June 8, 2021

Good business with Professor Bill Novelli | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemakerr

Good business with Professor Bill Novelli  | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemakerr

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli talks with Bill Novelli, a distinguished professor of the practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, former CEO of AARP, co-founder of Porter Novelli, and author of the book Good Business: The Talk, Fight, Win Way to Change the World. Bill talked about the concept of doing well by doing good in business and how ethics is important when leading an organization. 

Some highlights:

Bill Novelli on giving everybody a fair chance at having the same starting line.

Bill shared his opinion on the greenwashing trend among leaders and organizations.

The relevance of drawing a clear line and not having a grey area with respect to ethics even when there is a pressure from the top.

Bill talked about how one can move mountains by building teams around one’s vision.   

Also mentioned in this episode:

Jim Clifton, Jim Harter,  authors of the book: It’s the Manager: Moving From Boss to Coach 

Connect with Bill Novelli:

Billl Novelli website

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Welcome to partnering leadership. I am really excited this week to be welcoming Bill Novelli. He's a distinguished professor of the practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of business. I might be a little biased, but I think it is the best business school out there. 

And professor Novelli actually is a person that has had a rich experience in purpose driven organizations and careers, including being the co-founder of Porter Novelli, eventually leading the fight against tobacco for tobacco free kids and leading as the CEO of AARP. So I absolutely love this conversation partly because of professor Novelli's experience and background, partly because of the tremendous insights and stories he shares in good business that talk, fight, win way to change the world, and partly because of the ethics that much of his career and all of his teaching is all about. 

I think we need a lot more of what professor Novelli talks about in good business and also teaches at Georgetown. So can't wait to share this with all of you. 

Now, I also enjoy getting your feedback and hearing from you. Keep those coming mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's also a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com, you can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast that way you will be first to be notified of new releases. And finally, when you get a chance, Leave a rating and review that way more people will find these episodes and benefit from them.

Now here's my conversation with distinguished professor, Bill Novelli.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Professor Bill Novelli. Welcome to partnering leadership podcast, I am thrilled to have you here with me.



Bill Novelli: Well, thank you so much. I'm really glad to be with you. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

I'm really excited, most especially because of your rich background, you're focused on business ethics and your association with my beloved Georgetown McDonough business school.

But before we get to those, including your brilliant book, good business, the talk, fight win way to change the world, with love to first find out a little bit about your upbringing and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you became, Bill. 


Bill Novelli:

Well, I grew up in a blue collar town near Pittsburgh.

So in the old days it was a coal town and then it became a steel town. And my dad worked in a steel mill and so did my uncles. All four of my grandparents came to this country from somewhere else. And as I was growing up, I was thinking to myself, what are these immigrant values? And I thought about that as an adult as well. 

And now I have grandkids and I think to myself, what can we impart to our grandchildren? So when I was growing up, I thought to myself These values are love of country. I think immigrants really love America. Secondly, strengths of family. Also a real reverence for education.

And I think you, and I share that for sure. And then the last thing is a genuine appetite for hard work. So that's what I think I learned growing up. And I took with me into my career and my life. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

And those are wonderful attributes to take from your immigrant family, as I have from mine, Bill that love of country, strength of family at reverence for education and hard work, you had all of those, but all throughout your career, you've also had a sense of purpose, a sense of wanting to do good.

Where do you think that comes from? 


Bill Novelli:

I do think it comes from my family. I think it comes from my parents. What I think it is, is  a strong feeling of wanting things to be fair. Now we know that life is not fair. We know that America is not completely fair but I think we need to have everybody have a fair chance at the starting line.

We're not going to all end up in the same place. And so Jesse Owens is a great sprinter way back in the so-called Nazi Olympics, way back in 1936, he said when the race starts, it's not about being black or being white, it's about being fast or slow. And I think that what we need is everybody have a fair chance at the starting line.


Mahan Tavakoli:

And you have dedicated your entire career to giving everybody a fair chance at having the same starting line and pretty early on in your career, you were working at WRG working on the Ralston, Purina and Bristol Myers accounts. And that's when it came to you that maybe that wasn't the right place for you and your purpose driven career to be. 


Bill Novelli:

Yes, you're right.

