Lessons From a Failing Company

Leigh Radford is now a vice president at Procter & Gamble, but she started her career at companies in turmoil.

An illustration of Leigh Radford
Procter & Gamble / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When Leigh Radford was young, her father worked in logistics at Procter & Gamble, formulating new products and technologies for Pringles. Radford’s mother worked as an educator at the University of Cincinnati, specializing in early-childhood education. Later, Radford worked for Eastern Air Lines, which would become Continental Airlines, before going on to get her master’s in business administration and rising through the Procter & Gamble ranks to become the vice president of P&G Ventures. I spoke to Radford about her career choices and finding a job that combines the left and right brain. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lola Fadulu: What was your first job out of college?

Leigh Radford: I went to the University of Florida for my undergrad degree. I went down there specifically because I wanted a big university with a lot of options. I went for advertising. After graduating, I went into the airline business. I started at Eastern Air Lines, which was right after deregulation, so it was a big opportunity—a little risky at that time, but I had a passion for it. After Eastern Air Lines, it turned into Continental Airlines. Then I decided to go back to business school and went to Northwestern. Then I was recruited into Procter & Gamble.

Fadulu: Were you on the marketing and business side when you were working for Eastern Air Lines?

Radford: I started in sales. Eastern Air Lines, at that time, when in my early 20s, had gone through multiple strikes, and later bankruptcy.

I gave the example to a friend recently about my Eastern Air Lines experience when we went through the bankruptcy. The airlines stopped. I was 22, and I was pulled onto the tarmac to bring in a 757, because everyone had walked off. All the gate agents, all the machinists, all the tarmac workers. You just get the job done, and we went out there and did it. And you learn a lot—I mean everything. We went from 150,000 employees to 1,500 overnight, and all of a sudden it’s about cleaning the bathrooms since you don’t have janitorial service, it’s about writing personal paychecks to try to keep the airline afloat. And when you learn that at that young of an age, it was a fantastic opportunity, but I also realize and I never take for granted what it’s like to also be beside individuals who have worked for the company 30 years with an underfunded pension. Really, the quality of the companies you work for and the obligation of leaders to take care of employees became very evident very early in my career.

Fadulu: Did you have any jobs before working for Eastern Air Lines?

Radford: I’ve been working since I was 13. Everything from babysitting to being hired for the athletic association for my school to being a lifeguard. And I think one summer I worked three jobs. I did that because I believe in a strong work ethic. I just love that sense of independence and figuring things out and being self-driven. So that’s where it all started.

Fadulu: Were there any specific professions you wanted to have when you were growing up?

Radford: I always knew I wanted to combine the left brain and right brain—the creative with the business. I always wanted to explore the world around me.

Fadulu: How much time passed between graduating from UF and starting at Northwestern for business school?

Radford: I was three years in the airline industry before I went to Northwestern.

Fadulu: Why did you decide to go back to school?

Radford: I always knew I wanted to go for an MBA. I took my test when I was an undergrad, so I think I always knew that was going to be part of my plan. Three years seemed about right. Also, living through Eastern Air Lines and then the consolidation with Continental, I realized that this was a good time. I took a leave of absence. I graduated in ’91 from Northwestern, and at that time it was right during the Gulf War, and the airline industry was volatile. P&G came knocking, and I felt like I needed to take the opportunity to really solidify myself in a good company. This goes back to my father, where there wasn’t a day he did not get up and have a respect for Procter & Gamble and his job and his career. Given the fact that the airline was different than that, I wanted to experience that. I wanted to be part of a really well-operating, well-respected company after leaving school. That’s when I decided to come to P&G.

Fadulu: You grew up seeing your dad work for P&G. When you started working there, how much of it was how you expected and which parts of it surprised you?

Radford: I always felt that I wanted to go faster, further, and I sometimes felt that not everyone was running at the same pace. I think there was a learning curve on that, but that happened very early on. And then what I realized is if I was really clear with what I was trying to do for a certain business or brand, and got the right level of data, support, and passion, nothing was impossible.

I tend to innovate, no matter what business it is, and find new ways of making things happen. If you have an idea, you still have to sell your idea. I really pushed for things that never existed before, and that was my mainstay.