Change is often met with resistance, but for P&G Asia Group President Deb Henretta, capitalizing on change as an opportunity promotes out-of-the-box thinking and progress

Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Plato said, “Nothing endures but change itself.”

Nowhere in the world is this universal truth more evident today than in Asia. Fifty years ago, India and China were among the world’s poorest economies, with each churning out barely 4 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Today, major advances in communications and information technology, rapid progress in transportation, and stronger commitments to globalization have led to accelerated growth rates among the “poor” countries of yesterday.

“When I first came to Asia six years ago, I remember going to Vietnam for the first time—I was amazed by all the bicycles in a certain area of the city because that was such a foreign thing for me coming from the west, where everything was automotive and cars,” shares P&G Asia Group President Deb Henretta in a recent talk co-organized by Asia Society Philippines and the Women Business Council Philippines. “I would take a photo of the same area every time I went to Vietnam, and what I have now is a progression of photos where the country has gone from bikes and scooters, scooters and some cars, to some cars and trucks, and now it’s a bustling automotive-heavy country. The pace of that change has been extraordinary that you can watch it in six-month chunks just moving along.”

With these relatively rapid changes come risks of serious consequences, the most significant of which is the recent global economic crisis. “We are also dealing with pressures on the environment, growing energy demands vs. shrinking energy supplies, and a growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of the world,” shares Henretta. “It is no longer enough to be open to change—you have to embrace it and find ways to use it to your advantage.”

‘Leapfrogging is the New Reality’

In an age where technology is advancing so fast, the once seemingly impenetrable “big” businesses now face the same uncertainties that have always been present in new and smaller enterprises. “Leapfrogging is the new reality. Rapid change is not only hitting the products and services being sold, but also whether or not your products are going to be sold at all in the new world,” says Henretta. “Whole generations of products and services are being skipped; India, for one, is going to largely skip wired or hard-lined phones, computers and laptops because they’re going immediately into mobile. So all those companies still in this line of business, they’re going to be out of luck because everything is going to skip immediately to digital.”

Unfortunately, companies today still run their businesses using conventional models and tools, which may actually prove detrimental to the development of innovative business strategies. “If you’re in the communication industry and you have not gone digital, you really risk being left out at least by some economies and probably by your own economy as it advances,” says Henretta. “I myself could never have imagined that two small handheld devices (an iPhone and a Blackberry) would pretty much be my computer, but that is exactly the world I have moved into.”

According to Henretta, no better group grasps the leapfrogging concept than what the media has dubbed as Generation Y. “I define Gen Y as people under 30,” begins Henretta, “but more than that, it’s really the ability to accept change, adopt it, and accelerate it. They’re leapfrogging in terms of technology, and they push this concept because they think differently about the world and the technology they’re playing with.”

The Digital Generation

The effect of Generation Y, forecasts Henretta, is going to be much more pronounced than other generations, especially in Asia because of its relatively young population. “Today, one in four employees [in Asia] is Gen Y. In P&G, about two in four employees are Gen Y, which is 50 percent of the workforce.”

Henretta believes that Generation Y are firestarters. “They challenge the status quo, and they demand that sustainability and social responsibility be addressed. They also do not want to be slaves to their jobs as they’ve seen many of their parents be, and they see technology as a way to achieve work-life balance.”

Largely a virtual generation, Generation Y is fast changing the way companies run their businesses. “Gen Ys are comfortable with virtual meetings; they do not need to be personally present to feel connected. For them, work is not a place to go but an activity to get done, which they can do from anywhere,” shares Henretta. “I think for business leaders, this has a very important ramification because the whole notion of packing up your briefcase and going to the office is quickly going to be a thing of the past.”

‘Passion is Our Power’
Being emotional often has a negative connotation for women in business. “A lot of the time, people say women are too emotional. But I believe that emotion is the source of our passion, and if we can channel and funnel emotion positively, that is where our power is. Passion powers our contribution and accomplishment in work and social activities,” says top international businesswoman Deb Henretta. “Passion helps us pick ourselves up again and again and again if that’s what is required of us to succeed. Some might call it stubbornness or the fear of failure, but regardless, persistence is a trait that fuels our passion. Success came from trying, failing, and having the courage to try again. Failure, in my career, has become my greatest teacher. Success is less about what you’re given as a starting point, but more about what you make of what you’re given.”

When Henretta assumed her role as Group President of Procter & Gamble Asia in 2007, she admits to having little background in the operations side of the business. Since then, she has been responsible for three consecutive years of record sales and profits for the company’s $15 billion business spread across key markets like China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia, and the ASEAN countries.

Henretta plays an active role in discussions on driving growth in Asia and is a Board Member of the Singapore Economic Development Board. She is the first woman appointed Chair of the Business Council of the 21st economy Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In 2010, she was listed no. 20 on Fortune Magazine’s list of “Most Powerful Women in Business-International.

Published in the January 10, 2011 issue of the Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section.