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Mattel CEO Speaks to GSM’s Leadership Class

It’s not every day that you get to chat with the CEO of a major corporation for hours on end. For most of us MBA candidates, it’s pure fantasy: we learn all the tools that prepare us for being in leadership roles, but it’s rare that we get to talk to a living legend about what it’s actually like.

This morning, it was a reality. But let me tell you, it seemed like a fantasy.

For three hours, the current CEO and Chairman of Mattel, Robert Eckert, came to Professor Bob Lorber’s Leadership class and was completely candid about himself, his career, his decisions, his company and everything in between. For three hours. It was definitely the most incredible and surreal time I’ve ever spent at Gallagher Hall. 

Robert Eckert

Eckert is a master public speaker, and he led off by asking us what we wanted to hear. After all, he mentioned, the first key to public speaking is know your audience: find out what the people want and give it to them (something that is also quite true in business, so long as you do it profitably!). He had prepared a discussion on trust, all based around Mattel’s product recalls a couple years back, and so we decided to have him deliver that, and then follow up with a question and answer session.

Through his presentation, I quickly discovered that he is like many of us at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management — he is a very honest, values-driven kind of guy who wants to make the world a happier and better place. When Mattel discovered lead paint in some of its toys, Eckert didn’t try to pass the blame off to its outsourced labor in China (who had outsourced some of the toys’ parts to other workers, who in turn outsourced some of those parts to other workers, who in turn outsourced some of those parts to other workers, who in turn used lead paint on a part of the toy). Instead, Eckert came out boldly as soon as the lead-paint issue started to escalate and said, “It was our fault. We are sorry. Here’s what happened. Here’s what we’re doing so it won’t happen again.”

Just before the holiday season, Mattel shut down its entire supply chain for a month and rigorously tested all potentially tainted toys. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. It certainly didn’t help the company’s market share or short-term financial performance. Eckert checked in twice a day with a global team about the issues until everything was resolved which took several months. He also hit major news networks constantly to reassure consumers that Mattel had taken responsibility and was doing everything in its power to fix the problem and improve the system.

Basically, it comes down to being truthful with yourself, your employees, your shareholders and your consumers. And although the results of that mantra might sting in the short term, it will definitely pay off in the long run.