Interview: Vineet Mehra -- Former CMO Walgreens; Chief Growth + Experience Officer Good Eggs -- Part 1

  
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I delayed this week’s edition on the hope I would spend Tuesday after the long weekend completing a briefing. I have a ton of great stuff to share with you all, but the time to write it all down did not happen. Instead I want to share with you a great interview I did with Vineet Mehra. In part one we talk about Vineet’s big break to a head of marketing role in his early 20s, and how he leveraged that into the career he has today. Lots of great stuff in here on how to think about things like “General Management roles” vs. “Functional Area Leadership”. Part Two will cover some of the fascinating work he did at Walgreens. As always you can listen to the interview in any podcast player (click on the link next to the imbedded audio for the links.

Transcript

Edward: My guest is Vineet Mehra, Chief Growth and Experience Officer at Good Eggs. Today, we're going to cover Vineet's path to CMO: P&G, General Mills, Novartis, Avon, and Johnson & Johnson. He was a CMO of Ancestry, CMO of Walgreens, and now at Good Eggs.

Vineet and I worked together two decades ago at Procter & Gamble. Super pumped out on the show today.

Vineet, let's start off: You've had a killer career, but I'd love to talk about a few of the big leaps that you had. If you want to start, in 2008, you went from a Marketing Manager at General Mills, and then you took on the Head of Marketing job for all of Canada for Novartis. Talk to me a little bit about how you made that transition happen.

Vineet: First of all, Ed, thanks for having me. Obviously, it's so great to see you after almost two decades. I remember us playing foosball in a room as account managers trying to grow our businesses at retail over there in Canada. It was a real highlight of my career, I remember. It's great to see everything you've done as well.

I have definitely had a couple of leaps that have happened. This specifically that you're talking about—going from General Mills over to Novartis Consumer Health in Canada where I had the opportunity to run that business—was honestly a little bit of good luck and a little bit of knowing the right people at the right time, which truthfully, if anyone tells you anything differently, that's how a lot of us get our first big leaps.

In this case, there was actually a headhunter or a recruiter in Canada who knew me from the time when I was an assistant brand manager. She happened to be doing this search and just thought, hey, why not? Why don't I just throw his name in the hat? It's a long shot, but you know how recruiters need to build this portfolio of candidates—the young up-and-comers, the established players, and the people in the middle.

I think I was just thrown in as the young up-and-comer. Like yeah, we'll just give you the high-energy 20-year-old and see what happens. It just so happened that the President of Novartis, Canada at that time—who, by the way, is still at the company, running the Global Oncology business now, he's an unbelievable talent—took a liking to me.

We met a couple of times. One way or another, the headhunter's long shot, 20-year-old candidate ended up getting the job. There I was, I ended up becoming the Head of Marketing for Canada.

For those of you that are Canadian listeners, Novartis has brands like Buckley's, NeoCitran. These are just unbelievably Canadian brands.

It was such a great opportunity to spread my wings for the first time. But knowing the right person, luck, and just going for it (I guess) played a big part in that leap.

Edward: I definitely have been in places like that where the headhunter brings you on and you're like, I am clearly not the right person for this role. You totally have me there so that you can show them a balance of range of, hey, here's the person that's much less experienced than the person you need and here's the person who's much more experienced but way too expensive. Let me just show you what they're like out there so that when I show you what you really need, you actually jump at it.

They're almost giving you people that they know you're going to reject because they know you want to reject somebody. They make it a lot easier themselves.

Vineet: There you go. It's like going around and looking at houses with real estate agents where they take you into the cheap house to the expensive house that you can't afford. I was definitely the cheap house that she didn't think anyone would want, but also, I wouldn't harm the process or her reputation as we were going along. That's definitely what I was. There's no doubt about it.

Edward: That's how you got in front of him. Apart from just being personable, why did he take you versus the one that she was trying to sell him on?

Vineet: I think energy is everything. I really do. I'm a big believer in positive energy and connecting with people through energy. You see a lot of books, and I'm not saying these are wrong around things like active listening and all these tools to connect with humans. You need to do those things. Those are important, of course. But in this case, I was just really excited. I was the underdog. I was just excited to even have a chance to talk to someone like this.

I think that energy just rubbed off on him. He very much took a chance. It's a true story I'll never forget. Even though there's always a gap between when you get the job and when you start on the job, there's always a little bit of space there.

I remember that the head of HR at that time had told me that when my name was announced to the organization, because I was essentially the youngest person in the marketing organization as the head of marketing at that time, people went to the CEO of Canada and said, is this what it takes to be the head of marketing of Canada? They looked at my resume, saw how short it was, and were like, I can't believe that this is who you choose.

