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.

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