With P&G’s management shuffle, the return of the king

Al Behrman, File/Associated Press Al Behrman, File/Associated Press

The biggest news in Procter & Gamble's management shuffle is not that CEO Bob McDonald is out. It's that his predecessor, A.G. Lafley, is back in.

If there are rock stars in corporate America, Lafley is one of the biggest. He was to the 2000s what Jack Welch was to the 1990s, the CEO who most embodied the business zeitgeist of the decade (at least until the financial crisis came along). At a time when innovation and design-driven product growth were the mantra of executives everywhere, Lafley's "the consumer is boss" motto made him the poster boy of the era, heralded on magazine covers and showered with awards. The hero worship wasn't undeserved: During his tenure, he transformed the company, more than doubling sales and the size of P&G's brand portfolio.

Since leaving the company in 2009, Lafley has had a typical retirement for star CEOs. He's written a few books to share his wisdom. He joined the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. He's reportedly gotten remarried and participates in triathalons. (I doubt Welch is running triathalons, but he's done the other three.)

And now, he's back as CEO of P&G, stepping in to lead the company at a troubled moment for the second time. (When Lafley was named CEO the first time in 2000, he replaced Durk Jager, whom the company had ousted after an earnings shortfall cut P&G's stock price in half.) Will he be able to fix it? The praise Lafley has received is deserved—he's widely considered a great strategist, a consummate deal-maker and a humble manager who constantly sought the outside feedback and input of others. It's certainly a safe choice, and quite possibly a very wise one, for the board.

But Lafley's re-emergence at the helm also brings with it plenty of unique issues both Lafley and the board will have to carefully manage. As several news stories have pointed out, some of P&G's current woes stem from strategies or management structures that Lafley himself championed. In other words, he'll have to be willing to think critically and act decisively about his own babies, something that's hard for any leader to do. Meanwhile, the fact that P&G is bringing back its revered CEO rather than promoting an internal successor—especially at a company so regarded for its succession planning—could sag the hopes of up-and-coming executives and prompt top deputies to eye opportunities elsewhere.

Most of all, even if he has led a turnaround at P&G before, this time is different. Lafley now carries with him a mythic status that could cause his team (and potentially even the board) to hesitate when questioning his strategy or delivering bad news. To succeed this time, he'll have to leave the hall of fame behind and make sure he surrounds himself with people unafraid of speaking their minds. If any CEO can do that, it may very well be Lafley.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Lillian Cunningham · May 23, 2013

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