I remember him telling me in a conversation later on, he said to me, I just told them do you not trust me? It was an amazing thing where this is totally a thing of him taking a chance and him believing in the energy I had to really make a difference. I think he saw in me a desire to make an impact and grow the business.

It just came down to him making a bet on frankly, my excitement, my energy, and the impact that I could make. It was really that.

Edward: When you came into that interview, how did you prepare for that interview? Did you give him like, hey, here's my five-year plan for how I'm going to run marketing for Canada, given that you've never run marketing before?

Vineet: I wouldn't have even known how to do that. I could do that for a brand or two, but I wouldn't have known how to do that for an entire department.

There were a couple of things. There was a brand in Canada—which you'll remember well, Ed—called Buckley's. The tagline was "It tastes awful. And it works." It was this huge cough syrup in Canada.

I remember growing up with that. I told him a story—I still remember this—about my experience with Buckley's when I was a kid. My dad was a pediatrician. He used to give it to me, and it was the nastiest thing I'd ever had. I told him some ideas I had which was specifically, hey, why don't we turn the bad taste—if I just get technical for a second—into a reason to believe in the product as opposed to making that benefit?

We talked about that a little bit. We just went deep. We talked about what a creative campaign could look like. From there, we just connected and we actually ended up doing that. Buckley started growing crazy. That all came out of that conversation in the interview.

Some of these brands I have deep familiarity with, we did some riffing on what these brands could be and how we could position them. That's pretty much as much prep as I need to do because you got to remember that at that stage, all I really knew was brand management, not necessarily department leadership. I stuck to what I knew, and we did that.

Edward: You come on, and you take on this role of running marketing for Canada. What did you not know that you had to pick up on the job?

Vineet: I didn't know anything.

Edward: You knew how to run brands. You've been a brand manager. Now, effectively, you've moved from running a brand to running all the brands.

Vineet: Yeah. Even more than that. I had people that were running those brands. Actually, what I didn't know is how to onboard onto a business. Onboarding as a department head is very different from onboarding as a person taking over those brands because the last thing those folks wanted to see was I was going to come in and do their jobs for them. These are smart, empowered folks that I had to figure out how do I onboard and set the right tone appropriately? That was a big part for me.

The second part that I didn't know was the role of a department head across a company in terms of creating followership, not just inside your department but across the company. That's another really misunderstood thing that you don't see. When you're growing up, you don't realize that the department head has to create followership, not just from within marketing but IT and all the other functions that need to support customer-centric growth of a business.

Frankly, I had to learn a lot about hiring and making the right talent decisions. I made some early mistakes because I just hadn't hired at that level before, and I was looking for the wrong things.

In that job, while in the end, we were very successful, we had great business success, and it took me around the world—that opportunity at Novartis—initially, I'll tell you that that year was tough. I was working tons of hours and I thought that outworking everyone would solve my problems. What I learned really early was that it wasn't about the work. It was what I was focused on, the talent I was bringing in, and how I was leading. I learned a lot in that first year.

Edward: How did you learn that? Did you have a mentorship? The CEO that brought you on, did he sit you down and say, hey, Vineet, you know what, for the first month, I need you to go have lunch with all these people so that you can build your relationships? Oh, by the way, I want you to talk to the head of HR about how to hire people. How did you pick up those two skills?

Vineet: It's really interesting. I didn't really have mentorship because frankly, I didn't have a network at that stage in my career that was "high-powered" enough where I could just call people and say, how did you do this? Actually, this CEO or president of the Canadian business was very high-performing and team-oriented.

What I mean by that is we would do all these high-performing team sessions where we would go offside, give each other candid feedback, and do these round robin-style feedback sessions. I'm sure you've been in those before. I got my butt kicked in those sessions. I would literally go through these sessions and my peers actually would just give me feedback.

Vineet, I know the business is growing, but stop doing this. They were brutal with me. I was 10, 15 years younger than everyone, and they just let me have it.

I tell you, in many cases, I thought it was inappropriate—the way they were giving me feedback—but at the same time, it's entirely warranted. To be honest, Ed, it was situational. Again, a little bit of luck, a little bit of me being really open to listening, but I happened to be on a team where high-performing team norms, feedback, and candid peer feedback were a core part of how this leadership team ran.

If it wasn't for that, I'm not sure I would have learned lessons as early as I did in my career. I'm not perfect by any means at this stage as well, but man was that a crash course.

