Former Chief Executive Officer at Sealed Air Corporation
Jerome was CEO and President of Sealed Air Corporation, the global leader in food and protective packaging, from 2012-17 where he grew the business to over $7bn in revenue. He led Sealed Air’s transformation programme to regain position as industry leader and increased EBITDA margins from sub 10% - 15%. Jerome previously worked at The Dow Chemical Company for 35 years, one of the top 3 chemical producers globally, serving in a variety of leadership roles throughout the world. He spent most of his career in Dow AgroSciences, before serving as President and Chief Executive Officer of Dow Advanced Materials, a $12 billion revenue unit of Dow serving customers in more than 130 countries.Read moreView Profile Page
Jerome, what does leadership mean to you?
I like a definition that I read a very long time ago, about leadership, which is the art of creating followship. In order to create followership, you need to create trust. Leadership, like followship, has nothing to do with the level at which you are. I have met some extraordinary blue collars who have created a tremendous leadership and people go to them. They are like a magnet, in the specific areas. People go to them, because they have created followship, because they have generated trust.
How do you look at generating trust?
By being honest, by listening, by being objective, by being empathic, by being what you want in the best out of people. This means people that don’t have an agenda and people who want to make the best out of a relationship and out of a given situation. It helps nothing to go and moan about the past. What is important is to take the situation as it is and move it forward. I have witnessed too many people who, over time, when there is an issue, they become defensive and they try to justify what has been done. In fact, it’s useless. It is what it is. As long as you are not going to come forward and explain the situation, as it is, we are wasting time, in terms of addressing the problem.
How do you foster that humility, as a leader?
Humility is about accepting that you don’t know everything and that you can either not know or have taken views that are wrong and that you are going to be able to come back and say, maybe there is a better way. There is an issue; you are now an executive or you are now the CEO of a company and you can’t stop yourself from thinking that I must be somebody. I must be really smart. The trap is, you forget what you had to do, in the past, to become an executive. What you had to do in the past, to become an executive or to become the CEO, is to listen, to make compromises, to ask open questions. Also, to engage people, so they tell you what you don’t know.
The problem with becoming, all of a sudden, the boss, is that there is a tendency to say, well now I’m the boss, I know better. This is really the trap into which you should not fall. Let’s be honest, everybody, to a certain extent, falls into it. We’re all human. I must be good, if I have been appointed a division president, a CTO, a CEO; I really must be good. But you need to really make sure that you have the humility to accept that, because you are at the top, you don’t know it all. The information is down in the fields. There is too much information today, to process, for you to know it all. Therefore, you need to go and ask the questions, so people come up with the information. You have to have listened to other people’s input and your team’s input, and you can take the responsibility for making the difficult decisions.
What practices or procedures did you have, to ensure that you stayed humble, when you became the CEO?
That’s a very good question, because you should ask my wife. My wife, when I came back from work, from time to time – and sometimes I was travelling for a week, or something like that – all of a sudden, I come back home and you tend to behave as the boss. Coming back home is really a great time for you to know that, no, you are not the boss. People don’t have to suck it up. You become like you have always been.
Whereas, in a company, the minute you are the CEO, you are not the same person. People will tend to see you as a semi-God. No matter what, even they don’t see you as a semi-God, they know, especially in large companies, that you are going to be the guy that determines their career. Besides the right ideas that they have, most of the time, they will make sure that they please you. They will be very careful. Look at the political system around the world, you will see that some people rally behind a president or prime minister, just because this is what they are, instead of having courage.
So to stay humble, you need to, first of all, recognize that. Secondly, you need to remember that you cannot know it all. Therefore, you need to ask questions. I travelled over 200 days a year, in my CEO job at Sealed Air. I was travelling to visit customers, to visit our plants, our labs, our offices around the world. Every time I went to visit a plant, an office, a lab, I organized town halls. In the town halls, I really made sure that we had a dialogue. People want to come and listen to what you have to say and you’re not preaching a mass here. Yes, you are making points which are important to you; yes, you are informing everybody about how the company is doing and what the vision and aspiration is and you reinforce core values. But the most important part, for me, in those town halls – which could be 20, 50, 100, 200, but hopefully not less than 50 to 100, because you lose intimacy and, very quickly, it becomes a monologue – the best part for me was, when I asked them, what would they do if the company was theirs, if they owned the company, owned Sealed Air.
What you would, systematically, have would be a big blank. I would make sure that I stayed quiet for about 10 to 15 seconds and then I would say, that was a question; please raise your hand and tell me what you would do differently. I don’t know; you know better. You would learn lots of things from that. First, you would have people who would be an outspoken person, who would just come and make a comment. Then you would have others, who just came up with suggestions. If you listen, if you are humble enough not to push back, not to try to justify yourself, not to try to justify management, you can learn a hell of a lot.
Why do you think it’s so hard for CEOs to listen, sometimes?
Because it’s so much easier to follow your own agenda. Remember, you are the CEO; you must be good. Therefore, you should know better. That’s an issue. There’s a great book, which is probably almost 20 years old. It’s from (Jim) Collins and it’s called, Good to Great. Every time I can, I recommend that book, because it is about humility, sustainability, of performance over time. It is about long-term value creation and it really is about how should behave, over time. You can be a hero for a week, a month, a year; that is not important. The important thing is, to be a hero for the long term.
There’s one thing which most people lack, in large companies. By the way, the larger the worse it is. This is about courage. In my mind, what distinguishes a manager from a leader, or an employee from a leader – because, as I told you, there are blue collars who are extraordinary leaders – is the lack of courage. If you have courage, you will think about what you can do better and you will try to convince others that things can be done better and you will carry out your ideas. When somebody in those town halls was suggesting something to me, that person would say, I would do this differently. Then my comment, immediately, would be, so why didn’t you do it? The systematic answer would be, the system would not allow me to do that. Or, because my boss would not allow me to do it.
I would say, so if you really think that this is a great idea or thing to change, why would your boss that it would not be right? First of all, you need to check that your great idea is definitely a great idea. For this, you need step one, to sell your idea to your peers and to your supervisor. Because if you can’t even sell that great idea to your peers and supervisor, it’s probably not a good idea. But if you can, then go ahead. Then, I disagree with you, when you make the comment that the system would not allow you. That’s not the reason. The reason is that, to carry on with things to change takes courage and will and additional workload. It takes courage, to come up and say, hey, I think we can do better. It takes will to carry on with that idea and sell it to others. Then it takes extra workload, because your boss will probably tell you, hey, by the way, go ahead and do all of this and let’s see if it works. Then the burden is back on your shoulders.
I would say to them, so you didn’t do it, because you didn’t think the system would not accept it. You didn’t do it, because you didn’t have the courage.
How did you stay close to the front line at Sealed Air, where you said the information about the business, typically was?
Sealed Air, when I arrived, was a great company which had, in my mind, lost it. Therefore, the best way to change a company is to engage the employees in that change. To engage your employees in that change, you need to travel a lot and go and tell them. Tell them that we can do better. Listen to them and give them hope that, together, we can do it.
Step number one, is that you think about what you want to change and you need to draw a picture of who you want to be, as a company, in five and 10 years from now. Then, you’ve got to test it, you’ve got to listen to employees and you have to give them hope that it is possible. For that, you need the face to face contact. You need to touch them – not very popular today, with Covid-19 – but you need to tell them, yes, it is possible; I need you engaged and tell me what bothers you. Tell me what it is that we have to do and, if you believe, let’s just go on and get it done. So you have to travel a lot, in order to learn and to preach. That’s what you have to do when you want to change things.