Levi Strauss’ CEO Chip Burgh on the importance of Accountability

Chip Burgh knows the importance of people in any organization. As the CEO of Levi Strauss since 2011, Burgh sought out employee input on a large scale as he worked to re-establish the brand as a front runner in the industry, but he has also been fearless in holding those same people accountable for their personal and corporate goals in the years since.

Burgh learned the value of accountability early in his career. He spent 28 years at Proctor & Gamble, which maintained a promote-from-within hiring philosophy and graded managers on their ability to develop their high-potential team members. As Burgh related to the New York Times in a recent interview, “My first hire was super smart, but he really wasn’t performing over time, and I felt pressure to get this guy promoted. I basically carried him and got him promoted. But about four months later, he was gone for performance reasons.  The big lesson for me, and it stuck with me forever, is that you’ve got to be really transparent and straight with people, and if they’re not cutting it, you’ve got to tell them where they’re not cutting it. Hold the bar up high, and if it’s not a good fit, call it.”

Transparency is a two-way street for Burgh.  A big believer in team sports, he values a team-first mentality, clean wins and straightforward feedback from leadership to build trust among team members. In return, he expects that same transparency back with little tolerance for back-stabbing or talking behind backs. When he first came to Levi Strauss, he sought out 60 top performers and held hour-long sessions with each, asking questions such as, “What are 3 things we need to change? What are 3 things we should keep? What do you want me to do here? What are you afraid I will do?”

Burgh is obviously comfortable with having the tough conversations, understanding that growth doesn’t happen without change and being able to look beyond right now.  Says Burgh, “We recognize that people really do make the difference. Even winning teams are going to pare their rosters in the off-season. Where do we need different skills?

You have to look holistically at the people on your team and constantly look for ways to strengthen the team. I’ve never regretted moving too fast to let somebody go. I’ve had times when I’ve regretted waiting as long as I did to make a move. That said, I also have some great turnaround stories where people were coached and showed they could raise their game. It’s a fine line on when you make the call, but rarely, looking back, did I move too early.”

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