As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Pawson.
Andy Pawson is the President and General Manager of Global Vision Care at Alcon. As the global leader in eye care with a heritage spanning more than seven decades, Alcon offers the broadest portfolio of products to help people ‘See Brilliantly’. Andy is a proven and tenured leader within the consumer health space who believes in a vision care industry firmly rooted in inclusion, innovation and digital technologies — and through his leadership, is actively bringing Alcon to the leading edge of those conversations.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Prior to Alcon, I spent over 25 years in senior Marketing, Innovation & Commercial roles at Kimberly-Clark across categories including Baby & Child Care, Incontinence Care, Intimate Care, Facial Care and Feminine Hygiene, spanning a number of challenging, emotive and insight-driven brands like Kleenex, Huggies, Kotex, Scott and Depend. Prior to that, my career started at Unilever, so I have spent my entire working life competing against fierce rivals, such as P&G and J&J (whom I have the upmost regard for as competitors). Above all — I have learned that winning means constantly raising the bar above the best that is out there.
Most of my ‘how did I get here’ stories are grounded in the ‘University of hard work and hard knocks’, nothing gifted, everything grafted. It all started with a modest, working-class upbringing in public schooling. I was the first in my family to go to University and only a 500GBP overdraft when I graduated from University College in London.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It is tough to choose one story. There are some memories that will surely last, such as having the shortest negotiation meeting with a senior buying executive of a global customer while in a Global Sales Director role — that only lasted 15 seconds. Then there is the introductory meeting I once had with a new buying director who introduced himself by burying a machete into the table — a gift he received when he was the head buyer on bananas.
Something that will stay with me for a long time was the pride I felt individually and as a team standing on the balcony at the New York Stock Exchange ringing the opening bell on Alcon’s launch as the world’s leading independent eye-care company. The personal journey and hard work it took to get there paired with how hard we had worked as a team to stand up an independent Alcon was just tremendous.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The value and importance placed on innovation and a growth mindset. Many companies ‘talk the talk,’ but nearly four years into my Alcon career, I can tell you that Alcon is a company sincerely focused on ‘walking the walk’ by delivering on its mission to help people see brilliantly. The passion for innovation and the decisions made that are centered on a growth mindset first are very impressive and super demanding at the same time — which is why I love leading the Vision Care franchise.
I recall a period early in my tenure when we faced a gap to target at a crucial moment. My prior experience outside of Alcon prepared me to get the red pen out and expect us to cut our way to target. Instead, we doubled down on investing in the growth drivers and grew our way out of a hole. That takes courage and confidence and reflects the relentless focus on growth.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I would tell them that your career is a marathon and not a sprint. Take bold steps to gain as much cross-functional experience as you can so you truly learn all the facets of how businesses and companies run. Do not be afraid to move laterally out of your comfort zone. Appreciate that when you are in the running for your first director level or senior leadership role — you will be up against those that have breadth and depth of experience across several functions, so be brave to build diversity in your experience.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Curiosity, Career Bravery & Being People-Centric:
- Curiosity — Being curious to learn and being able to demonstrate with vulnerability that you don’t know everything isn’t easy — but it’s a powerful currency that builds trust and fosters a great culture in any team you lead.
- Career bravery — Making bold but calculated leaps into the unknown to build diversity of knowledge and experience whilst initially uncomfortable, has been the making of me.
