For as long as he’s been CEO of P&G, David Taylor has held a regular front-row seat in the company’s John G. Smale auditorium each July. Every P&G Signal conference features Taylor as a deeply engaged attendee, always leaning forward, always taking notes, and always jumping up to ask a question or to follow a speaker backstage to ask just a few more questions. If anyone perfectly models Signal’s 2021 theme of “Always Learning, Always Leading,” it’s David Taylor. As we look forward to this year’s event, Signal360 co-editor in chief John Battelle caught up with Taylor for an interview about one of his favorite conferences, and what he expects from this year’s lineup. 

Welcome to a very special Signal conversation, a curtain raiser, if you will, for our 10th anniversary Signal conference coming up just next week. I am very pleased to welcome P&G CEO David Taylor, no stranger to the Signal stage. David, welcome!

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to have a chance to talk to you John — and I very much look forward to seeing you in three dimensions!

Yes, we’ve got a special “hybrid” Signal this year — I will be “on set” in Cincinnati for the event, but most of the speakers will be virtual. I’m looking forward to when we can do this together again on stage, with a full house. Let’s start with this: As you think back over 10 years of Signal, do you have any memories of speakers that stand out?

Many, many speakers and memories. I think of when Daniel Zhang of Alibaba came for the first time, and of the relationship we built with Alibaba, and what we’ve learned from them. Or Katie Couric — just an amazing woman, who has done incredible things throughout her career. I remember Clover Hogan, a young climate activist who challenged our thinking in new and different ways. And Evan Spiegel, many years ago, before Snap became what it is today. Emily Chang told us the Starbucks story in China — there have been so many throughout the years. But the memory that I have most of Signal is the learning. Sitting in that front row, and after every speaker having a chance to go back and meet all these amazing people. They gave us all a chance to learn, and they pushed us out of our comfort zone and challenged us to think differently. The speed at which they were moving in their businesses challenged us to move at a much faster pace. Signal is one of the great events we have each year, just to open our view of what’s possible for our company and in many cases, for our country and the world.

When we’re in person at Signal, I’m always looking out over the audience, and you’re always there in the front row, taking notes, and every time a speaker comes offstage you corral them and get a little bit more learning. You’re definitely modeling one of the main goals of the event — to learn. On that note, our theme this year is “Always learning, always leading.” I’m curious how you learn as a leader?

I’m a big believer in something that one of our speakers talked about many years ago, which is the “growth mindset” — to be open to learning, to challenge what you believe is true, and then to try it on, to iterate. One of the big changes that Signal has brought to our company is that we’ve exposed people to so many different ideas. If you had that growth mindset, which is even if you haven’t done it yet, and it opens your mind to what’s possible. So I believe we always have to be learning, and we always have to be leading — doing something with the learning because learning without action doesn’t change things. Our company is about making things happen. Signal is one of the great catalysts for opening our mind and getting some new knowledge and a chance to build new relationships.

Absolutely. I’m preparing for all of the conversations that will be taking place at Signal this year. There are more speakers than ever, more opportunities to learn than ever. Are there questions you want the presenters to address? What topics do you hope that they will speak to? 

There are many! One of them is consumer insights — the insights where you go wow, I didn’t think about that. It’s just a new and different behavior that opens up a new opportunity. In many ways the pandemic has caused us to question a lot of things, not only how we work and where we work, but in many other ways. One other area that’s very important for the company and for the world is sustainability. Whether it’s technology, or work processes, or new habits we can form, sustainability is front and center in the broader area of ESG and its social and environmental sustainability. I’m very open and interested in learning as much as we can. And then always at Signal there’s going to be someone with a new technology that allows us to do something that we couldn’t do before.

I want to turn to the past year, year and a half — it’s been pretty extraordinary. While things are starting to feel a little more normal here in the United States, around the world we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. A lot of nations are suffering, and consumer behavior in particular, has shifted. What have you seen in terms of new consumer behaviors that others might learn from?

There have been many things — one, consumers have doubled down on trust, with all the uncertainty, they reach for something they can count on. It’s interesting that brands — and especially our brands — have done very well, and have actually grown share as consumers have pivoted away from brands that they’re not sure about. We’ve seen an increased desire for known, trusted brands like the Tides, the Bountys, the Dawns, the Pantenes. And shopping habits — this is the obvious one — shifted from primarily offline to online. Digital commerce has exploded, and I don’t believe that’s going to go back. I think people will start almost every search digitally, whether they buy in store or online. Now it’s a habit, and once you’ve been doing something for 15 to 18 months, that’s likely to last. And the other is health, safety and cleaning — which has come front and center. For a company like P&G, that’s important — there are many new or increased jobs in the health, cleaning and hygiene space, and that likely will continue. Our job is to make sure we meet the elevated needs of consumers in these areas. And we know there have been significant demands on our employees, physically and mentally during the pandemic, and we’ve got to be very sensitive to that and recognize all of us have been through something that we’ve never experienced before. People experienced (the pandemic) differently depending on what country they were in, where you work, and what you had to do with their family situation. The sensitivity and care for people needs to be elevated, it has been during the pandemic, and we need to make sure we keep that. It’s a wonderful part of our culture, which is to care for the consumer, care for our employees, care for the employee’s family, and care for the communities in which we live and work.

Absolutely. We’ve touched on this but I want to give you a chance to bring it home. Signal’s always been focused on education, inspiration and then as you said, activation. How do you want the P&G community to apply what they learn at Signal this year going forward?

What I try to do each time: Be open minded, take a lot of notes, however you take them, and then reapply them fast. If you don’t take notes, the last thing you heard is what you recall. You’ve seen me —  [I take] pages of notes — because then you can go back and get the theater of the mind takes over, you can go back and remember — the first talk I can remember as well as the last one if you take good notes. Then where you can — where it’s appropriate — you can test, learn, pivot. The learning never stops, and as a company and as individuals we have to be comfortable, challenging ourselves, get comfortable being uncomfortable in the learning process because when you’re a little uncomfortable constructively is when you’re most open to try new things and learn. Signal is a great catalyst for us to learn and then go do something. So it is about application, but application where you test, learn, pivot, learn from the consumer, and then let’s get it in the market when we have a proposition that really delivers.

Well you heard it here folks, permission to learn and to apply that learning. I’m really looking forward to the two days of Signal that we’ve got coming up. David Taylor, CEO of P&G, thank you so much for being with us.

Thank you John and to everybody — please take full advantage of this incredible opportunity. Signal is special every year. What a chance for all of us to learn.

Watch the full conversation below and reserve your spot here for Signal 2021 next week!