L Brands CEO Wexner shares leadership lessons from storied career

les wexner
Les Wexner’s September keynote attracted a record audience for a COE event.

Even as an icon in leadership circles who’s built a thriving, multibillion-dollar retail business, L Brands Founder, Chairman and CEO Les Wexner stays true to his roots – and is quick to acknowledge them.

“But for The Ohio State University, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college and get the basic education that helped me so significantly in my career,” he said, opening his featured keynote at the Center for Operational Excellence’s September seminar. “Every time I come back on campus, I smile to myself.”

Wexner came back on campus to headline a leadership seminar that attracted nearly 300 attendees, making it the largest in COE’s nearly 25-year history. Here’s a look back at some of his best insights over a wide-ranging discussion that covered his personal philosophy on leadership – what he called “a lifetime executive education program you have to master for yourself” – along with his outlook on the retail business and his verdict on crucial past decisions he’s made:

On the value of leadership education: “I firmly believe leadership is not just an important thing – it’s the most important thing, and it’s undervalued in high schools, colleges and universities. If there’s a single thread of teaching and learning that I try to influence at our university, and influence other educators to think about, it’s the importance of leadership as a subject.”

On what makes a great leader: “Leaders come in all shapes and sizes with virtually every characteristic and kind of personality, but they all have the ability to influence, and influence is the foundation of leadership – whether it’s by pushing from behind, coalescing the middle or being an insurgent, General Patton-type. I always default to the front; I like to churn things up and say, ‘We can take that hill, let’s charge.’”

On the virtue of adaptability: “Leaders that continue to grow are optimistic but they’re professionally curious about society and they think about adapting, trying new things, and understanding things they can’t so they can be continually relevant in their own lives. … In my thinking, the only way to test my adaptability is to do something different. It’s very important mid-career not only to have a good understand of yourself, but to think about how to exercise that curiosity muscle between your ears and be adaptive.”

On why brick-and-mortar retail is here to stay: “We’re pack animals. People like to be with people; that’s part of the human condition. It’s what they buy that changes, and one of the things that’s interesting to us is how the Internet has changed lifestyles, communication, and the consumer. … Still, we find that shopping has to be fun and interesting, and we’ve been experimenting with that for several years.”

les wexnerOn his game-changing decisions to spin off brands such as Abercrombie + Fitch, The Limited and Express: “I believe in life cycles. I look at those cycles and say, ‘OK, when’s the next wave coming, and is that a good or a bad thing for us? Those were very tough decisions I thought over for a long time. I gathered in my own mind the information and had to suck up some courage to do it. It turned out to be the right thing to do and it did take our business to a better place.”

On the inevitable challenge, and opportunity, of risk: “Leaders have to have a pretty good instrument on risk. We remember generals that won wars, not the ones that got killed doing foolish things. There’s that notion of knowing yourself, and leadership is about change, taking people to places that haven’t imagined. That means risk. … Leaders have a vision that’s a little different than the one that’s popular at the moment, and in that you have to assess failure. If I didn’t screw up some things, that means I didn’t push hard enough.”

On why aiming high matters: “I try to encourage our enterprise to really dream. If you don’t have a dream, you can’t have a dream come true. Still, you have to focus on ambition, in part, and separately think about the resources you need, and the risks. … The world’s changing while we’re here and it’s just going to get faster in the future. Are we stimulated by that? I am.”

On how he stays busy – and grounded: “What I worry about is running out of work – it would just be a terminal thing. I like the idea of work, and I have a substantive to-do list that’s more than I can finish. … I made a decision in my early 40s that I could make more money but I couldn’t make more time. Nobody can make more time. If I was effective and efficient, I could do more with the limited time I have.”

On why he enjoys leading: “People ask me when I’m going to retire, and I say, ‘When I’m unhappy.’ I like the people I work with, the challenges, the changes. Leaders have to be happy with themselves. If they’re not, they can’t lead themselves, let alone others.”

On the ultimate test of a leader: “The simplest measure of leadership is this: Did you actually take people to a better place? Are we better off today than we were yesterday, whether that’s in business, family or community? It’s not about how many people followed you blindly. Did you actually improve things in hindsight?”

Employees of COE member companies can revisit Wexner’s full keynote, along with the morning “Authentic Leadership” keynote by Fisher Prof. Tony Rucci, by logging into the members-only area on our website.

(Author’s Note: Quotes have been lightly edited and condensed)

J&J exec, Buckeye football greats fill out summer innovation series

Whether it’s at a $70 billion-a-year consumer products conglomerate or a fledgling business in the heart of the Buckeye State, innovation is the fuel that keeps organizations moving and evolving.

The Center for Operational Excellence is continuing its three-part “Innovation Summer” series in July and August with a look at two very different organizations of vastly different scope and how best practices in product development are helping them grow.

meri stevensOn Wednesday, July 13, COE welcomes Meri Stevens (pictured, left), the vice president of supply chain strategy and deployment at Johnson & Johnson for Innovation Summer, Part 2: Innovation Beyond Your Four Walls. Building on a June 16 keynote from Mark Anderson of 3M Co. on R&D collaboration inside the company, Stevens will share how the maker of Tylenol, Listerine, and countless other products is collaborating upstream and downstream to fuel radical, breakthrough innovation.

For Johnson & Johnson, even the very concepts of “upstream” and “downstream” are changing in an era of unprecedented consumer involvement as products such as 3-D printers extend value creation beyond the company’s borders. Stevens will share how this shift has brought about major cultural change for J&J’s thousands of supply chain employees as they work to “move the needle” for the Fortune 50 business.

Stevens’ presentation will be followed by a trio of TED Talk-like presentations from Fisher College of Business researchers, led by “Innovation Summer” organizer Prof. Aravind Chandrasekaran, on the latest insights into collaborative innovation.

Click here to register for this 8:30 a.m. to noon event at Ohio State’s Fawcett Center, exclusively for employees of COE member companies. This session is recommended for those interested in either innovation or supply chain management.

carpenter schlegel“Innovation Summer” concludes Thursday, Aug. 18, by exploring principles of the “lean startup” with a presentation from Buckeye football greats Bobby Carpenter (pictured, far left) and Anthony Schlegel (pictured, immediate left). Both Carpenter and Schlegel, Fisher College of Business MBA graduates who played for the Buckeyes and went on to be drafted in the NFL, founded The Difference USA LLC, which makes and markets a portable striking machine. Schlegel, who invented The Difference, will share along with Carpenter his journey to bring the product to life and the lasting lessons the team has learned about the process of innovation.

Registration for this event is set to open Wednesday, July 13.

For details on these events and save-the-dates for additional COE opportunities, check out our events page.

Seminar Preview: AEP, Abbott show agility, resilience in changing times

The two featured speakers at the Center for Operational Excellence’s upcoming quarterly seminar might be from two wildly different industries, but they’re both bringing stories that illustrate a stark truth about the world today: The rules of the game are changing, and standing still isn’t an option.

Mark McCullough, AEP
Mark McCullough, AEP

COE on Friday, Feb. 13, is hosting from member American Electric Power Company Inc. Mark McCullough, executive vice president of generation. Taking the stage in the afternoon is Matthew Roberts, divisional vice president of global product development for founding member Abbott Nutrition.

In the greater Columbus area, AEP and Abbott each rank among its 50 largest employers, with a combined local payroll of nearly 6,000, according to research from Columbus Business First.

While both companies have well-deserved reputations as leaders in their respective industries, they also share common ground in facing serious external headwinds in recent years .

For AEP, it’s national and state-level energy policies that can have far-reaching implications for the company’s short- and long-term growth strategies and generation profile. Just in the last half-decade, AEP has seen its home state – where its AEP Ohio subsidiary lights up nearly 1.5 million customers – decisively shift toward electricity deregulation, leaving behind the days of a more predictable fixed-rate structure.

Matthew Roberts, Abbott Nutrition
Matthew Roberts, Abbott Nutrition

As the purveyor of products ranging from Similac to Ensure, Abbott Nutrition not only is at the mercy of changing customer tastes but shifting demographics – namely longer-living seniors. At the turn of the new century, people ages 65 and older in the U.S. represented about one in eight Americans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates they’ll represent one in five just 15 years from now.

On a day-to-day level, these changes to the business environment have spurred each company to action in different ways. For AEP, this has taken the form of a still-young but promising lean transformation that grew out of the company’s generation facilities, closely linked to traditional “shop floor” applications of its principles, and has steadily made its way to more “invisible” processes across the organization, namely information technology. Abbott, meanwhile, has mounted an organizational transformation of its people and processes within its research and development function as it fills its innovation pipeline and drives growth.

Don’t miss the chance to hear from McCullough and Roberts on what they’ve learned along the way and what the future holds for their organizations.

At a glance

  • Date: Friday, Feb. 13, 2015
  • Time: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (networking lunch included)
  • Location: The Blackwell, 2110 Tuttle Park Place, Columbus, OH
  • Register here

GE Appliances, Anheuser-Busch InBev leaders lined up for December seminar

The Center for Operational Excellence is closing out its year of programming with behind-the-hood looks at two of the biggest brands on the planet – and a fitting conclusion to the day.

Joining COE for its Friday, Dec. 5, seminar is Kevin Nolan, VP of technology for GE Appliances. An ever-consolidating appliance market has turned up competitive pressure for GE and its competitors, who face the critical challenge of aligning products with market demand.

ge appliancesGE Appliances, the century-old subsidiary of conglomerate giant General Electric Co., has ramped up a lean product development process in recent years aimed at increasing organizational effectiveness and operational efficiency in response to this climate. Nolan, GE Appliances’ VP of Technology, will share how the $8 billion-a-year company is reinventing the way it brings products to the market and working to align its thousands of employees around a renewed mission to debut more consumer-centric offerings.

a-b inbevJoining COE in the afternoon is Becky Bach, global director of continuous improvement for brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, which emerged through a merger with American icon A-B in 2008. The company over the past decade his faced the challenge of developing a sustainable operational excellence capability. Bach in this session will share the company’s journey to get its process excellence teams speaking the same language, delivering proven results and churning through an increasingly large pipeline of projects.

A-B InBev’s story reinforces the fact that the tools of continuous improvement aren’t one-size-fits-all proposition – ultimately, what’s important is charting a path that works for your organization.

Following Bach’s presentation, COE members are invited to a tasting session and networking hour featuring A-B InBev’s stable of beers.

The details:

  • Date: Friday, Dec. 5, 2014
  • Time: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (10:30 a.m.: GE Appliances; Noon: Networking lunch; 1 p.m.: A-B InBev; 2:30 p.m. to 4: Tasting / networking hour)
  • Location: Longaberger House (tasting to take place in adjacent Fawcett Center)

Register here

Risk, lean leadership share spotlight at September COE seminar

Steering an organization toward operational excellence comes with internal and external headwinds, and next month’s quarterly COE seminar is tackling two critical ones with the help of its featured presenters.

rubik babakanian
R. Babakanian

Kicking off COE’s Sept. 26 seminar at 10:30 a.m. is Rubik Babakanian, senior vice president and chief procurement officer at hard drive manufacturer Western Digital Corp. Babakanian’s company stands today as a $15 billion organization with its stock price on a steady upswing, but the road to be there hasn’t been without risk. Like many manufacturers with heavy operations in Asia, Western Digital suffered severe disruptions and temporary shutdowns during the devastating 2011 Japanese tsunami and Thai floods. The events in a nine-month period rocked the global supply chain and forced Western Digital to examine its risk mitigation and management practices with renewed vigor.

Babakanian, a 30-year industry veteran, will outline the methods and tools the company has put in place to better understand its supply chain, track ever-shifting risk factors, and be prepared for the next “100-year event.” Western Digital’s story highlights the universal business challenge of investing in risk mitigation, one that’s never complete – but truly pays off when crisis comes.

walt miller
W. Miller

At 1 p.m., COE welcomes to the stage Walt Miller, who serves as director of operational excellence at engine maker Cummins. Miller is in charge of driving and coaching a culture of empowerment and continuous learning at the company. He’ll share in this session his approach not only to coaching and developing leaders of the future, but in transforming longtime leaders deeply ingrained in a “command and control” culture.”

Miller, author of will share these principles through the lens of a Cummins case involving the turnaround of a plant that started out with a lagging on-time delivery rate costing millions of dollars in missed monthly sales and a rigid, top-down leadership model. It’s a story that shows a lean organization can be built and sustained anywhere with people, a process and a customer – and that behind every good leader is a great team and a great production and management system.  The challenge is how you build it and, most importantly, sustain it.

Babakanian and Miller are just part of a full-day event that includes a networking lunch and a special event at 2;30 p.m., after Miller’s presentation . Co-hosted with Fisher’s Office of Career Management and the Operations and Logistics Management Association, the third-annual Supply Chain Career Connection is a chance to network informally with Fisher’s great graduate students interested in pursuing careers in the supply chain arena. Unlike a rigidly structured job fair, industry attendees are encouraged to mingle with students, share their career path, and share experiences with their current employer.

COE also will announce the featured keynote speakers for its April 2015 summit at the seminar, immediately prior to the 2:30 p.m. networking event.

Seating and space for all of these events are limited, so register now to reserve your spot in-person or to watch a live webcast of the morning and afternoon sessions!

At a glance:

Date: Friday, Sept. 26

Location: Ballroom, The Blackwell, 2110 Tuttle Park Place, Columbus, OH


  • 9 a.m.: Board meeting (COE board members only)
  • 10:30 a.m.: Morning Session – Western Digital (COE members only)
  • Noon: Networking lunch (COE members only)
  • 1 p.m.: Afternoon Session – Cummins (COE members and guests welcome)
  • 2:30 p.m.: Supply Chain Career Connection networking event (COE members and guests welcome)
  • 4 p.m.: Seminar concludes

Leadership development, innovation lead roster of April summit’s breakout sessions

With less than four weeks to go before we kick off our second-annual Leading Through Excellence summit, we’ve unveiled the full list of breakout sessions you’ll have the chance to experience throughout the day on Thursday, April 10, and Friday, April 11, in Columbus, Ohio.

The full list is available at our website, but here’s a quick look at some of the sessions available:

leading through excellence logoBehind the scenes at GE Aviation – It’s tough for many organizations to keep a fresh pipeline of leaders with the right problem-solving skills and cross-functional capabilities. Rick Guba, a Master Black Belt at GE Aviation, will offer an inside look at the company’s successful accelerated development process, which links skills and hands-on experience for a best-in-class learning model.

Kaizen 101 – Looking for a crash course in hosting a kaizen event week? Whitney Mantonya, owner of Collaborative Lean Solutions, will walk attendees through the purpose, flow, and structure of one, offering up a primer on basic tools and concepts applicable to all such events.

Leading from the middle – True lean success needs support from the top, but few organizations start out with this luxury. Ted Stiles, a partner with lean executive recruiting firm Stiles Associates, examines how creative mid-level leaders can navigate this landscape and the skills they must employ along the way to boost leadership engagement and influence without authority.

‘Buying’ a lean culture – Harvard University’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was showered with 90,000 employment applications annually, but they needed a new, efficient way to determine which potential hires would thrive in a lean environment and be an integral part to its ongoing success. Alice Lee, vice president of business transformation at Beth Israel, will share the pre-employment assessment tool that was developed and implemented.

Innovation and the element of surprise – Award-winning Fisher professor and researcher Aravind Chandrasekaran will share his research with more than 30 high-tech organizations into the “disruptive innovation” that has dealt a blow to some companies (Polaroid) and, with the right strategy, allowed others (IBM) to thrive.

Paper or plastic? – Through an interactive game that challenges preconceived notions about the environmental sustainability of products in our everyday lives, Fisher Asisstant Prof. Gökçe Esenduran will introduce the concept of the life-cycle assessment (LCA), a powerful tool to evaluate a product from the cradle to the grave.

And there are a dozen more where that came from. Register now before pricing increases April 1!

Giant Eagle, Marathon Petroleum leaders: To get better, learn from the best

The two speakers for the Center for Operational Excellence’s Feb. 14 seminars couldn’t have been from two more different companies, but both emphasized a crucial truth about the journey of process improvement: You’re never too good to learn – or borrow – from others.

John Lucot
John Lucot

Take Pittsburgh-based grocery chain and COE member Giant Eagle Inc., whose President and COO, John Lucot, spoke to our crowd of more than 100 members and guests. The company has been in existence for more than three-quarters of a century, but Lucot said recent years have marked “the most exciting time in the history of our company.”

Emerging from an economic downturn in which consumers tightened the purse strings, Giant Eagle has developed new formats and transformed the customer experience. For proof, look no further than its Market District location a few miles from Ohio State University, which has become the unofficial epicenter of its neighborhood in a few short years. This has happened all while the company has aggressively maintained focus on health and safety and implemented lean principles throughout the supply chain. Lucot told the crowd that Giant Eagle has drawn inspiration from organizations ranging from the Cleveland Clinic – a gold standard in patient experience – to Alcoa, a fellow Pittsburgh company whose safety centric turnaround under former CEO Paul O’Neill is the stuff of legend.

And while Giant Eagle started down its road to operational excellence with an eye on removing cost and boosting efficiency, the balance sheet doesn’t rule the day, Lucot said.

“We never, ever talk about the financial impact of the things we do,” he said. “We are unwavering in our commitment to health and safety, and no one in our organization has the right to put money or anything else above those efforts.”

It’s that same focus on Giant Eagle’s employees and its customers that underlies a comment Lucot made that’s destined for the whiteboard: “We have no right to ask people to do things that don’t add value.”

George McAfee
George McAfee

Speaking later in the day, George McAfee, marine logistics manager at Findlay, Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum, shared the challenges posed to knowledge management and transfer in a work force with a widening generation gap and a growing share of over-55 workers.

With those dynamics, McAfee said, it’s even more crucial to develop standard procedures to capture and communicate processes so a company’s mission, vision and values don’t get muddled over time.

And echoing Lucot, McAfee said benchmarking – even outside one’s industry – is key to finding the right path.

“You must be willing to admit someone else might be better at what you’re doing,” he said.

This article appears in the March 2014 edition of COE’s Current State e-newsletter. Have a colleague who should be receiving this e-newsletter? Contact Matt at burns.701@osu.edu.

Chrysler exec, Cardinal CEO headline COE’s Nov. 22 seminar

Time and time again, we see evidence that the companies most successful in driving real, lasting change throughout their organizations are the ones that don’t treat operational excellence as a project – they treat it as a large-scale culture change that’s always a work in progress. We’re thrilled to be featuring for our final quarterly seminar of the year two fascinating examples of this: Chrysler Group LLC and Cardinal Health, the latter a member of our center since 2013.

Opening the seminar from Chrysler is Mauro Pino, who leads the NAFTA Manufacturing and World Class Manufacturing arms of the automaker. Since its 2009 alliance with Fiat, Chrysler has made huge strides in financial performance and industry market share – and part of the credit for that goes to its own renewed commitment to cutting waste while improving safety and quality. The operational excellence system it has deployed, dubbed World Class Manufacturing, focuses on giving workers hands-on experience in problem solving that they can take back to the company’s plants and apply immediately.

As it continues to roll out WCM, Chrysler means serious business. The company last year opened up a 25,000 WCM Academy in Michigan where more than 3,000 workers across North America were trained in 2012 alone.