So I started at Unilever. I was a marketing manager, and I went across town to a hot New York ad agency, Wells Rich Green, or WRG. And I had the same kinds of accounts. I had packaged goods,  I was a marketing guy and I was working on package goods. And at the end of the day, I would say to myself, what have I done?

And the answer was I was making money. There was no heavy lifting. It was pretty competitive. And I liked that, but the truth is I was not being able to find social relevance and it bothered me. And then I got lucky. I got assigned a new account, public television. So public television hired its first ad agency to build audience.

And the first thing I did was to go to a press conference. And the press conference was being run by a woman who said to the media there. " I'm here to tell you that we're going to revolutionize children's learning." It was Sesame Street, and I was listening to her and I thought to myself this woman is a real educator, but she's also a marketing person.

And I had this I'm going to call it a revelation. The idea that you could apply the kind of marketing that I did to package goods as I was doing, but you can also apply it to ideas and to issues and to causes, and that's when my light bulb went on and I thought to myself, okay, now how can I make a career out of this?


Mahan Tavakoli:  

And you did do all of that, and you say that we can do well for ourselves while doing good for society. Was that a drive again that came to you through those experiences? Or was it a drive that existed within you? 


Bill Novelli:

I think a little of both. My career has evolved, obviously it wasn't a straight line.

And one of the threads of the book, this book, "Good  Business", is that whoever we are aware of where we are, wherever we are in our career whatever company or organization we're in, we can make a positive social difference. I like to call it "a dent in the universe." We can make a dent in the universe and we can all do well for ourselves and do good for society.


Mahan Tavakoli:

Now Bill, there has been a lot of conversation around that. Most, especially over the past year, since the pandemic, the racial equity crisis, there's been a lot of talk about the importance of purpose for organizations. Triple bottom line, people, planet profit. Now is this all greenwashing? Are these organizations and leaders saying the right things rather than really being purpose-driven the way they should be and the way their employees want them to be.


Bill Novelli:

I think there is greenwashing. I think a lot of people are making it up. And there's also corporate misbehavior. I mean, we can open the wall street journal every day and read about it. But I think that the trend that I'm talking about doing well by doing good or triple bottom line, I think that trend is a strong one, and I think it's here to stay.

So not every company gets it and not every company is on that continuum, but many companies are figuring it out. They're figuring it out how they can build economic value and create economic value for their stockholders, by creating social and environmental value for the rest of society. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

And I hope that will happen because there are a lot of the right statements in many instances made from the same organizations that have been making similar statements year after year. So that's why I believe your book serves as a great framework to think about becoming more purpose-driven for leaders and for organizations. 

Now, your career kept evolving and at one point you were involved in having to reposition Peace Corps. How did that come about? 


Bill Novelli:

That was another lucky break. I was reading the New York Times, the advertising column, and it said that the Peace Corps wanted to essentially reposition itself.

And I thought to myself, wow, that that would be perfect. I want that job. And luckily I got it. And back in those days the Peace Corps was beloved by these host countries just as it is today. But what the host countries were saying is we need more people who understand agriculture, we need more nurses, we need more MBAs. And we need more older volunteers. And we would like more people, more Peace Corps, volunteers who look like us. 

And so that's what the repositioning was about. That's what I worked on and what I helped to do. And that helped me really to understand more and more about how we can make a difference. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

And you did make a difference there. It also kept you in Washington, where you had a chance to manage in-house advertising for Richard Nixon's reelection committee. The committee that you were associated with was actually the acronym for it was CREEP (committee to re-elect the president). And in the book you go into sort of the ethical issues that came about as a result of having worked in association with CREEP.


Bill Novelli:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, there's a lesson there, right Mahan? Be careful the acronyms that you use. So I was with the November group. And the way that came about was the white house knew about my marketing background. So they asked me to help to start and to run the November group for the reelection of Richard Nixon.

And you know, I tell that story today to my MBA students and I don't get the boos that I used to get. So it's becoming ancient history. But you know, there were a number of experiences there. And of course Watergate happened right in the middle of it all. But the ethical experience that you're talking about was one that stayed with me my whole life, which was the CREEP people called all of us together, including us with the November group and they said " we want more people to be able to give more money to the reelection campaign. And the election spending laws really don't permit that. So we need you to sign these cards that will enable people to give more money than they otherwise could. So everybody, please sign five cards."

