Clorox CEO: Be Kind, Not Nice

Linda Rendle talks about shifting corporate culture and achieving gender parity in business leadership

March 13, 2024

Clorox CEO and chairperson, Linda Rendle, never expected to be a CEO.

“I never looked at this job and saw people who were like me for a number of years,” Rendle told Dean Bill Boulding as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “I thought it was a place where I wouldn’t ever be allowed to be, to be really honest.”

Rendle credits many mentors with helping her see herself differently. Several times in her career she worked for a single mom who openly shared her joys and struggles—and coached Rendle through coming back from maternity leave after the birth of her first son.

“She just said to me, ‘Trust me, you are going to get better as a result of this.’” Rendle said. “‘All the stuff you do in your job today that is low value, you are going to stop doing it and you are only going to focus on what matters.’ It was those types of moments with mentors that reframed things for me.”

Rendle said eventually she was reporting to a CEO who encouraged her to consider leading a company.

“He helped paint a picture for me of what this could look like,” Rendle said. “That’s such a gift he gave me, because then I started to paint my own picture of what it could look like.”

Getting more women into top corporate leadership positions

Rendle says getting more women into the C-suite isn’t possible overnight because more talent needs to be cultivated deeper into organizations. However, she believes that doesn’t mean just waiting 20 years and hoping things will be different.

“We need people in jobs like mine and in senior leadership jobs to reach down in organizations and ensure that people of color and women are getting opportunities, and that we are eliminating bias in the decision-making in that process, ” Rendle said.  

Rendle believes authentic conversations are also critical. She has two teenage sons and is open about the tradeoffs of being a CEO.

“There’s a sacrifice that I’ve had to make, and sacrifice they’ve had to make, for me to be in this role,” Rendle said. “I think knowing that and approaching that and knowing that your life has different chapters and meanings and being open to what that journey is, is really important for women—and knowing that it won’t necessarily look like a career of a male counterpart, and that’s OK.”

Rendle says she lives by the mantra “there are very few one-way doors in life.” She says it’s important to recognize most career decisions are two-way doors and can be changed if they aren’t suiting an individual’s priorities or balance. She also believes in being realistic about what’s achievable and in what timeframe.

“That old thing that you can have it all, please let it go,” Rendle said. “You can have a lot over the course of a lifetime, but you can never have it all at once.”

Instilling a culture of kindness

Rendle’s commitment to personal authenticity also translates into building a corporate culture in which  honesty is valued as a form of kindness.

“We are a very nice culture,” Rendle said. “We are trying to move from nice to kind, where debate is valued and expected and where diverse opinions matter.”

Rendle says the honesty and candor that comes from kindness are key to making people and organizations better.

“Nice just means you just want to make someone feel good, I think,” Rendle said.  “Kind is you say what they need to hear and tell them the truth. That doesn’t always feel good, but in the end, that’s the right thing to do.”  

It’s a quality of accountability that she expects in her managers—she assesses not just “what” they did, but “how.”

“So, we’ve had people who are terrifically successful at driving outcomes, and they destroy the talent they work with—and that’s unacceptable,” Rendle said. “And then we have people who only focus on people and aren’t getting the outcomes—and that’s not acceptable, either.”

Learning from failure

Rendle says she’s by far learned the most when things didn’t go her way. A competitive athlete growing up, she had a coach who would ask “why” the team failed after every loss—a practice she maintains.

“I try in all these moments to just be curious and ask ‘why?’ and then learn,” Rendle said. “And if you can just sit in curiosity and examine it, almost like a third party, and not take it too personal, then you learn.”

Rendle encourages people to embrace the curiosity of failure as they rise in their careers, instead of letting the fear of failure control their decisions.  

“If you let yourself take risks and if you let yourself have the possibility to fail, you’ll do amazing things.”


Editor’s note: You can read more about Linda Rendle’s views on incorporating ESG into the business strategy here.

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