William Johnson: 'You Have to Take a Risk
Smith, Richard M., Newsweek
Byline: Richard M. Smith
The CEO of H.J. Heinz on leadership and a bruising proxy fight.
On paper, William Johnson had the perfect background to run H.J. Heinz, the $10 billion food company. He'd worked as a marketer in the company's flagship ketchup business, then orchestrated turnarounds at its pet-food and StarKist divisions. But there's really no preparation for what Johnson, CEO since 1998, has had to manage through recently: a high-profile proxy fight with activist shareholder Nelson Peltz, followed by a punishing global recession. In the latest in his series of interviews as part of NEWSWEEK's partnership with Kaplan University, NEWSWEEK chairman Richard M. Smith spoke with Johnson about how his view of leadership has evolved during a long stint in the corner office. Edited excerpts:
Smith: How many Heinz products do you taste during R&D?
Johnson: During a year I might taste 300 or 400 from around the globe. Some are more challenging than others--my least favorite being mung bean, which is a drink we sell in Indonesia. I'm usually the last person to taste a product we're introducing, and I have no vote--I've never believed in the rule of the "golden tongue."
After more than 10 years as a CEO, are you a better leader?
There's no comparison. I started out under the assumption that what got me to the position of CEO would work when I became CEO, and that is running the business and execution. That's not my job as CEO. My job is to lead the people and manage the process. It took me a couple of years to learn that, and [when I did] I stepped back from the operations of the company and really began to focus on leadership, on having the right people in the right place, and on making sure people were properly motivated, incentivized, and directed.
Your dad was a longtime NFL coach. What did you learn from being a coach's son?
It's a very black-and-white upbringing: you win, everybody's happy; you lose, no one's happy. I learned to avoid the peaks and valleys--you're going to have days you win, days you lose, and you have to manage them the same.
How many people do you personally interview or hire in a year, and what do you look for?
I probably interview around 50 or 60 people, and I probably have direct influence on hiring maybe a third of those. …