Navigating in Tumultuous Times

By Bill Kaiser, Vice President

The news is scary and the short-term future is uncertain. Now is certainly the time for us all to be thinking we rather than me. Although, when it comes to toilet paper and Spring Break beaches in Florida, it seems the “me’s” are dominating. I saw a recent Instagram post and the suggestion was, “Why don’t we all buy groceries that will last a week. And if everyone did that weekly, we would all have what we need!” Very sound advice.

A Time to Lead

I’ve been in a reading frenzy of late and recently read The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. A very insightful book with many practical stories of the impact of culture on highly successful groups. One particular story is so relevant to what our world is currently facing, that I wanted to share.

In 1975, Paul Burke, President of the healthcare company Johnson & Johnson, summoned his executive leadership team for an unconventional meeting. They weren’t gathering to discuss strategy, marketing, quarterly numbers, etc., but rather to challenge a 32-year-old, one page, 311-word document called the Credo.  It had been written by Robert Wood Johnson, a founding family member and former Chairman of J&J. It begins with: We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses, and patients; to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.

Burke was concerned that these words didn’t mean much to employees and he wasn’t sure they should – even though they were prominently displayed at all J&J businesses and carved into a granite wall at NJ headquarters. He sensed younger employees weren’t paying attention to it and that overall it was perceived more as a PR gimmick. He felt it wasn’t a unifying document.

So, he held the meeting with his leaders to determine what role the Credo had in their company’s future. There were mixed reviews from “I think the Credo should be an absolute,” to “You can’t kid yourself; the purpose of our business is to make a profit.” They debated an entire day and eventually reached a consensus to recommit to the existing Credo. Over the next several years Burke kept the Credo front and center and employees seemed to have a fresh awareness of the Credo.

And then, seven years later on September 30, 1982 normal life came to an abrupt halt. In a few short hours, Johnson & Johnson went from being a provider of medicine to a provider of poison. Burke received a call informing him that 6 people in Chicago (a seventh would die later) had died from ingesting Extra-Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide. As you can imagine, panic ensued. At J&J headquarters, there was shock, chaos, and an overwhelming feeling of not being equipped to deal with the crisis. The only certainty seemed to be that Tylenol was finished as a business.

Burke and members of his crisis committee flew to Washington and met with the FBI and the FDA. Both organizations strongly encouraged Burke to limit the recall to just Chicago since no other incidents had occurred elsewhere.  A national recall would feed the panic as well as cost J&J millions of dollars.

Burke and his team thought about it for a while, and then ignored the advice of the FDA and FBI. They pulled every Tylenol product (31 million pills) off the shelves in the entire market at a cost of $100 + million. When asked for his reasoning, Burke replied, “We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses, and patients; to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.”

After the tragedy, J&J transformed itself from being a pharma company to a public safety organization. They led the world in tamper-proof packaging. Six weeks after the attacks, Tylenol introduced new, safer packaging. And guess what happened? After their market share dropped to ZERO, they began to climb back and continued to grow. Their response has become the gold standard for corporate crisis management.

Burke summed it up best, “We had to make hundreds of decisions on the fly . . . If you look back, we didn’t make any bad decisions . . .Those decisions had a splendid consistency about them, and that was that the public was going to be served first, because that’s who was at stake…..and the Credo ran that…..because the hearts and minds of the people who were J&J and who were making the decisions in a whole series of disparate companies….they all knew what to do.

Questions to consider

As you navigate through these tumultuous times, what is guiding your thinking and behavior? Are you and your team reacting with focus, compassion, and cohesion? The answers to these questions may very well determine your future. In the case of Johnson & Johnson/Tylenol, their answer was found in those 311 words.

As I’m taking the time to check-in on my client friendships and partnerships during this pandemic, I’m inspired by their stories of leadership and the role their Fundamentals have played as the foundation for that leadership. I look forward to sharing those in my next blog.  Stay healthy, be well and keep in touch!