Unifying the Vision at Newell Rubbermaid

It seems like a basic question for employees, one unlikely to produce a revelation: Who do you work for?

But when Newell Rubbermaid (NWL) started asking the question five years ago, right when the company began transforming itself from a product manufacturer to a consumer marketing enterprise, the answers reflected the lack of a unified, global culture: "Sharpie." "Calphalon." "Irwin." No one said, "Newell Rubbermaid."

It was almost like the 2004 movie Miracle, which depicted the upset victory by the underdog 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team over the well-established Soviet Union. When U.S. coach Herb Brooks asked team members who they played for, their provincial answers rolled in: "University of North Dakota." "Minnesota." "Wisconsin." He challenged his startup group of collegians to stop focusing on old rivalries and instead develop a new culture under a single banner. It finally became clear a new culture had taken hold when eventual captain Mike Eruzione answered the question with the words: "I play for the United States of America."

Similarly at Newell Rubbermaid in 2005, when Mark Ketchum joined as chief executive officer, we committed to shift a culture long focused on retail customers and manufacturing operations to a single, global corporation focused on listening to consumers and innovating. And we had to overcome a resistance to change that had permeated the company.

Cultural Transformation

Today, as organizations of all sizes emerge from the recession, they will need to think about transformation, whether or not they've planned for it. For many companies, the way we do business has permanently changed and we must adapt to a new reality. From the outside looking in, Newell Rubbermaid was a Fortune 500 company, but primarily from the aspect of revenue, not because any of the other internal processes commanded best-in-class ranking.

Ketchum envisioned Newell Rubbermaid as a major consumer-products company and wanted to move us from a disparate collection of businesses to a collaborative matrix focused on branding, marketing, and delivering on consumer needs.

He relied on human resources to execute the transformation, focusing on empowering people to change the environment in which we all worked. HR propelled that transformation in four steps:

1. Establishing self-awareness and vision. The previous culture focused almost exclusively on products and results, driven autonomously by one person. More than 50 leaders representing each of our brands met at corporate headquarters in Atlanta to increase collaboration and form the company's vision. Executive leadership openly evaluated data—things we did well, things we didn't—from every global business unit. From the bottom up, we spent weeks shaping a corporate vision through newfound collaboration. During the process, we understood there was pent-up fear, resistance, and anxiety. We pushed for a new way of operating and sharing, and we placed a premium on a culture that was supportive, nurturing, moral, and ethical. We established our core competencies and determined skills our leaders and employees needed for success in our transformed world.

2. Educating the enterprise about the new course. Although we were becoming self-aware, it didn't mean everyone was buying into the transformation. Early feedback revealed nearly equal camps: those who loved the transformation and those who hated it. We knew the next step was to transparently communicate our new vision, one that relied on our employees' focusing first on consumers and end users.

This was a dramatic shift. Ketchum and his executive team led full-day training sessions to educate executives and senior leaders about what the new Newell Rubbermaid valued and how those ideals supported the new vision. A massive communications effort was executed in 2006. Every employee had at least a one-hour session with his or her manager, talking about the new culture, and the new values and competencies were integrated into every leadership program being taught. Even during the recession, we maintained spending on employee development, an investment that continues to produce internal dividends.

3. Holding leaders and employees accountable for living the vision. No one learns a new concept overnight. Part of our transformation included pushing forward those who readily accepted the new course while helping those who resisted. The painful part was that we had a few talented employees who didn't accept the new culture. Unfortunately, we had to make some tough decisions regarding those leaders who couldn't embrace the new culture, but it helped everyone else understand we were serious about our transformation.

We empower our workforce to be accountable for Newell Rubbermaid's vision and values. From Day One, they learn our culture, and we encourage introspection by asking, "Are you a citizen of Newell Rubbermaid or a citizen of your old business unit?" In our early employee feedback surveys, we asked our workers if they knew what the company vision was. Now, we ask them to share examples of the vision in action, and that they provide ample tales from their daily experiences.

4. Reinforcing new competencies among the leaders who stayed. In 2004, the company's core training focused on products: Here's a widget and the dial that makes it work. Today, we train elements of leadership, with programs for virtually all levels of the company. We use e-learning and other tools on a global basis to teach the competencies all our leaders need to develop throughout their careers.

Our operations had been so "siloed" that people left because they ran out of advancement opportunities. It used to be that when people reached a certain level within their divisions, they didn't see any more opportunities for professional growth. Now, by unifying under Newell Rubbermaid, we're able to provide strong career paths essential to leadership development. Today, someone who works for our Beauty & Style unit on the Goody brand might move to another role at our Everyday Writing unit on the Paper Mate brand.

Throughout the transformation, we realized that patience was a virtue. When I was in the U.S. Navy, I learned you couldn't turn an aircraft carrier on a dime; it will move only so fast because of mass and friction. It's the same with remaking a global corporate culture. We counseled patience and knew there wouldn't be change overnight. Any corporation that transforms itself through its people and ideals should know that the pace of change never will equal management expectations. The speed of adoption will be what it is, smoothed only by the steps previously outlined.

Some organizations are cruisers; some are PT boats. Know which you are. In gauging success, determining whether a cultural transformation has taken root isn't always about speedy progress or hard statistics, even though we've recorded higher retention rates since the transformation started.

Eruzione Moment

At a recent retirement dinner, I watched as a senior leader of Lenox, a brand Newell Rubbermaid acquired just seven years ago, bid farewell and acknowledged his nearly 48 years at the company. Long ago, had I asked, "Who do you work for?" everyone there would have said American Saw (the former name of Lenox). But I knew we were on the right track during the ceremony, as I took in our Mike Eruzione moment.

"The thing that made me proudest," the Lenox leader said, "was that I've been an employee of Newell Rubbermaid."

That's the power of a transformed culture. For organizations shaping their culture through their people, the key message is that it doesn't matter where you came from, only that you know the destination and how to get there.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE