This story is from William Johnson, the CEO of H.J. Heinz.
It was a mistake in this company that got me my first major promotion. We had a hot cocoa line called Alba. We had an underutilized factory in Iowa. I was a young general manager in the company, and I had been challenged with how to use this factory. What should we do rather than close the factory? Although [closing] it was the simple thing to do, long-term it wouldn’t create a lot of value.
We were actually in New York one time and looked up at Warner Brothers and saw Superman flying – I guess this was the time of the first Superman movie in the early to mid-eighties – and Superman had just been put on Superman Peanut Butter, which was selling like crazy. So, we literally walked in unannounced, went upstairs, walked in to the licensing department, met with the merchandising guy – the guy who had the licensing for Warner Communications – and asked if we could have the Superman license to launch hot cocoa, therefore going after kids. I got it granted right there; we only had to work out the details.
I went back to my boss at the time and said, “We have an idea. Give us six weeks, and let’s go play with it.” So we researched it – research said it would be a good idea – tested it with kids, developed the product, and were ready to go. I walked into my boss and said, “I want to launch this thing nationally.” He looked at me like I had two heads and said that we didn’t have enough research, that it was a big risk, and so forth. [He said,] “How about if we do it regionally?” I said, “Okay, we’ll do it regionally.” It failed miserably. We underestimated how the competitors would react.
Two months later I was promoted to vice president from my general manager position, and I asked my boss at the time why. He said, “Because in order to get ahead, innovate, and move the business forward, you have to be prepared to take risks and suffer the consequences. The fact that you took the chance, came up with the idea, moved it ahead, and tried to solve a problem did not create a problem because we cleaned it up without substantial costs. That says to me that you’re prepared to take risks, many of which are judgment calls. And sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.”
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Lessons Learned: Straight Talk from the World’s Top Business Leaders–Overcoming Obstacles. Copyright (c) 2009 Fifty Lessons Limited; All Rights Reserved.