How one CEO nailed a big presentation...by staying quiet

Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND
Courtesy Kind
Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND

Every year, KIND attends Natural Products Expo West, the biggest trade show of its kind. In 2013 we were one of 1,800 companies exhibiting. But the real action was two floors above the convention floor, where we had rented a room and quietly invited a dozen of our largest and most loyal retail accounts for back-to-back presentations. These buyers, sworn to secrecy, would get an exclusive sneak peek at our new KIND Healthy Grains Bars.

This private approach to launching a product was not our usual strategy, but we were breaking into a new category — granola bars — and didn't want to tip our hand to the competition.

The night before, I was nervous. I intended to make the presentations myself. A lot was riding on this launch, and as the founder, I felt I could speak best to the product's features. I was in my hotel room trying to prepare with the lights off so my oldest child, 4-year-old Romy, could sleep. It was his first time accompanying me on a business trip.

Kroger, the nation's largest grocery chain, joined us for the first meeting. Just as I was about to start speaking, KIND president John Leahy rose. "Thank you for accepting our private invitation," he said. "The purpose of this meeting is to give you a peek under the cover of an amazing new product line in another, completely new category."

Only at that moment did I realize I should have checked in with John on what role he wanted me to play. While by that point I seldom participated in sales meetings, I had assumed that I was asked to be there to lead. Instead, I was suddenly conscious that John had a lot more experience and that I should step back and follow his cue.

John was folksy and friendly, establishing a rapport with the visiting executives. He told the buyers his objective was to create something special for the launch, and he introduced a video illustrating the passion both we and our customers have for our brand.

Then he coordinated presentations from the KIND team members in the room, who discussed the product and the data behind the launch. Marketing executives spoke about the brand, the new product's features, and our promotional strategy. We had a nutritionist talk about the health benefits of the five supergrains in KIND Healthy Grains Bars. Our sales team reviewed our performance at Kroger.

The only comment I added was to explain how obsessed I had been with achieving the right texture in a category characterized by overly dry or mushy granola bars.

On the spot, the Kroger team authorized the entire line for all their stores and asked to partner with KIND in promoting them. It was a stark contrast to earlier days, when it took us five years to get KIND into the first 180 of 2,600 Kroger's specialty stores and several years longer to reach all of their stores. The Kroger team later said it was one of the best meetings they had ever attended.

When the meeting ended, I left the room to take stock of what had just happened. I was so shellshocked that I walked into the women's restroom by mistake.

Every retailer we met that day bought the entire new line. We had never experienced such a fast uptake. It became clear that trust was the key element in our proceedings. We trusted these loyal customers enough to offer them an exclusive peek and a chance at partnership. They trusted the data and substance of our presentation, just as they had grown to trust the integrity of our products. The KIND team trusted one another with different segments of the presentation. Most of all, I learned an important lesson about stepping back and trusting my team to lead.

Learning to let others lead

KIND had grown from a team of dedicated, overworked generalists to a large, professional organization with specialists who had either come in from outside or had been groomed internally to grow in a focused area about which they're passionate. Case in point: Rodrigo Zuloaga, now the head of new product development, was our entire marketing department in the early days, as well as the person in charge of e-commerce and trademark law. Today those jobs are performed by more than 300 team members.

With that growth came an evolution in my role. Whereas I was once the leader, salesman, box packer, deliveryman and collections officer all at once, I now needed to retrench myself and empower my team to lead. My role, now that KIND has more than 600 team members, is to provide a vision, to nurture the culture. The best way for me to impact the company is to transmit our core values and way of thinking.

Indeed, before the trade show doors had even opened, I had gathered our team to rally everyone to live by our values. Some were longstanding team members; others were at their first day on the job.

"You have to treat every customer with the same energy and appreciation as if they are the largest customer in the country," I said. As much as our products "sell themselves," I encouraged the team to engage with every passerby and strive to educate them about our products.

To maintain our entrepreneurial spirit, we have to create a culture in which everyone remembers that every order, big or small — and every interaction, every moment — will define what our company is today and what it will become tomorrow. The moment you sit back as customers walk past your booth will haunt you five years from now when you realize, "That was the turning point when we took our first step toward mediocrity."

If you can inculcate in your team that every moment means everything, you can then step back to let them lead.

By Daniel Lubetzky, CEO of KIND

This commentary was adapted from a chapter on leadership in Lubetzky's just-published book, "Do the KIND Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately." Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House.

NOTE: This commentary was first published in April 2015 and has been republished with the author's permission.