So I looked around the room and everybody was writing away, signing the cards. And I thought to myself, this is not right. So what did I do? I signed the cards. I probably should have got up and walked out and change jobs, change careers, who knows what but I didn't. And it shows really  where ethics breakdown. Ethics often break down when you have pressure from the top.

And I talked to my students about that all the time. So if you look at Wells Fargo or Volkswagen or any of these companies that have misbehaved, oftentimes it's because of pressure from the top and we need to learn how to resist that. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

It makes a huge difference. And that's a great example that you share and whether it is the Wells Fargo's of the world or Volkswagens of the world, there are black and whites with respect to ethics.

And when leaders are not willing to draw a line and are willing to have gray areas with respect to ethics, then that permeates the organization and causes unethical behaviors.

I appreciated you sharing that story and that example, because one of the attributes of strong leaders is also owning up to their mistakes and to their failures and learning from it and moving on, it makes it easier for other people in the organization to also own up to their mistakes. So I really appreciate you having shared that. 

Now you also played a key role in both combating blood pressure and then tobacco. How did that come about Bill? 

Bill Novelli:

Back in my Porter Novelli days, the company that we started together , we started to apply marketing and marketing communications to health and social issues.

And the first big account that we got was the national high blood pressure education program. And I think I learned more than I contributed to that program. I learned two really important things. One was, it was a government led program and there were nonprofits involved in it, like the American Heart Association.

But there were also companies involved pharmaceutical companies. And today and back then, you know, sometimes pharmaceutical companies can be suspect. But these companies, they played by the rules. They contributed, they made a real difference in the high blood pressure program. Now, why did they do that?

It was enlightened self-interest it was doing well by doing good. They saw that when we educated physicians, when we educated consumers to get their blood pressure checked, they would sell more product. So they were basically doing well by doing good. And that was a lesson that I've kept with me.

The other, the other lesson Mahan was you know, I was a marketing guy and the way you practice marketing is that  you use your marketing mix to influence individual behaviors,  sell a car, sell a beer, sell high blood pressure control. 

But I learned that individual behavior change is not enough. We need policy change as well. In other words, we have to change social norms as well as individual behaviors. And that's why policy is so important. So for the rest of my career, beyond the high blood pressure period, I was applying policy as well as individual behavior change. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

And that policy is absolutely critical.

But before we get to that, Bill would love to know your perspectives. Obviously, when you were fighting the tobacco companies, they had messaging such as tobacco use is an individual choice and a right. Tobacco related diseases are the user's responsibility. Government intrusion is bad and dangerous. And the science is in doubt, you aren't really sure that this causes disease.

And I would argue that with my background in human nutrition, or even in some aspects of social media, there are other organizations, industries that use similar language to this day to do what is not right for the consumers. So how can we as a society build on your success in championing fighting against tobacco and tobacco is messaging to do what is right to the benefit of society as a bigger percentage of our population is becoming obese uncontrollably so, and is being impacted health wise and otherwise. 


Bill Novelli:

Yeah, that's a great question. First of all the tobacco industry back then, and even today, but it was enormous, powerful, rich. They gave enormous contributions to Congress and to state legislators.

They had so many law firms signed up PR agencies, ad agencies. So the great lesson there is we can take on big boys and we can win. We can make change. But when it comes to dealing with the industry, as you say, there are other industries that we need to deal with as well.

That's the subtitle of the book talk, fight, win. So you know, today's environmental problems, today's social problems. They are way too big for endless combat. We need to get everybody at the table, even the tobacco industry. And we can't all agree and we're going to fight, but we can talk and we can hopefully find common ground.

And I think that that's how we can make progress. It's not going to be easy. Nobody said it ever would be. But that's where we can be. We can make change. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

And that's how by finding common ground, you were able to lead AARP so successfully. Now most listeners would be very familiar with AARP, but just for an international context, it is the largest nonprofit in the country with over $1 billion budget, 2,400 employees.

So it is a huge organization that you had to lead in order to impact the public policy that would be of interest to the nation most especially the senior citizens in the country. 


Bill Novelli:
Yes. Yes. AARP is large and it has  an attribute that is just absolutely powerful, and that is an enormous grassroots. 

So the woman who started a AARP way, way back, Ethel, Percy Andrus, she developed this volunteer cadre, this grassroots, and she called it an army of useful citizens. That's a great phrase, an army of useful citizens, and that's what AARP has. 