- Being People-Centric — Being a genuinely inclusive, people-centric leader who is invested and orientated in ‘it’s about them, and not me’ is about building a legacy. It is my yardstick and I hope that is what my teams over the years would say about me.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
The biggest difference for me is being able to orientate in ‘enterprise value’ first. One former leader of mine used to encourage their team to ‘leave your functional hat at the door’. Well, I don’t entirely agree with that because your role around the C-Suite table is to bring your functional expertise. What they meant was that it is crucial to always primarily orientate in ‘enterprise first’ — even at the expense of your function. That for me is an important element that distinguishes the C-Suite executive. That, and having the ability to ‘disagree and commit’. We do not always have to reach consensus. The best leadership teams build a culture of open challenge and dialogue but when a decision is needed, they have the maturity to ‘disagree and commit’ to the group decision.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Great question that I guess depends on one’s personal experiences. I would say the opposite of the above. If C-Suite leaders are solely orientated on the functions they lead, see discussions only from their functional perspectives and view critical decisions as a personal win or loss… That’s where personal ego’s, conflicts and mistrust arise, and the boardroom can feel like a political battleground. Mutual trust, support for each other, authenticity and assuming good intent will lead to good decisions that will gain the support of the organization.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. The feedback well dries up, so you have to dig deeper…
The message here is that the more senior you are, the less open, honest and direct people will be when giving you feedback. Honest feedback dries up… so you have to create more opportunities to foster personal feedback. I use Slido a lot to encourage authentic questions and to solicit feedback. I have breakfast meetings with a spread of folks on my team. I ask for feedback in the moment and provide safe environments for people to voice their frustrations… if you don’t dig deeper, it’s easy to just assume everything is okay.
2. Get comfortable promoting yourself… to promote the company…
The essence here is that up until you make the C-Suite, you rely on others to promote the company until all of a sudden, as part of an executive team, you ARE the company. You have to get comfortable promoting yourself in order to promote the brand of the company. Whether you like it or not… particularly in the social media era — low profile means no profile.
3. The shadow you cast is constant, and longer when the sun isn’t shining…
Being always-on goes with the territory. You become a 24/7 role model of ‘setting examples’ and there’s nowhere to hide. However, you are particularly visible when things go wrong. How you react to tough news, in a crisis, or when a 51/49 decision has to be made, is fully scrutinized and amplified. How you respond is talked about, memorized and can be etched in the culture of the organization for years to come. Create meaningful and positive experiences that are legendary for all the right reasons. That includes being emotional, authentic and vulnerable. Rather than write a ‘To Do’ list in a key moment, write a ‘To Be’ list and remind yourself about the shadow you want to cast.
4. Presence in the moment is everything…
It often feels like nobody gets enough of you, so ensure that everyone gets the best of you. Whether at work or home, work-life balance is constantly compromised, so I’ve learnt that being my best self in the moment goes a long way to compensate for me not always being there or being available. It takes energy, effort and it has to be genuine, but it is the one thing that’s totally in my control, and it’s the least we can give.
5. Being brutal with your time isn’t a crime…
At first, it plays to our ego’s that everyone wants a piece of you, but it’s not healthy or sustainable if being engaged turns into micro-management or creates reliance on the input from the boss. It’s a thin line between being involved and engaged in everything that’s going on in your ‘space’ of accountability, with the dangers of creating a culture of reliance and hierarchy — and your calendar simply isn’t elastic. I have learnt that it’s crucial to choose and signal what you do and don’t need to be involved in. Delegate, trust and empower, and block ‘your time’ in your Calendar for you. Set and stick to ground rules in time management. Be disciplined and you might liberate and empower your team.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
For me, culture is an outcome of the stories we tell. The new stories eventually replace the old stories, and the culture of the organization evolves. If the stories being told are anchored in set cultural values, and the executives uphold and champion them as the loudest and most powerful advocates, the organizational culture will quickly flourish.
As executive champion of our O.P.E.N enterprise resource group, a team dedicated to supporting the LBGTQ+ community, I frequently tell the story of my own past shortcomings and a critical learning experience I had while managing my leadership team. I talk about how I had failed unwittingly for too long to provide a supportive environment for one of my team members to be open about her sexuality and ensure that she could bring her best self to work every day. Once that safe environment was finally created, she felt liberated and started to thrive, and went on to achieve amazing things in her career. We still have a close personal friendship today, and I talk about how differently I lead today because of this experience. I think that’s how you create a fantastic work culture.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am increasingly concerned about the disparity and inequality in health care. Whilst multi-factorial, it is in large part driven by conscious and unconscious racism and bias. The statistics speak for themselves. I attended a recent lecture at the American Optometric Academy by Dr. Justin Manning who shared some extensive research on the ‘Changing Health Care System’ and why it matters. I think this should matter to everyone.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn.
You can also check out Alcon’s website at www.alcon.com.