the dream had to be followed by proper strategy, relevant structure (tools, right people in place, methods and ways of operating), and alignment all the way down; effective communication systems, aligned training, effective performance management system, culture of recognition, identifying and retaining talent, and so on”.

After the dream the work really begins.

Congruent behavior: They also aligned all staff to values that the top 100 managers agreed on, to hold the vision and strategy together.

As they discussed the values with staff some words shifted, meanings deepened and slowly but surely the entire employee population bought into the values. This became part of their “framework” of the future.  Donald explains that “when the leader openly commits to certain values and behaviours, colleagues and the organisation will somehow hold the leader accountable”.

Sometimes the courageous challenge apparent incongruent behaviour by the leader openly. And, in my view, if this does not happen, the perceived negative behavior simply becomes passage talk that eats away at the healthy culture of a business. On one occasion Donald publicly apologized for not living a value, which is part of the definition of great leadership.  As a South African he found that he was ultra-sensitive to not be discriminative, disrespectful, to treat all equal and respect difference.

His experience as a South African leader prepared him well for this exciting venture, and certainly the next challenge as the leader of the East African region.

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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