Timeless Leadership Advice from a Retired Executive
We chat with Noy Dy-Liacco, a retired executive whose career spanned decades–and countries. Noy gives advice to new leaders & talks about the evolution of leadership during his career. (Episode 9)
In this episode, Craig Irons chats with Noy Dy-Liacco, a retired executive whose career spanned decades–and countries. Noy gives his sage advice for new leaders and talks about how leadership has changed and evolved over the course of his career.
Join the conversation on Twitter! Use #Leadership480 to answer what your most impactful moment as a leader has been and what you’ve learned from it.
[05:06] What were some of the challenges Noy faced as a new leader and what would he do differently?
[12:18] Noy’s biggest mistake and proudest moment as a leader.
[17:07] Advice for new leaders that Noy wishes he would have received when he was starting out.
[19:47] The biggest changes in workers and the nature of leadership itself over the course of Noy’s career.
Craig Irons: Hello again, and welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast from DDI. My name is Craig Irons and I'll be your host today. And today we are zeroing in on the 480 months that make up a leadership career. You know, there are many ways leaders can learn: they can learn by doing, they can learn by reading books, they can learn from leadership development courses or college classes, and they can learn by listening to the experiences of others.
While we may think of what we can take away from talking to and listening to a mentor or a coach, you know, sometimes we may overlook what we can learn from others who've already gone through some of the types of leadership challenges we are facing. And in that spirit, today we have a very special guest. Noy Dy-Liacco is a retired executive who worked previously for Nestle Corporation in the Philippines. And he's going to tell us a bit more about his career, which spanned marketing, spanned advertising, education. So he has a lot of experience as a leader and a lot that we can all learn from. Noy, thank you very much for joining us today and welcome.
Noy Dy-Liacco: My honor, Craig. Thank you.
Craig Irons: So let, let's just start by talking about your career. Can you walk our listeners through your career, including the different jobs and roles that you've had in the companies you've worked for?
Noy Dy-Liacco: Up until the time I retired, I had worked four to six years straight out of school, of university. I first joined Proctor and Gamble. Then I moved on to Johnson Wax. I mean, these two companies are known to you, I'm sure. Before I switched to the advertising industry -- because I said I wanted to learn how this thing works with a clear mind that after that -- I would not stay too long in the industry. So about six years later I moved to Nestle, where for the next 37 years I was engaged with them in various fields, starting with advertising on to sales, on to marketing, back to sales, back to marketing, until finally back in 1997, they asked me to take on the job of Communications Director up until my retirement.
Craig Irons: Now in addition to you working for different companies over your careers, you also worked in different locations globally. So where all did you live and work?
Noy Dy-Liacco: Well, first of all, this, this all happened during my career at Nestle. Yes. About a year after I joined them, a year and a half, they sent me to Switzerland to study, which was a great motivation. I mean, you can imagine, six months, five months in Switzerland to do an executive development program. And then I went back to the sales management job, something totally new to me. And after that they sent me back to Switzerland. This time to train with the beverages division. I was scheduled to stay two years, except that something happened in the region. I needed to replace someone very quickly. So nine months later I had to pack our bags again and went back to Manila to replace someone. But then I took on other jobs. And in 1991 they moved me into Indonesia as marketing director for four years and after that to Singapore for another four years before coming back to, to Manila.
Craig Irons: So you know, your, your career covered as you, you mentioned, you know, marketing, advertising, sales. And I know I mentioned education because you also did some training facilitation later in, in, in your career over the span of your career, a lot of that time you spent in leadership roles, correct?
New Speaker: Yes, yes.
Craig Irons: So thinking back to when you first became a leader for the first time, which is of course one of the most challenging transitions a leader ever goes through, you know, what was that like for you? It was difficult? Were there, you know, what were some of the challenges you faced and, and now looking back on that time, what would you have done differently?
Noy Dy-Liacco: First of all, I had to accept the fact that I was a mid level career hire. So the guys I was going to work with had been there for years. And here I was an outsider, taking on a certain managerial role. So I had to, to balance what I felt I needed to do with the -- how should I say it -- with the feelings of those who, who were there for some time and may have been aspiring for the same position. Um what would I, what would I have done differently? You see, when I walked in, especially when I, when I took on the regional sales management job, I mean, I was literally an outsider. I'd never done sales before except with Proctor and Gamble for three months. But here I was, managing a whole sales team South of the Philippines, by the way, where some armed conflict was going on ,and I had to integrate myself, but in a manner that I felt I cannot afford to, to rock the boat, so to speak.
Noy Dy-Liacco: They speak a certain dialect the region, which I could not understand. So this was, this is where the different issues confronting me now, what would I have done differently? Maybe I should have spent more time immediately trying to assimilate to them. But instead during the period, because I wanted to learn, I spent a lot of time analyzing the system, analyzing data. I mean this is 1980s. And computers were not personal, computers were not around. We had green screens and say it's a date that came in thick printed report. So I had to spend a lot of time doing that in the process. I had less time, um assimilating with that, with the staff. That's what I should have done. I mean, I should've done differently.
Craig Irons: What is interesting to me about what you just said is, you know, you were talking about how different it was from a technology standpoint in the 1980s, where, you know, no personal computers, not everyone had been on their desk yet and, and so forth. But that struggle between,uyou know, focusing on the data and focusing on the people. That's, that's sort of a timeless struggle, isn't it, regardless?
Noy Dy-Liacco: Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately before the year was over, my boss calls me from Manila saying, "Hey, your time's up. Come back here." And immediately I said, "I need to stay longer here. I'm enjoying it here and what do I do next?" His response was, "I don't know yet what you will do, but I need you back here now." I said, "Why now?" "Because your replacement is on his way." In other words, I wanted to spend more time again, like I said, assimilating with the staff, spending more with the people. But this was life at Nestle. We were always, we, we had to be ready to move on short notice. And this has happened to me a number of times.
Craig Irons: Yeah. So the challenges that sort of came with that leadership role, you know, you're, you're leading salespeople for the first time when you hadn't really done sales. You have the challenges of data versus people and and, and also having to lead you know, some people who aspired to the role that you were in -- A lot of challenges there. Did you have a mentor or coach that either, you know, sort of helped you through that transition or you know, that, that you benefited from that relationship even later in your career or at different points?
Noy Dy-Liacco: I remember the gentleman who hired me very prim and proper Englishman was among my first mentors. He, he was very particular about thoroughness and about timeliness, and more importantly about integrity and, and clarity. And we would have, believe it or not, monthly budget meetings, which I felt was unnecessary. But this was his way of really making sure we were under budget. We were spending this kind of money we said we would and not overspending. He, he was a great mentor as far as I was concerned. And then there, there were other, I had other bosses, some were inspiring, others were not so inspiring. But they all come in different shapes and forms I guess. But when I went to this course in Switzerland, we had a course -- No, we had a professor he's Canadian and he was teaching us about servant leadership. And there's a beautiful book by a name by a guy named Robert Greenleaf called "Servant Leadership." And that has been some kind of guiding handbook for me. It's, it's, it's very, it's, I found it very inspiring. So up to the time I retired, I would always caught whenever, whenever possible. Because he talks about leadership is about serving others as opposed to leading others first. He said, if you want to be a servant leader, you have to have a desire to help others, and then you will gain your authority by doing that, not through a title or position or, or having power. So, so the, the mentorship came from many of the bosses I've had, including some of the things that I came across through reading, etc.
Craig Irons: We're talking to Noy Dy-Liacco, a retired executive who worked most of his career in the Philippines and some other locations around the world. And we're talking about his experience as a leader. Noy, thinking back over your entire career you know, there, there certainly were a lot of things that you did that I'm sure you look back on and are proud of and we'll get to those in a second. But what do you feel was the biggest mistake you ever made as a leader?
Noy Dy-Liacco: I was running the beverages business back home. This was after I was trained in Switzerland and you know, we were gung ho, we were going to outdo what our predecessors had done. And during this period, our coffee business, I mean, we had a lion's share of the market -- lion's share. And together with the technical people in the factory, they had developed a different texture for coffee. How do I describe the texture? It's like a caviar, but in tiny, tiny, tinier pieces. So imagine this black round balls, or brown. And we thought this is fantastic. We can, we can sell this as new improved. And I was the one who signed off and said, "Let's go ahead and launch.". We did lunch because the research -- and we did research -- told us that the consumers would likely buy it. So we launched. After two weeks, the orders stopped because the trade simply refused to,uaccept the, the product. Ulong story short, we had to pull it back, pull it out before we had major losses. Now the good news is this was in test market, right? Right. I mean, I was, I was a conservative enough to say, "Let's launch, but in a tiny area," in fact, in a, literally in an Island in the Philippines,uwhich reminds me, one of my mentors back, Switzerland would always tell us, you know, when you're, when you're launching a product, when you're communicating about the product, sell the steak, not the sizzle. He would always say that. And he was, he was right. You know, reflecting on this adventure, we were selling the sizzle. We did not improve the flavor, by the way, nor the taste. And we felt very clever. We thought they were very clever just by selling this caviar looking dust.. So that would be one of my monumental mistakes.
Craig Irons: So the flip side of that as you think back over the course of your career, what makes you the proudest of your time as a leader?
Noy Dy-Liacco: Well, obviously I think that the proudest moments or experiences would be to see my team, number one, achieving the results. But more importantly, seeing these guys rise and begin to assumeother roles, including succeeding myself. I mean, one of the, one of the persons I worked with eventually took over my role. And to me that was a proud moment. In fact when I, when I took on this job as communications director back in '97, one of the things I said to them is, "Okay, I'm not retiring until another 10 years, but let's continue to look around for who, who could succeed me." So yes, developing the people, seeing them rise. An more importantly, getting them accepted by the peers in Switzerland to me was a, was a proud moment.
