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Clif Bar CEO: “Leadership is one of the greatest honors you can have as a human”

Clif Bar's CEO on how he leads, how he balances it all and why he tries to remember everyone's name.

9 min read


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SmartBrief illustratrion by James daSilva

This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”

I feel my schedule is busy, and that I manage to pack my life fully. But, compared to Kevin Cleary, CEO of Clif Bar & Co., I’m a piker. Kevin is a husband, father of three (including a set of twins), Kona Ironman finisher, American Ninja Warrior contestant and the leader of one of the most recognized brands in the portable healthy nutrition space.

Kevin guides Clif by its five aspirations of sustaining their business, their brands, their people, their community, and the planet. Under his leadership, the company has grown to roughly 1,200 people and has fought hard to maintain its culture. This interview was done by phone, but Kevin and his Senior Communications Manager, Kate were quick to invite me to come take a tour. I later confessed to Kate that I would love a tour, but would need to train a bit harder before being seen roaming the halls. She was gracious enough to let me know that, “There are mortals among us”.

This interview was fantastic. In fact, I struggled to parse it down. I hope that I’ve found the right balance between wisdom and length.

Kevin Cleary (Photo from Clif Bar & Co.)

What keeps you up at night?

“Outside of my three sons?” he laughs. “We are a leader today in the portable healthy nutrition area. I won’t even call it a category because I think portable healthy nutrition penetrates many areas of our lives. We are offering nutritious organic food for people on the go. Our motto is that we feed and inspire the adventurer in all of us. The thing I work on with the company a lot is how do we remain a leader, and stay on the edge.”

Cleary went on to explain that, “We win in large part today because of our culture. We are now a company of roughly 1,200 and that’s different than when you were a company of 50.” So, he worries about, “How do you keep that entrepreneurial spirit while still making sure you are running the business like it needs to be run?”

How do you keep that spirit?

“There are a whole lot of ways through that door, and one way is to make sure that leaders are approachable and that people feel comfortable coming in and expressing themselves.”

“The other thing we are working on is making sure we have enough process. Enough that it doesn’t burden us, but helps us. Today, in some areas, I don’t think we have enough process to enable us, to help us move as fast as we need to move.”

Who do you think with?

“I think with our owners, our chief visionary officers, Kit Crawford and Gary Erickson. I spend a lot of time thinking with them. For instance, I had a chance about a year and a half ago when they were in Italy, and I went over and joined them. I spent four or five days with them. We rode bikes every day, cooked dinner every night and just talked about life and about business.”

He also thinks with his leadership team. “We meet together as a unit once a week.” He added, “I do leverage a coach on the outside, just to provide a different perspective and to hear myself talk. It’s actually really helpful and quite therapeutic. It’s a real authentic relationship.”

Are there times you come up against doubt?

“I leave the office every day and challenge myself. How’d I do today? Where and how did I show up well in meetings, where and how did I show up not well in meetings? So, I am constantly reflecting on my performance. If I run into doubt or fear, I don’t live there long. I quickly rip it down. What’s bugging me, what question am I not answering that’s causing me doubt or fear. I try to rip into it quickly because doubt and fear are debilitating. I do think that often doubt and fear can be a good indicator for the future.”

He went on to explain that it’s like “your subconscious mind catching something that your conscious mind hasn’t yet.”

What do you do when you are wrong?

“We have these five ingredients at the company and one of them is ‘own it.’ The first thing I do when I make a mistake is I own and I admit it. I own and admit it in front of as many people as I can.”

How do you fit it all in?

“First off, it’s me. I don’t mean that to sound funny. But for me, I’ve got to be doing this stuff. I have to be connected to my family, I’ve got to be connected at work and I’ve got to be connected to my athlete self. I just do.” Cleary explained that, in order for him to feel he is at his best, all three need to be integrated into his life.

“The other key part is I plan it out as much as I can. I sit down every Sunday and I look out at the next week. For example, I have my schedule in front of me for work and I figure out how I am going to get in my workouts. I plan out when I am going to have dinner with the family or how we are going to come together. It is not always perfect, but setting aside the time and prioritizing it is critical if you want to balance this stuff.”

What have been some of the surprising burdens?

Cleary understood the intent of the question, but it wasn’t the way he wanted to answer it at first. Rather, he said. “I think leadership is one of the greatest honors you can have as a human. The opportunity to lead other people is a real special thing. So, I never really think about it as a burden.”

He did circle back to the question and shared that there’s been one surprising thing. “It’s on, like 24/7/365, it is on.” He used the example of being at a local farmer’s market and running into someone that he works with. He said while laughing, “You just hope they didn’t see you yelling at your kids, but sometimes you can’t help that.”

Cleary went on to share another thing that has been tough for him: “Finding the right balance of when to step out front and when to let others lead.”

What have you learned about connecting with and engaging your team?

“I think the human side of leadership is really key, and it starts with truly deeply caring about people. The people at your company and the people that you serve in your business.”

He added “It’s also about listening without agenda. Really listening without agenda, and just putting what you’re thinking on the back burner, and listening to what that person is saying.”

One thing that I found particularly wise was Cleary saying “that you just can’t talk about what’s important in your business enough with people. You think you can just get up and talk about this is what we are about, the strategies of your business, or why we do the things we do. You think you can talk about it just once, but you’ve got to talk about it all the time. Because not everyone is as steeped in it as you might be.”

He added one last pearl of wisdom: “You’ve got to live it. You’ve got to live your culture as a leader.”

We carried on this conversation for a while, talking back and forth about our philosophies of connecting with people, during which he told me that he is well-known for knowing everyone’s name. “That is one of the things I put a high priority on, knowing people’s names and knowing about them. It can seem like a little thing, but it is a big thing.”

He then shared that as a junior in high school, when he was “probably considered the worst kid on the team,” the coach went around and knew all the kid’s names on the team but his. That obviously had a big effect on how he connects with others. He said, “That didn’t feel very good, and I wanted to make sure that’s not me.”

What are you most proud of professionally?

“I am really proud of the culture we’ve built at the company. It’s people-first and people-led, and I will take credit for my small part in that. I feel really good when I walk through the door.”

Personally, he is proud of “how I’ve been able to keep the things that are important to me alive as I’ve been able to grow my career.“

What would your current self tell your former self?

“One of the things I would tell my former self is just to chill, enjoy the ride. I am a hard-charging person; I am very driven. I am driven across my life and it’s all good. Just make sure that you are spending time really thankful for what you have and for what you’ve done.”

What do you want people to know about you?

He laughed and said, “That I was on ‘American Ninja Warrior.’”

“I will say this for me and for the company. I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and the company is not perfect. But, one of things I would like people to know about me and the company is that we try really hard to get it right, and that we’ll own it when we don’t.”

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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group. He serves as a consultant and thinking partner helping emerging food and beverage brands gain the distribution and win the share of stomach they need to grow. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Business2Community.

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