Our featured afternoon presenter is George Barrett, chairman and CEO of Dublin-based pharmaceutical and medical supply distribution giant Cardinal, a more than $100 billion-a-year operation that ranks in the Fortune 20. Over the past four years, the company has increased its position in hospitals, clinics, surgery centers and specialty practices, doctor’s offices, and the home. Its journey to make health care more cost-effective and simultaneously drive balance and growth has included operational excellence as a key component of cultural transformation and a foundational capability of its go-to-market strategy.

Barrett will discuss the company’s approach to creating a culture of excellence and creative value across the health-care continuum in what is a rapidly changing landscape.

As always, the morning session of our seminar is open only to employees of our COE member companies, while the afternoon session is open to members and guests.

Join us!

Toyota presentation highlights lasting impact of lean transformations


That’s the best way to describe how our Center for Operational Excellence members and guests left our seminar this past Friday following a rousing, inspiring presentation from Jamie Bonini, general manager of the Toyota Production System Support Center.

Bonini, speaking at the Sept. 13, 2013, seminar.

Bonini powerfully made the case to a crowd of nearly 150 that the guiding principles of operational excellence can make a lasting impact anywhere – and at COE, that’s what we’re all about.

Bonini illustrated the Toyota Production System implementation strategy TSSC has thus far used with more than 200 organizations, which range from manufacturing – a classic setting for lean implementation – to the more unusual nonprofit realm. Roughly 40 of these projects are under way in a normal year for TSSC, which has been around since 1992.

A deeply compelling case study that attracted attention earlier this year in the New York Times involves TSSC’s work with the Food Bank for New York City, where wait times for meals have plummeted and efficiency at the food pantry has skyrocketed. Check out a video of TSSC’s work with the food bank here.

What resonates from this, and other videos from TSSC, is not only the success of the transformations but the passion that spreads like wildfire throughout the organizations they work with. My favorite part of the Food Bank video comes about 11 minutes in, when Teisha Diallo, program director Project Hospitality unguardedly voices the thrill of seeing the food pantry line running much more efficiently.

“When I come around that corner, the line is gone, and I’m like, ‘Yes!’” she exclaims.

Not that getting there is easy – and that’s where Bonini imparted some valuable takeaways on starting a transformation at the right time, in the right way, and with the right leaders on board. His most compelling advice came when he said it’s not a crime to reschedule a lean rollout if the time isn’t right. Often, Bonini said, the lack of an underlying drive to have a problem-solving culture can be a holdup – or a deal-breaker if it isn’t resolved.

“If you’re not willing to build an organizational problem-solving capability, then don’t bother (with an implementation),” Bonini said. “It’s often a very difficult missing element from what I see (with organizations).”

Check out more photos from Friday’s seminar here.

Airport tour added as COE summit moves closer to sell-out

The Center for Operational Excellence’s Leading Through Excellence summit is a little more than 30 days away and we’re selling seats at a rapid clip. If you haven’t pulled the trigger on registering just yet, we’re recommending you act fast as parts of the event are selling out.

leading through excellence logoAs of this week, three of the originally scheduled four plant tours for Wednesday, April 10, have been completely booked. We still have a few seats left to our trip to Mills James for a look at operational excellence in creative spaces and, to accommodate demand, we added a trip to Port Columbus International Airport. This, however, only amounts to fewer than 20 slots, which we expect to book soon.

We’re thrilled to have additional features to announce for the summit as well. Summit sponsor MoreSteam.com LLC is running a workshop Friday, April 12, from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on process design. This is a critical skill for every organization – but it’s too often left to chance. Every day, people are busy designing new processes with not much more to work with than good intentions. But process design doesn’t have to be a complicated engineering exercise – and MoreSteam is planning to outline some simple tools and common-sense methods to help get the job done.

And finally, we’re pleased to announce that we’ve booked a special appearance by Jon Waters, the director of the Ohio State University Marching Band, a.k.a. the Best Damn Band in the Land. He’ll be speaking at lunch on Thursday, April 11, in the middle of a day packed with simulations, workshops and case studies led by our Fisher faculty.

So what are you waiting for?