Edward: It's interesting. I came from the consulting world where you receive harsh feedback all the time. There were times when I was at McKinsey where I'd come home and I'd cry. It was so brutal. But as terrible as that was, you're still forced to learn even from some of the bad feedback I was given at McKinsey.

One time, I had a partner that told me that my notebooks were too small. He was very insulted by my small notebooks. I think even in situations like that, you can say, hey, even if I don't buy his feedback, I can still understand that now, I know that somebody thinks small notebooks are inappropriate. Now, I have that piece of information in the back of my head.

I wonder, in the situation like you're in where all your peers are maybe a little bit threatened by you because you're 15 years younger than they are and you're all reporting to the CEO, they feel like, hey, I can be negatively constructive on this guy because I'm not threatened by him in the same way that it would be with a similar-age peer. While it becomes negative and hard on you, it allows you to learn at a faster rate than you otherwise would from people who are more polite.

Vineet: I think you're right. It was well said, Ed. The other part is what people don't always internalize, which I learned in that. We talked a lot about deep, personalizing feedback. That was huge to the point where it's like, this is feedback. It's not an insult.

As a young kid in your mid to late 20s—I think I was 26 or something—that's a hard thing to figure out. To this day, many of those peers of mine on the leadership team are still dear friends, and I would have had it no other way.

Edward: I want to talk a little bit as you're moving on through your career. You spent a lot of time in marketing in packaged goods, but you also had some GM roles. If at all, how did you think about managing your career moving back and forth between pure marketing roles and general management roles in terms of advancing?

Vineet: My whole career theory is all about chasing experiences, not necessarily titles or pay. What I mean by that is if you dug one layer deep into my career, I've taken three pay cuts in my career. I've just been chasing experiences.

To me, those general manager types of roles—my biggest one was later in my career where I became the Global President of the baby care division for J&J, that's a big role—were just about continuing to learn and continuing to grow. That's really how I thought about it.

I'd be lying to you if I would say I was playing this perfect chess game where I perfectly planned it. I was literally just chasing learning. I was always curious. If general management was the thing that was going to teach me a lot at that moment, that's what I was going to do. If going international was the thing that was going to teach me a lot at the moment, that's what I was going to do. That's essentially how I played that.

Now, in hindsight, general management teaches you amazing skills because by definition, as a general manager, you're not an expert at really much of what you're leading and you have to rely on others. It teaches you a lot. I was just really simply chasing experiences as a curious person.

Edward: Is a lot of that being opportunistic about pull opportunities? A recruiter comes to you, and you say, hey, you know what, that's too similar to what I've been doing before. I'm not that interested. Oh, that's really different. Let me go, throw my hat in the ring, and jump for that.

Was it even more aggressive where it's like, hey, if I want to advance my career, I need an international opportunity, so I'm going to go out and look for one?

Vineet: It wasn't really that aggressive. People say, hey, what's the secret? How do you get a good career? How do you move quickly through your career? I know it sounds cheesy, but I just answer by staying curious and exploring learning.

A lot of my moves were internal moves. The company would take me international or give me a general management assignment after a marketing assignment. In other cases, it was a recruiter or a headhunter giving me a call. In both cases, those were enabled because my curiosity led me to build a network, to ask people for help, and to be really open-minded to things that others wouldn't be open-minded to.

Ultimately, it came down to not necessarily chasing things, but definitely chasing experience. I wasn't actually chasing an international career because that would unlock a move or two moves from now. I was definitely paying checkers, not chess. I guess that's the way to put it.

Edward: Sure. But even with those international opportunities, was it a matter of you saying, hey, current manager, for my next role, I'd really like to do something international? Or was it a matter of Emma's going to nail this role, this international opportunity comes up, and they say, Vineet, would you be interested?

Vineet: It happened one time in my career when I was an intern where I asked for an international assignment. That was at P&G, I recall. I went to India with P&G. I was just like, hey, can I do something international because I had nothing to lose. I was a university kid on my second internship with P&G.

Every other role was happenstance. When I went to Europe for the first time with Novartis, there was a new CEO who had come in. She saw me in a meeting and said, Vineet, I need you to go to Europe.

My story was I literally bought a house with my family, my first house in New Jersey. We never even moved into the house. Two weeks before closing, I moved to Switzerland. I was definitely not planning to buy a house. We moved to Switzerland two weeks before that. My wife was pregnant. I got asked. I got tapped on the shoulder. This is what has happened constantly in my career.

I think it's just that energy. It's the focus on impact. It's just being open-minded—when someone asks you that question—to say yes. I think people would be surprised how many times where if you really look at it, you might have had an opportunity that you just might not have been listening for. That's an important thing to think about.

