As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing William D. Novelli, Founder of Georgetown Business for Impact and Distinguished Professor of the Practice, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University.
As a professor in the MBA program at McDonough Georgetown, Bill teaches Principled Leadership for Business and Society and Managing the Enterprise. He developed and previously taught courses in Corporate Social Responsibility and Leadership and Management of Nonprofit Organizations.
He founded Georgetown Business for Impact at McDonough and oversees the program, which partners with companies, nonprofits and government to create social, environmental and economic impact.
Bill is also co-founder and co-chair of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care, a national alliance focused on reforming advanced illness/end of life care in the U.S.
Previously, he was CEO of AARP, a membership organization of 40 million people 50 and older. Prior to AARP, he was founder and president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, EVP of CARE, the international relief and development organization and co-founder and president of Porter Novelli, a global public relations firm and now part of Omnicom.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, I went to New York to join a major company, Unilever, and then on to a hot Madison Avenue ad agency. My goals were to work my way up the corporate ladder to a corner office and make money. I became the youngest brand manager at Unilever/New York, up to that time, and was on my way. But, although I was doing well, I felt something was missing, which I vaguely defined as social relevance. My breakthrough came when I figured out that issues, causes and ideas could be marketed in ways similar to the package goods I had been promoting. From there I have traveled on a long, successful journey — pioneering in social marketing and leading major organizations in pursuit of my career goal: to make significant contributions to solving major social problems.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Among my many early mistakes was in sales training at Unilever. I decided to win over the toughest, meanest store manager in my upstate New York territory. He hated salesmen. I “confided” in him that I wasn’t really a salesman. “No,” he said, “Then what are you?” I announced, “I’m a marketing trainee,” as if that would make a difference. The manager said, “Then I’m going to give you a free marketing lesson on how to build a terrific end-aisle display.” And he did. The only problem was that the display featured another companies’ product. I had the giant display almost finished when I looked down from my ladder and saw my own sales manager boss staring up. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. What could I say? I’m winning over the store manager through this clever strategy of doing another company’s work? Nah. I just said, “nothing much.”
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
In grad school I read David Ogilvy’s book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, which inspired me to go into marketing and advertising and PR. It was full of glamorous tales of competing and winning on Madison Avenue. Ogilvy made marketing research and strategies, effective communication and successful brand building seem like a great career. He was above all a fierce competitor, which appealed to me.
One of Ogilvy’s core principles was that to understand a business, you had to work retail. If you wanted to market a gasoline brand, you needed to get into a gas station and pump gas. That idea has been a lifelong lesson. It applies not just to products but to just about everything I’ve ever done, including working in healthcare, international development, youth tobacco control and more. You need to understand a business from the bottom up to get to the top.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We started Porter Novelli (today a global PR agency) with a unique positioning — applying marketing and communications to what we thought Washington was all about — health and social issues. Nobody else was doing that, and along the way we became pioneers in social marketing. Even though we were a bit naïve, since Washington is really about power, politics, money and sex, our approach paid off. Our mission was to apply marketing principles to achieve positive, sustainable social impact for our clients and the people they served.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My primary principle is to build great teams. I’ve always known that I’m seldom, if ever, the smartest person in the room. So, my strategy has always been to bring in the best and brightest people I can recruit, and then to nurture and support them, help them to succeed and give them room to grow and shine. To do this, you have to give people permission to challenge your thinking and judgment. And you have to be willing to remove people from the team if they aren’t carrying their share of the load. Mediocrity is a chronic disease. You can live with it for a long time, but eventually it will do you in.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
George, my college roommate, was a delightful wise guy from New York who went on to a brilliant career as an anti-trust lawyer in the Justice Department. We stayed close over the years, and it was tragic to see his career derailed and his life nearly paralyzed by treatment resistant depression. In the early stages of the covid-19 crisis, when New York City was the epicenter, George’s condition got so bad that he went into the psychiatric ward of a New York hospital. It was there he apparently contracted the virus and was transferred to a covid-19 ward where he died. His ex-wife, my wife Fran and I had been George’s support system for many years. I called him just about every night. I constantly think about how much more his career and life could have been. I deal with this George’s passing by focusing on keeping friends and family safe. And in my work as co-founder and co-chair of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC), I dedicate my efforts to George. C-TAC is a national alliance of organizations dedicated to improving advanced illness and end-of-life care. Our goal is that all Americans with advanced illness receive comprehensive, high-quality, person-centered care that is consistent with their goals and values and honors their dignity.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In my current role teaching in the MBA program at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and overseeing the Business for Impact center there, I have several challenges.
The first is keeping our Business for Impact team together and functioning smoothly as we work remotely. Things are going well for us, our teamwork is excellent and we haven’t lost efficiency or effectiveness. I think the reason for this goes back to my principle of team building. We have a talented, engaged group of professionals. None of us is a newcomer, and we know and support each other well. Despite the fact that the team is spread across the country, we pride ourselves on team play and mutual support. Our Executive Director, Leslie Crutchfield, starts each Monday with a Zoom meeting, and the first thing we talk about is not the work, but how we’re doing personally. I like to see little kids occasionally darting across people’s screens. It adds a personal touch.
The second challenge is teaching remotely. It’s more difficult than being physically together, because students and professors alike crave physical classroom interaction. The larger the class size, the more challenging remote education becomes. Professors with large remote classes try to scale back on content, use “break out rooms” to made classes feel smaller and get students to engage with each other outside the class sessions. I’m fortunate because I conduct seminars with 13 to 15 students, plus guest speakers online. My course topics, Ethical Leadership and also Managing the Enterprise, are naturally interesting, or certainly should be. I love our students. They are outstanding, and they are tomorrow’s leaders. It’s a privilege to work with them. I stay in touch with many of them long after they graduate and enjoy watching their progress. It’s an uplifting experience, and inspiring.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I’m a better communicator as a result of covid-19. I reach out to my family constantly. I’m in Bethesda, MD and have grown kids and grandkids in Minneapolis, Morocco and right next door. My oldest grandson is a student at the University of Minnesota. He’s annoyed about his toughest course, macroeconomics, because he doesn’t think the professor is sufficiently involved. And he’s anxious about the community unrest in Minneapolis and its possible effect on the presidential election. I have so many bull sessions with him I feel like I’m living in the dorm, only he’s not in the dorm because of the virus. Regardless, I’m happy to be connected to him, even at a distance.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The pandemic is causing major disruptions, and this is going to last a while. Recently I was talking to a scientist who said, “When the public realizes the limitations of anti-covid-19 vaccination ‘efficacy,’ what sort of backlash is there going to be?” The percentage of those who say they are willing to be vaccinated against the virus has dropped. We’re going to have to work hard to restore trust in our scientific institutions. I’m presently involved in several initiatives to engage the public in supporting science and technology and also in climate action. How we’ve managed to politicize climate, science and technology is a sad tale, and seems likely to have long-term negative consequences.
But I also think we are going to be stronger for having endured this crisis. I talk to many business leaders and nonprofit executives who are asking, “What kind of organization do we want to be, and what kind of country do we want to become?” Many of them are focused right now on taking care of their employees as best they can, despite the economic downturn, and on supporting their local communities. The biggest change I see is corporate and nonprofit leaders stepping up to the challenge of racial disparities. Our Georgetown Business for Impact Advisory Committee includes a number of notable leaders. Every one of them is involved in diversity and inclusion, seeking more employees of color, developing scorecards for measuring progress and working on legislation and other public policies. As we debate these big questions, we have the opportunity to improve our institutions and our democracy. I’m optimistic.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Change is afoot. Business travel is way down and unlikely to return to pre-covid-19 levels. A neighbor told me his constant travels to clients in Asia won’t resume as remote meetings work just fine. Shopping centers might never recover as they were already in decline. Voting patterns are changing, perhaps permanently. Telehealth is on a major upswing, and not just for rural patients. We are disrupting society to meet the pandemic, and while we can’t foresee how it will all turn out, it will definitely, surely be different. The biggest change may well be learning to balance work-life activities. Many people will probably continue to work from home, others will return to the office or other place of business and most will likely split time between these venues.
Younger Americans may be particularly affected by how this turns out. We recently did a survey of millennials and the results were sobering. While this generation is generally struggling — moving back in with parents, tapping into financial savings, losing jobs — one of the more negative findings was the substantial segment of women cutting back on work or leaving the workplace altogether to care for children at home. After the pandemic eases, these women may still have difficulty catching up in terms of income and careers.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
I see big opportunities for my university and business school. Applications for both our undergraduate and graduate business degrees have increased slightly, although not for all universities. There will always be a need and a demand for quality education. As for our Business for Impact center, we are creating more international and corporate partnerships, without many of the expenses (e.g.travel). And as more and more companies and business trade associations embrace the idea of doing well by doing good, our future seems bright. Today’s business model is changing for the better. Yes, there is plenty of criticism directed at companies, often for good reason. But overall, we are trending toward companies serving people, planet and profit. And at Georgetown Business for Impact, we are committed to leading the way.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We have big social and economic problems to face, including a rapidly heating planet, the spread of non-communicable diseases (e.g.obesity, diabetes, hypertension); and socio-economic inequality. We can overcome these challenges, but only if we meet them head on, reduce the political and partisan toxicity and work together across sectors: private, public and civil society. I’m an optimist, and I believe we owe this to our children and grandchildren.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Students at Georgetown sometimes ask me, “What’s the path to success?” I tell them there is no single path; you will make your own, and the journey can be exciting and rewarding. Mine has been, and still is. I believe in renewal and new adventures. John Gardner said, “The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it’s going to live. Once it decides, it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock. For a good many of us, it comes to that.” I believe that having goals and the courage to pursue them is to avoid the fate of the barnacle.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My new book, Good Business: The Talk, Fight, Win Way to Change the World, is coming out early in 2021 (Johns Hopkins University Press), visit: www.billnovelli.com.
It’s about how you can make a social difference regardless of what sector or business you’re in, and wherever you are in your career. We can all make a positive dent in the universe.