Craig Irons: That sounds like it was very consistent with your focus and your interest in servant leadership.
Noy Dy-Liacco: Oh yes. Yes. The, like I said, Craig, this book by Greenleaf has been my sort of a guiding, guiding principle, servant leadership.
Craig Irons: So, many people listening to this podcast are either new leaders or people who aspire to become leaders. What advice would you offer them that you wish someone would've given you when you were a young leader?
Noy Dy-Liacco: Good question. Come to think of it. When I joined, none of my mentors told me, "This is what you should look at." They just said, "Well, here's the job. Do it." If I were to talk to young leaders today coming into the fold, I would, I would tell them, don't hesitate to, to be assertive. Assert yourself, but at the same time, don't mistake that for leadership. I, I'll go into that in a bit, but sometimes there is this mistaken notion that if I'm joining the group for the first time, I'm, I'm here to, to set the world on fire and, and change the whole organization. The flip side of that is the young folks tend to be timid because they don't want to rock the boat, so to speak. So my advice to them is scan the horizon, see what you can do to take initiatives, but find the right balance to make suggestions on what you can do, what you cannot do. I remember again, going back to this course in Switzerland, my, my boss in the head office said to me, "When you attend this management development program, for the first two days, say nothing. Just look around. Look around, who's talking, who's not talking, look around for the talkative people. And then on the third day you just take over." I said, okay. I think what they meant was find, find your way through the, through the maze or so to speak. And, and not, not over assert yourself, but this is what I would tell the young people challenge the system, find a way to be assertive and take initiative.
Craig Irons: All excellent pieces of advice. So you were in a leadership role, but 40 years or close to 40 years in various leadership positions, is that correct?
Noy Dy-Liacco: Yes.
Craig Irons: SCo I guess over, you know, we think of change as being something that happens so quickly now, but what were the biggest changes you saw in workers and also in the nature of leadership itself over the course of your career as a leader?
Noy Dy-Liacco: I think one of the things that I, that I went through was the influence of new technology into the environment. Whennoy I say new technology-- the computer. This was in the eighties and nineties, and many of my contemporaries who were managing younger people were so afraid of that computer. It got to the point where we, we had to organize how to turn on the PC. I mean, it's as simple as that. And I had one colleague who said, "No, I'm not going to attend that course. I don't know how to do that. My secretary can do that." And I had to tell him, "look, you have to learn because you cannot rely on your secretary to do this." So I think the, the, the influx of new technology and how that technology expanded and changed rapidly has been a great challenge to the workers, not so much the young ones, but to, to the, to my contemporaries now in, in my case as early as mid eighties when Windows was just coming up --The office, we only had three PCs. Green screen.
Craig Irons: Right.
Noy Dy-Liacco: I made a decision. I said, I'm gonna learn this beast because this will spell the difference between me and what I need to achieve in the years to come. I remember going to the office on weekends, when nobody was around, just so I could play around with the, with the IBM PC at the time. So I think this has been a major influence in terms of the changing landscape, the, the work, the work situation. Given the baby boomers, so to speak. And then the, the new generations that came, right -- Of course, much later, you have the issue of gender balance. You have the issue of work-life balance. And in fact, even now they talk about sense of entitlement, but these were things that we took for granted in the past. Not that they were unimportant, but this was never really a matter of serious concern then.
Craig Irons: Right. So you know, you've been out of the workforce a few years, but not too long. So you have a pretty good sense of, you know, what it was like to be a leader, you know, over those decades, up until fairly recently. Do you believe it's harder to be a leader now than it's been in the past? And if so, why? And if not, you know, what do you think is sort of timeless about leadership?
Noy Dy-Liacco: I, I attended a, a planning session by the new leadership team in Nestle Philippines not too long ago. And that's where I encountered the acronym VUCA, so where they talk about the environment being volatiles or being uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. And I remember the CEO at the time kept telling me, "No, you have to get used to ambiguity because whether we like it or not, it's there." So I think the, the decision making process may be harder. I agree because of all these things that are happening, which are in a way disruptive because many of them are, are beyond the enterprise's control. I mean we read about, for example, issues on sexual harassment. If this thing were to, to blow up in the face of let's say a major executive, then all of a sudden the house is on fire and the communications people would have to do something. So yes, the situation is harder. The decision making process I think takes longer because there are hierarchies, but not just the decision making process. I reckon even the execution these days is also taking far longer than maybe they should. Again, because of hierarchy, because of the need to be careful, internal and external forces, these kinds of things.
Craig Irons: And you mentioned earlier about, you know, some of your colleagues who were resistant to learning technology because they thought, well, their assistant could help them with that or, or do that for them. And now a lot of leaders are in positions where, you know, they have to do more of that. They have to do more of that themselves. They have to you know, work with their, you know, whatever the their data programs or whatever they have. So they have to be proficient. It's just almost a requirement for entry into leadership these days.
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