Crafting a Growth Mindset: Personal Brand Building Strategies from Michael Polk

Michael Polk

Michael Polk is a first-generation American whose father’s family came from Austria to the United States during World War II. His very hard-working parents and grandparents taught Polk how to make his own way in the world. “I grew up a pretty independent kid,” he said.

Polk graduated from Cornell University in 1982 and earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1987. He acknowledged that these degrees opened doors in his career, but he credits his growth mindset to successful tenures at Procter & Gamble, Kraft Foods, Unilever, Newell Brands, and more recently Implus LLC.

In a March 2016 speech at Cornell, Michael Polk shared tips for aspiring entrepreneurs, detailing how ambitious leaders can take the next step in their careers.

Michael Polk’s Top Tip: Ditch the Plan

Michael Polk said he was ambitious at Cornell but didn’t have a defined postgraduation plan. He landed in consumer goods “quite unintentionally” with an offer from P&G to work in its northeast Pennsylvania paper mill in Mehoopany, PA. “I did not know anything about papermaking,” he recalled.

Eager to live near his then-girlfriend who was in law school at Cornell, Michael Polk took the job. It was a personally motivated choice which inevitably shaped the rest of his 40+ year career.

“The experience in the factory was one of the most formative in my career,” he said. “I learned a ton about myself, what I knew and what I did not know, how dependent I was going to be in my career on others’ support, and how necessary it was to respect all the different roles in a manufacturing/business system given the interdependencies.”

Looking back on his career, Michael Polk believes detailed career plans are overemphasized. “Don’t waste time or energy charting a multi-move career path — put yourself in positions to learn, grow and perform,” he said. “In the beginning of my career, it was all about putting building blocks in place. With the benefit of time, my advice is to think about the toolkit skills and competencies that are going to enable you to be successful and lead an organization in the future.”

Leverage Youth and Today’s Perspective as an Advantage

The business world sometimes undervalues young talent for their lack of experience. While experience typically comes with time on the job, Polk believes one of the great ways young professionals can innovate is to have the courage to introduce new ideas, insights and approaches to established processes and ways of working.

“New ideas and thinking are the pathway to impact and influence,” Polk said.  Some young professionals are afraid to take the risk associated with introducing new ideas and get caught up with taking safer paths, doing what their bosses ask them to do in return for a perceived faster path to promotion. Michael Polk doesn’t believe prestige-chasing is the best approach. In his experience, developing skills, thinking differently, and bringing new ideas, and building a track record of getting things done pay off better in the long run.

Opportunities for personal growth present themselves with a track record of performance and with a diversity of experiences that prepare one for the challenges of leadership.  That’s why he believes young professionals should invest in skills and growth first and foremost. When you take the time to gain knowledge, build relationships and a network that respects your ability to produce results, the impressive titles (and salaries) will materialize.

Attending and doing well at a reputable school will do some of the hard work for you. “There is no doubt my degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Business School opened up new doors and accelerated my career,” Michael Polk said. But a few years in, “no one will remember where you went to school and what you did when there,” said Polk.  Polk thinks one’s leadership skills, track record of delivery, and demonstrated ability to engender followership matters most. “Just get out there and get going,” he added. “Build a track record of performance, make sure you’re learning and building new skills as you go, and things will happen for you.”

Polk’s Perspective on Growth and Success

Michael Polk’s vision for success has produced a highly distinguished career. Polk had numerous achievements at Kraft Foods and Unilever becoming a top executive at both companies. In 2011, Michael Polk became CEO of Newell Brands, and position he held for 8 years. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Newell Brands for 10 years.  He has also served on the Board of Directors of Colgate Palmolive Company and Logitech International where he served as Compensation Committee Chairman of both companies.  Since 2020, Polk has been an Advisory Director of Berkshire Partners, a private equity firm, and CEO of one of Berkshire’s portfolio companies, Implus LLC.  “Each of these chapters of my career helped me grow as a leader, and I am a stronger executive and person for having had the experience,” he said.

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