Skip to main content

Alumni in Action

Badger Executive Talk: Tom Falk on Balancing Leadership

By Jane Burns

May 3, 2021

For Tom Falk (BBA ’80), leadership isn’t just a role or a title, it’s a balancing act. There’s the balance between shareholders and stakeholders or the company and its customers. There’s the balance between work and life. And there’s the balance of advancing your own career while taking time to ensure success for the people who will follow.

Falk has navigated that balancing act since stepping into his first leadership role at Kimberly-Clark in 1991 that culminated with 16 years as CEO and chairman of the board at Kimberly-Clark. Falk, who retired at the end of 2019, shared his insights on leadership during a recent Badger Executive Talk, a virtual speaker series featuring executives from the UW–Madison alumni community. Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, led the conversation and fielded questions from alumni.

“I always told people that when I wake up in the morning, I think of two groups—the investors who had $45 billion in Kimberly-Clark stock and want a return on it and the 45,000 Kimberly-Clark employees and their families who were counting on me to make good decisions,” Falk says. “Good companies are constantly balancing what’s best for shareholders, company employees, other stakeholders. Good management teams learn to balance that over time.”

With Dean Samba, Falk provided other insights about leadership and success and how to make an impact that lasts beyond your time at a company.

Tom Falk
Tom Falk (BBA ’80)

Trust your team. The early part of a career is doing, Falk says, but at some point, it turns in to leading and that takes a different approach. In his first business leadership role, Falk had a range of functions reporting to him—including research, supply chain, finance, engineering, and marketing. It forced him to rely on other people, and he spent time learning from others. “The higher you go in an organization you’ll be managing functions that are outside your comfort zone,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure you can build a strong team and know what questions to ask.”

Business is simple. On the first day of his post-college job, Falk’s supervisor and mentor taught him lessons that would stick with him for a lifetime: Make your customer happy; find a way to grow; develop good people and don’t be intimidated by their skills or success. “As I reflect on my career, it’s been those three things,” Falk says.

There’s no such thing as a work/life balance. It’s always a challenge, Falk says, because you are always fighting three things: what you have to do for your job, what you have to do for your family, and what you have to do for your own development or fulfillment. “What you have to do is recognize when you are out of balance and then try to get back in to balance and squeeze out whatever isn’t one of those three things.”

A diverse workforce is the most talented workforce. Throughout his career, Falk became known for his success in developing and promoting diverse talent at Kimberly-Clark, particularly gender diversity. It just makes sense, he says, and uses the analogy of picking an all-star team out of 100 people in a room. “If you get to pick 10 people from the whole 100 and I only get to pick my 10 people from the 50 people on one side of the room, who is going to have the better team?” he says. “You are.” Prioritizing diversity is prioritizing talent, Falk says.

Mentors vs. sponsors. Mentors can help you navigate a new company, project, or situation, Falk says, but it’s what he refers to as a “sponsor” who will impact your career. It’s the role of a sponsor to recognize talent and ensure those employees get the opportunities they need to succeed. “In great companies, it’s the job of every leader to sponsor the next generation of leaders,” Falk says. “A leader’s job is not to climb up the ladder and pull it up after themselves.”

Be the CEO of your own career. Even with mentors and sponsors, it’s still an individual’s responsibility to grow and succeed. Would-be leaders need to deliver results in their current role, have a plan, and build their capabilities. That might mean formal education or just asking someone to lunch to learn about their role, or maybe job-shadowing someone in another role. “Invest in your own skills, be curious about the business you’re in, and see what happens,” Falk says.

This was the final Badger Executive Talk of the academic year. The Badger Executive Talks event page features links to view past conversations.