But of course, many other nonprofits do as well. Maybe not quite as big, but the American heart association, the American Cancer Society. And if you have a strong grass roots, you can make a real difference because those people on Capitol Hill or in the state house, in Albany or Sacramento, they can count votes. And they know that when the public supports something, that it puts pressure on them to make change. So if you can have a grassroots and work from the bottom up and work from the top down, then you've really got something. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And you really did. So what I wonder is, as a CEO of that, an organization with such a wide reach and such a rich heritage and legacy, it is often very difficult to change the culture of the organization and its impact on the outside world.

How were you able to do that at AARP? 


Bill Novelli:  

Well, I'm not sure that I really changed the entire culture. You know, that adage, you and I come from the same business school you know culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning. So culture is hard to change. 

But here's my thought. And here's what I think I've learned.

Number one, wherever you are, you need a big vision. Now it almost sounds like a cliché, but it is true. And I'm not talking about going out into the desert and fasting and praying and coming back and saying, I have a vision. I'm talking about a vision that oftentimes bubbles up from the organization itself.

So have a really big vision. And you know, one of the real definitions of leadership is the ability to have a vision and to create change. That's the reason to have a vision because you want to create change. You want to do something. And then build teams around that. You know, I've never accomplished anything in my whole life without teams.

I think teams move mountains. And you know, when I was at AARP, I used to say, about a hundred decisions get made every day that influences this organization, and I'm making maybe five of them. So who's making the other 95? And the answer is teams, people organizing and managing teams and it permeates down through the organization. And that's why teams are so important. 

But if you're going to have teams and they're going to make good decisions, you have to listen to them. You have to be able to put your ego aside and say, tell me what's wrong with this picture. Tell me what's wrong with my idea, and then you've got teams at work.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

You were able to move mountains with your teams, Bill. Eight, nine years later, you decided to move on. And my question for you is if you believe that CEO's have a shelf life where they can contribute, initially, obviously they need to get a hang of how things are working, they have a phase of really contributing and then after a while, a smart CEO, like you, decides I need to move on and go do something else.


Bill Novelli: 

That's exactly what I believe. I call it renewal. So when I was at AARP for awhile, this reporter came to see me from the Washington post and he said, "Bill, you've been here a while, what's next for you?" And Mahan without even thinking about it. I said, " My next chapter is, I want to go to a great university, with a good gym. I want to audit some anthropology courses and I want to teach in a business school. And I want to drink beer with students. " And of course I went to Georgetown, a great university with a good gym. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

The best, my apologies. I have to correct you, the best Bill. 


Bill Novelli: 

And  I have no time to audit courses, and I have not drunk beer with students, but I went to Georgetown for another chapter, because I did exactly what you say. I believe in what's next. I believe in renewal. You know, you do your best, you give it a shot and then you move on. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that is wonderful, kudos to you for having that belief and moving on. Sometimes things become comfortable for the person in charge and they don't move on when they should. And the great for Georgetown, my alma mater to end up with you. 

One of the things that I know I was mentioning to you before too Bill, is that years later, now 27 years after I got my MBA, probably the most impactful aspect of the Georgetown business school curriculum for me was the constant focus on ethics, ethics, ethics. And in your book, you also say ethics has to permeate everything. 


Bill Novelli: 

Yes. I think that no matter what course you're taking or no matter what course you're teaching, it could be accounting, it could be finance, it could be marketing, ethics needs to permeate. When we get up and go to work in the morning we need to be two things, ethical and legal. And I believe very strongly that ethics has to permeate everything we do. And I learned that lesson back at the November group, and I learned  a few other lessons about ethics as well.

And ethics has to come from the top. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

It should. And one of the reasons I really enjoyed your book Bill, and I'm a big advocate for it, and for what you talk about is that I truly believe that the leaders we celebrate, the books we celebrate, the stories we tell, also show people what's important and what's not.

If we celebrate leaders, business leaders that are able to achieve great shareholder returns, even have products that are transformative, but cut corners and didn't have the right ethics, we are encouraging younger leaders to pursue the same path. 

That's why I really enjoyed reading the different stories that you shared because in every one of the instances you prioritized purpose and ethics over what was expedient.


