The Power of Curiosity:
How a Smart Executive Learned She Didn’t Always Need To Have the Answer
Penny Tudor is a scientist who works for the Best Company on Earth, an accolade earned by Burlington, Vermont-based Seventh Generation, America’s leading brand of nontoxic and renewable bio-based household, baby and personal care products.
The company name comes, somewhat prophetically, from the Great Law of the Iroquois, which states: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
Not only is Seventh Generation a mission- and values-driven enterprise with rigorous standards of social and environmental performance that won it classification as a rare B Corp, it’s also a flourishing company, with annual 2014 retail sales surpassing $350 million, that has attracted celebrity investors like Al Gore.
Tudor wouldn’t have it any other way. She started out as a food scientist working for Ben & Jerry’s, which was then acquired by Unilever; an offer to stay on couldn’t convince her to do so. “Going to work for a company that was not mission-based was going to be a challenge, so I chose to go with [Seventh Generation],” she says.
She flourished in this milieu, building in 10 years the company’s quality assurance policies and practices from the ground up. Tudor rose to Director of Quality Assurance, Regulatory, and Program Management, learning as she went to manage a team of smart scientists and technicians. “The company’s small enough that you feel you make a difference. I do believe I changed the company in a positive way,” Tudor contends.
“Quality assurance is important for us,” she explains. “We don’t have our own manufacturing and rely on third-party partners in the U.S., Canada and Germany.
THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW
“When the company was smaller, once they contracted out the manufacture of products, they weren’t paying a lot of attention to the contract manufacturers. I wanted to make sure [the producers] were being consistent and doing what we wanted of them.” Today, that is exactly what she does, in addition to making sure the company is in compliance with federal, state and local requirements. You could say Tudor keeps the company on the straight and narrow.
Founded in 1988, Seventh Generation eventually outgrew charismatic founder Jeffrey Hollender’s capabilities; the board replaced him in 2009 and asked him to leave altogether in 2010. The subsequent CEO, a veteran of PepsiCo, who was given the mandate to ensure the privately held company’s revenues multiplied exponentially, lasted little more than a year as he struggled with a founder who seemed unable to let go.
In 2011, the board chose a leader whose thinking aligned with the company’s mission: John Replogle, former Burt’s Bees CEO, took over as president and CEO. Financials, while important, would again take second place to mission and values. “We’re very lucky,” says Tudor. “A strong mission attracts people like [Darmouth-educated Replogle].”
Revenues continued to experience healthy growth, with a slight blip of flat sales during one year of the Great Recession. “It all comes back to making sure you hire like-minded people who understand the company’s mission around corporate responsibility. People have to know why they’re here,” Tudor says.
The change of leadership was difficult, she says. “But everyone kept the faith; they continued to believe in the products and mission. There was never any doubting of these fundamentals.”
Under Replogle’s watch, Seventh Generation managers were encouraged to avail themselves of effective tools that could improve their performance.
“To take the next step in my company, it was important for me to do The StillPoint Experience that HR recommended. It’s important for me to be a good, effective leader,” she says. Tudor loved it: “This focused on opportunities to expand….Other tools are about what’s wrong. This one is about what’s possible.”
Tudor went through The StillPoint Experience three times in quick succession, each session followed by a 21-day period of exercises meant to reinforce the initial lessons. This concentrated dose and the deep follow-up questions by Lisa Arie “really helped me get there,” Tudor says. Arie, who founded the Colorado-based Vista Caballo exclusive leadership ranch and developed The StillPoint Experience as an executive training tool, had Tudor and some of her colleagues work on “three [character traits] we wanted to improve,” says Tudor. “I did those three in the first 21 days and then worked on three or four more.”
It was a slow evolution, she says, and she discovered she wanted to work on her ability to be curious more than anything. “As a scientist, curiosity was not something I used a lot, but I knew I could use that as part of my people-management skills.
“I went into most situations thinking I needed to have the answer. Because of The StillPoint Experience, I learned I didn’t need to, and I used the curiosity part of my brain. Then I went into meetings like this. I relaxed more. I realized that I didn’t have to have the answer, or the right answer. So I realized I could ask more questions. And I actually did ask more questions. Depending on the situation, most of the time there was more openness and collaborative problem solving.
“One of the things I struggled with was communicating up in my organization. So, with greater curiosity, you feel more confident doing that and speaking in front of groups. Absolutely, it has helped me do that, too. The new human-interest content I have is more interesting than facts and data. I think more, for instance, from the perspective of someone in the audience. What kind of questions would they have? I have more confidence and I’m more relaxed communicating with people.
“In team meetings, for example, I’m interested in keeping the team engaged and finding the right agenda topics because everyone does really different work. It’s about finding something pertinent to build the team and the relationships. I’m able to do that after my StillPoint sessions. At a team meeting now, we actually run out of time before we finish our agenda. We walk away with action items. So it’s a nice balance of sharing info and action. It’s good to be heard,” she says.
All these epiphanies and advances have made Tudor “definitely happier. I’m more relaxed, able to find more joy in what I’m doing. I feel more excitement about what I do, and I’m more hopeful about what I can accomplish. With more curiosity, I’m just having more fun.”