Young executives Matthew Zubiller, Kori Reed and Pam Rogers Klyn found ways to turbo-charge their careers and put themselves on a fast track to senior management.
Their trick? Each took a novel approach that resulted in unexpected benefits for their employers—and new, prominent roles for themselves.
Zubiller started a high-tech healthcare business for McKesson Corp. Ms. Reed persuaded ConAgra Foods Inc. to mount a company-wide attack on U.S. child hunger. Ms. Klyn shaved spending quicker than expected at Whirlpool Corp. by linking cost cuts to performance reviews for 6,600 North American staffers.
They overcame multiple challenges. They secured funding, won support from the skeptical top brass and practiced diplomatic persistence. The trio's experiences offer handy guideposts to ambitious managers everywhere.
"Solving thorny business problems creatively helps rising stars get on the screen of upper management and provides the kind of leadership development experience they need to advance," observes Jeffrey Cohn, a leadership advisor for chief executives.
At the same time, "many companies now realize they will be left behind fast-moving competitors unless they encourage their rising stars to pursue innovative ideas," adds Cohn, author of "Why are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?" More than half of 50 big-business CEOs he recently interviewed for his next book reported they are making steps to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship within their managerial ranks.
High-Tech at McKesson
Zubiller believes he succeeded partly because he realized the best new idea "aligns with the core of the business." Before the former entrepreneur joined McKesson in 2005 as a corporate-strategy manager, the major U.S. pharmaceuticals distributor didn't invest in internal start-ups.
But McKesson did have a healthcare information-technology unit. That made it easier for Zubiller to pitch his boss on his business concept: using high-tech tools so doctors, laboratories and insurers could make better care and reimbursement decisions about genetic testing. Though Zubiller says certain colleagues called him a rogue for pursuing a risky venture, he soon received several hundred thousand dollars, built a prototype and signed up five pilot customers.
Zubiller then assembled a "shadow board" of ten senior McKesson executives. "We needed to be able to make sure we could get (additional) funding,'' he explains. These influential advisors also suggested tradeoffs "when conflicts arose with other existing business lines,'' he says.
Assisted by his shadow board, Zubiller obtained $5 million for Advanced Diagnostics Management, a small unit launched and led by the newly-minted assistant vice president in 2007. He currently is a 36-year-old VP, overseeing an expanded and renamed business with about 250 staffers.
Reed, a public relations manager, took charge of ConAgra's corporate foundation in 2006. She made herself a child-hunger expert in order to pursue an innovative approach.
ConAgra's Anti-Hunger Push
Her anti-hunger push led the big packaged-foods producer last spring to name her vice president of cause and foundation, a new position she had proposed to oversee philanthropy, volunteerism and cause marketing, which pairs a product or brand with a social mission. Because ConAgra has an anti-hunger champion, "we can leverage (the issue) for business and social impact," the 42-year-old executive notes.
Reed devised equally clever gambits to gain key internal allies. She persuaded Andre Hawaux, president of the $8 billion consumer foods unit, to join an anti-hunger group's advisory council in late 2010. Hawaux says the experience led him to conclude "that having a person dedicated to our long-term strategy for fighting child hunger would be a vital part of making significant progress.''
Reed says she recognized that ConAgra should "connect the dots on the various anti-hunger efforts" while organizing Child Hunger Ends Here, a corporate cause-marketing campaign. She sold the drive to ConAgra marketers by learning "to translate my 'anti-hunger' language into marketing language,'' she recalls.
Klyn practiced deft diplomacy to expand Whirlpool's cost-control methods, which had focused on big-ticket items at the large appliance maker. The product-development manager disbanded a cross-functional cost control team after she took charge of that North American initiative in 2008. She says she returned team members to their regular jobs because she wanted to improve individual accountability and make cost-cutting a way of doing business.
Cost-Control at Whirlpool
But most Whirlpool employees felt unsure about how to help, a survey found. "Let's get the masses involved,'' she told higher-ups, citing the poll. She told company bosses that all the region's white-collar staffers, from administrative employees on up, should have a cost-savings goal built into their yearly objectives.
CEO Jeff Fettig blessed her approach – and took it one step further. He decided to reduce bonuses of staffers who missed their cost goals.
Klyn shrewdly shared the limelight with Whirlpool's leader. "I give him a ton of credit," she says, adding that the link to employee bonus pay "exceeded my wildest drea'' Through an online course she developed and similar efforts, Klyn taught coworkers the importance of small-scale moves, including turning off lights and carpooling.
The North American unit already had exceeded its full-year cost savings target of $698 million by September 2009, when Klyn advanced to general manager of its dishwasher business. The region saved $854 million that year.
The 41-year-old executive now runs the North American cooking business, whose annual revenue is nearly double that of the dishwasher one.
Klyn sees clear lessons from her trajectory for rising stars with innovative ideas. 'Be confident in your approach,'' she recommends. "Look your senior leaders in the eye and say, 'Here's my plan, and here's why it will work.'"
Joann S. Lublin is The Wall Street Journal's management news editor. She writes the Your Executive Career column. This story first appeared on WSJ.com.
Write to Joann S. Lublin at email@example.com