Bill Novelli: 

I thank you for saying that, you know the MBAs that I teach they are tomorrow's leaders. And I try to really get things going on ethics. I try to be controversial. So I have assigned a reading called "get rich cheating." It's a satire. And I have to put in the syllabus. This is a satire because I don't want any of these foreign students who take things very literally to think that I'm serious, but I try to get the students to talk about cheating, about performing unethically.

And I say, well, what's wrong with doing it just this once. And believe me Mahan, they are not buying it. They are very ethical people. They are determined to be ethical. And I tell one story about how this Chinese American student, I said, well, what do you think about cheating? And she got up and she walked away from the camera. This was virtual, and she came back and she had a baby on her lap. And she said, "this is why I don't cheat." 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's a perfect example of why the young people are fortunate to have people like you training them with the kind of ethics that Georgetown also emphasizes. You also share a lot of great examples Bill in your book, including CVS as an example of truly leading with purpose, not purpose as a statement that is plastered on a walls, not purpose that when there is a demonstration or a cause that is shared on social media, but purpose that actually costs the organization. But the stick by values and purpose, 


Bill Novelli: 

I think CVS health is a good example of what you're talking about.

So they set out to become a health company. And then they said to themselves how can we be a health company and sell cigarettes? So as you say, they took cigarettes out of their stores. It costs them $2 billion a year in revenues, but they made it back and they made it back by essentially reinventing the company, adding all kinds of health products doing all sorts of things to make themselves a true health company, and even changed their name. That's what they are and who they are. 

And the woman who runs their corporate social responsibility, she says, "I am the best recruiter that our company has." She said, "pharmacists come to work at CVS health, truck drivers, all kinds of people because they believe in our purpose."

And there you see a really good example of doing well by doing good. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

And purpose and values, if there isn't a cost associated with it are not truly purpose and values. So in that instance, there was a cost associated with it also, which is good for CVS and their leadership. Now, another thing you say that I absolutely love, and I have this quote now all over is "problems worthy of attack, prove their worth by attacking back."


Bill Novelli: 

Yes, exactly. The big problems. The kinds of things that you and I know that we have to deal with. You know, if you look at the really big problems that we face today one of the very biggest, if not the biggest is climate change. We're talking about obesity and overweight, which United States is exporting around the world.

We're talking about all kinds of things that have to be faced up to, and that's why we just can't have endless combat. We need to get everybody involved. All the sectors, government non-profit business. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

It isn't either. Or as you say, everyone has to come to the table to address these issues that are broad in scope.

Now, in addition, obviously, to your book Bill, as a professor at Georgetown, I know you also assigned Clayton Christian's book. How will you measure your life? I absolutely love Christiansen. And that book, in addition to that, are there any other leadership books or resources you recommend when leaders ask you, they want to become more purpose driven and make that a part of the culture of the organization?


Bill Novelli: 

I do have a favorite book to recommend it's called "It's the Manager." Now you think to yourself, well, this is a book about managers, not about leaders. But, you know, and I know that it's about both, that if you're going to be a great leader, you've got to have good managers. And if you're going to be managing something, you know, it helps to have leadership.

So this book is called "It's the Manager." And it's put out by Gallup the Gallup organization and the CEO and chairman of Gallop, a guy named Jim Clifton who wrote a foreword to my book. Is the co-author of this book along with a guy named Jim Harter.

You can read that book anywhere, on an airplane in the gym, wherever you please. And it is absolutely full of good ideas.  You read that book and you can really understand how to run an organization. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's fantastic recommendation. Thank you for that. And how, in addition to the links we put in the show notes, how would you recommend for the audience to find out more about you, your book and connect with you Bill?


Bill Novelli: 

Oh, you're kind to ask that. Well, it's very simple. Just go to billnovelli.com.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

That makes it easy and simple. So I appreciate that. I truly appreciate. The fact that you have spent a lifetime in different types of organizations fighting for what's right, and fighting for purpose. Now, capturing that in the book, in addition to sharing it with the business leaders at Georgetown, you are my distinguished  professor.  I know your wife doesn't call you distinguished professor. It's okay. 


Bill Novelli: 

I cannot get her to call me that.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

We share that in common. My wife loves me too, but you know, she draws the line somewhere, but I have to tell you, Georgetown is fortunate to have you as distinguished professor of practice and we are fortunate to have you share your insights with the partnering leadership community. Thank you so much, Bill Novelli.


Bill Novelli: 

Mahan, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure.