Leadership lessons to live by

Ann Fudge, the retired chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands, urges students to seek input from employees at all levels

November 15, 2013

Ann Fudge

Ann Fudge

How many company presidents seek out “bad news” from their employees?

As president of Kraft’s beverages, desserts, and Post Division in the 1990s, Ann Fudge did. Fudge, who spoke on campus as part of the Dean’s Innovative Leader Series last week, said that she had always encouraged an “open environment,” but found that wasn’t good enough.

“Over time, people see your role [as president] and the comfort level with being honest with you totally diminishes,” she said. A candid human resources employee once told her that she was “too intimidating,” and Fudge was floored.

In response, she created a monthly Leadership Courage Award that she gave out each month to one employee who told her something she didn’t want to hear. “I publicly acknowledged the person, and the idea. You have to openly praise the truth tellers in your organization,” she said.

Fudge, who began her career as a marketing assistant, emphasized three leadership doctrines in her speech to MIT Sloan students: courage, ethics, and an open mind. She said she aimed to practice each one of these tenets as she rose through the ranks at General Mills, Kraft, and marketing communications group Young & Rubicam.

Even as a high-level executive, Fudge said she regularly donned jeans and headed to the operating plants where she stayed for several consecutive shifts, talking to people on the floor to hear their points of view. “Leaders need to remember that you cannot do the job by yourself,” she said. “In fact, the people who are going to get the job done are those who you are going to have to work very hard to make a connection with.”

Fudge counseled students to make varied connections—specifically global connections—while still in school.

“Don’t just stay connected to the people you know and are comfortable with. Connect with people in at least 10 countries beyond your home country. Having those relationships will help you for years and years to come,” she said.

Fudge also urged caution. Today, business school graduates face a world that’s volatile, complex, and rife with ambiguity, she said. The rapid communication cycle—24-hour email, Twitter, and other social media—means leaders must be extremely cautious before hitting the send button, Fudge explained.

“Please, please, please watch what you write on emails … think really hard about whether you need to send an email or pick up the phone, or even better, talk in person,” she said.

Fudge answered students’ questions on topics ranging from cultivating mentors (“Look for natural connections”) to maintaining work-life balance (“Don’t use the word ‘balance.’ It never happens. Take it a day at a time.”)

But she stressed being ethical above all else. “If there’s one thing you remember from me today—I cannot underscore enough—is to operate your business ethically. It pays dividends in the long term. I really believe that,” she said.