The two words business and wisdom are rarely heard together these days. This is unfortunate, not only for its reflection on companies, but more importantly because all successful executives—from the new recruit to a CEO—whether they know it or not, are on a journey of acquiring and applying wisdom in their career. Business at its best is a richly fertile ground for acquiring and enjoying the benefits of wisdom.

This book is a collection of stories about the wisdom I have gained throughout my 40-plus years in the global world of business. During this time, I have had some unique vantage points from which to acquire and deploy wisdom. I’ve been fortunate to have been the Chief Executive Office of five companies in three different industries. I’ve built brands and businesses, been a party to two mega-mergers, and enacted numerous turnarounds. I’ve also served on nine Boards of Directors, including companies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. There business situations have been supplemented by the opportunity to learn at the Aspen Institute, the Levinson Institute, and the Center for Creative Leadership.

These stories, gathered into sections representing eight aspects of personal development in business life, are universal in the experience of any executive or aspiring leader:
1. Preparation
2. Building and managing a career
3. Business strategy
4. Business operations
5. Finance and economics
6. Leadership
7. Culture and communications
8. Personal style and spirit

My collected wisdom in each of these facets of business life has not only been attained through my own experience of discovery, trial and error, testing, evaluating, and eventually adopting philosophies and strategies, but has proven to be enduring and true in four very different and challenging business environments: First, in a mature, market dominating international consumer packaged goods company; next in a sweeping mega-merger setting; then in an intense leveraged-buyout turnaround; and finally in the revitalizing of an advertising and creative marketing behemoth.

Some of the stories and lessons I have learned are basic and fundamental, but many are radical, and all were cutting edge at the moment. And that is often the most elusive point of wisdom in business—to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. The wise executive is radical and cutting edge, especially today. The wise executive is open and receptive to learning and is committed to inner growth.

The experiences, strategies, practices, and tactics that I am sharing in Start with the Answer have stood the test of time, were proven in a variety of circumstances and eras, were critical to my success, and can help you in attaining yours.

If I have to pick the most fundamental lesson that brings my philosophy of management together, it is that to succeed in business—and in life—you have to know where you are going, have the courage to take the first step to get there, and constantly hone the means by which you will reach your destination. Today, too many companies are solutions obsessed and don’t spend enough time up front figuring out the destination, the true answer and outcome they are aiming for. You can waste a lot of time and money implementing solutions if you don’t know where you’re going. So, know where you have to be. "Start with the answer" and work your way back to the solution. Only then should the hard work of crafting the solution—the vehicle for reaching the desired destination—begin.

The first time I put the “start with the answer” principle into practice was in the 1960s, when I was at Harvard Business School preparing to become a “Captain of Industry”. The case studies that had the most influence on my career decisions involved General Foods Corporation—in its day, a Dow Jones Index company and one of the premier consumer packaged goods enterprises in the world. I knew that I wanted to have a career in marketing and the case studies on Genera Foods gave me great insights into the company and its operations (especially its cutting-edge marketing programs), so it became my first choice as a place to launch a career as a marketing professional.

General Foods was a very large and sophisticated company with an aggressive recruitment policy. It skimmed the brightest MBAs from the top business schools in the country and was well known for identifying and developing their best talent for leadership within the organization. Most of my peers were shopping around for the best job offer, but I know General Foods was the place for me and focused my time and efforts on getting hired there.

My strategy paid off, and after earning my MBA in 1966, I embarked on a professional career in marketing and general management at General Foods. My initial job with the company was a sales internship, calling on supermarkets around Long Island, New York. I stayed on for the next 23 years, having 17 different roles and positions across the organization. Moving from sales and marketing to general management, I eventually became a senior executive and then Chief Executive of Worldwide Coffee and International Foods.

I was there in 1985 when Philip Morris acquired General Foods in what was, at the time, the largest acquisition outside of the oil industry in U.S corporate history. This gave me insights into the dynamics of a mega-merger. As a participant in what unfolded, I observed that the process would have benefited from more “start with the answer” thinking up front to shape the overall outcome, rather than proceeding event by event, which was the tactic employed by those leading the merger and the subsequent integration activities.

I had the opportunity to apply these lessons at a later stage in my career when I led the highly successful merger of Saatchi & Saatchi with Publicis Groupe of France in 2000.

My experiences at General Foods were followed by a turnaround leadership challenge in the early 1990s at Topco Associates, a grocery industry cooperative that had become stagnant and had no competitive edge in the industry. Prior management had been consumed with increasing the efficiency of existing programs. My “start with the answer" approach in this case was to focus on revitalizing growth by attracting and increasing our client base via new product lines, refreshed packaging, and dynamic new marketing programs.

In 1991, my career entered a third phase when I was tapped as CEO to lead a leveraged-buyout turnaround situation at Kayser-Roth Corporation, a leading U.S. manufacturer of branded hosiery and leg wear based in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The company had been acquired by a joint venture of the Blackstone Group and Wasserstein-Perella and I found myself in charge of a high-intensity, hands-on, “make things happen” operation. In this case, we “started with the answer” that within three years we wanted the company to be performing at a level that would make it attractive to a strategic buyer or capable of being taken public. This required setting higher expectations supported by a vision and breadth of activities that re-energized the entire organization. Previous management had been less ambitious and focused on doing one thing at a time. The turnaround was successful, and the company was eventually sold to a strategic buyer.

In July 1995, following a series of unprecedented business events in London, I was appointed to lead the parent company of Saatchi & Saatchi—arguably the most famous name in advertising and a true worldwide ideas company.

Entering the fourth and current phase of my career, I hired Kevin Roberts, a mercurial CEO, and together we took an organization that could have fallen away, to what has become one of the most successful creative companies if this time. We "started with the answer" that we would become a high-performing creative network within the industry, growing faster than the market rate. Rather than being consumed by the problems of the past, we focused on the excitement of what could become our future. Since then, all our activities have led us toward that dream.

I consistently followed the “start with the answer” philosophy, along with the many other insights I had gained through the years—though I didn’t begin to think of it as unified body of principles until 2004, when I was sitting in an executive board meeting of the Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide network in London. At that time, I had been Chairman of the company for seven years. The conversation was focused on the subject of “one-word equities”—a process by which the agency distils the essence of a brand down into a single differentiating word. At the break, I turned to Richard Myers, an Executive Creative Director at our London agency, and asked, “Richard, if I were a brand, what would be my one word equity?” He said this was an important and interesting question, and he wanted some time to think about it. The next morning he came to me over breakfast and said, “Wisdom—that’s your one-word equity.”

This answer accurately reflected my current role at Saatchi & Saatchi—dispensing advice, counsel, and perspective, or what one might otherwise refer to as wisdom—but it also set me on the path to what I really wanted to share with others in business

Start with the Answer is a collection of stories that capture the experiences and values that have enabled me to become a successful corporate leader and enjoy the journey every step of the way. I hope it can do the same for you.

Enjoy!

Bob Seelert
New Canaan, Connecticut