Edward: I love that. That's really great. Vineet, what are the biggest failure points in your career? Where did things not go as expected?

Vineet: We've all had plenty of those. I would say for me, I already told you the Novartis story, that hard lesson of learning to be a department head and a leader. That was honestly a really tough time in my career. Because my career was moving so quickly, that happened multiple times in my career. I had to take 6–12 months and really just make that work. I went to Switzerland. I became the head of marketing for Europe there. Big job. I was 29 years old at that time.

I'll never forget that I had onboarded with my team. I was living in Switzerland trying to lead an organization, all of whom are sitting in their countries. I was sitting in Switzerland by myself, so it's remote leadership for the first time. I really struggled with that as well.

I'd say in my first six months, I got pretty challenging feedback on how I was leading remotely and how I was connecting with folks in terms of just not being able to make the same connection I could in person.

I had a boss who (today) is a great friend. At that time, I thought I was going to lose my job in my first six months over there in Switzerland. Again, it just came down to that side of it.

I've also had really challenging moments during business and brand launches, product launches, and things like that where things don't go the way you want in your first six months. You're literally fearing for your job because at a certain point—and you know this Ed—you're paid to deliver. There's nothing like feeling when you're going out in the world, trying to deliver on your business, and essentially, you just don't hit the numbers. I've had moments like that through my career as well. You just learn from each and every one of them.

Edward: It's interesting. One of my early managers told me to think of your career as two-year chunks where you come into a new job, you spend a year really learning the job, then a year delivering on the fact that you figured out how to do it, and then you move on to your next thing.

Looking at your LinkedIn profile, it seems you've done a lot of that. These two-year chunks where you come in, the first six months challenging and trying to do the job or you're going to get fired, the next six month learning the job, getting better at it, spend the next year delivering, and then you go and repeat the process again.

Vineet: It's just been the way it's been. I was at P&G for eight years. I was at Novartis for seven or eight years. I was at J&J for four years. It just so happens that every company, every two years, they were either moving me or I got pulled into my next challenge. It actually has worked out that way.

Every couple of years, I've been in a new role because the company sees the impact exactly like you said in that second year. They're like, hey, can you do it in another spot in this company, and someone pulls you on the other side.

The faster you can get up that learning curve in those first six months, the more impact you can have at speed. That's really what I focus on, the learning curve which again goes back to that notion of curiosity and just being willing to listen.

Edward: Vineet, do you have any productivity tricks? Do you have things that you do to be productive that most people don't do?

Vineet: Yeah. I'm really fanatical about productivity. I have one mindset and one trick, I would say. I'm sure one of your listeners have listened to this and have experienced this idea of energy for performance. I definitely do not focus on managing time. I focus on managing energy. It really is this idea of being a corporate athlete. How do I feel about myself? What do I eat? When do I eat? How do I sleep?

One of my most productive uncertain tasks—which is a very different way of managing things than managing just a calendar and your time—is I'm very focused on managing energy and managing the different roles in my life, whether that's being a father, a husband, a leader in a company, an advisor, or a board member. I've had all these different roles that I have and I think about how do I keep my energy high for all those things? That's the mindset.

In terms of actually managing and hacking a calendar, for a lot of your listeners who have either admins or their own processes for managing things, I read this book that changed my life. It's called Getting Things Done. I'm sure many of your listeners have listened to that.

There's this total tactical hack here, this app called To-Do. Shameless plug for the app. I am relentless. Any time I ask for a follow-up, any time I want to book a meeting, everything goes into that place.

What it does is it clears my brain. Everything is in that place. A lot of people work off lists. I don't have lists. If I have something to do, I'll put it on the date that I think it needs to be done. A lot of people will put it today. I'll put it two weeks from now. I open up my app and it's staring in front of me like, oh, I have to get that done. I never feel this burden every day of looking at a giant list and checking things off. It's much more planned and I don't get overwhelmed by the day.

The second hack is that my admin has the same app. We have this amazing system where she has the same view that I do, so she knows exactly which codes are hers to take care of and which codes are mine. She takes care of all of that. We're almost in-sync with each other without thinking. That's a huge part of it.

I've seen a lot of people bring in admins and executive assistants into their lives as they get more senior and they're just ineffective with that person beside them. That's another thing. Find someone you appreciate, show them tons of respect, and create a system that is invaluable. As you get more senior in your career, that also matters.

Edward: Vineet, this is great. We're going to pick it up with part two shortly.

Vineet: Let's do it.