Interview Transcript

How did you deal with old friendships, in the business, as you moved to become that boss, the CEO?

That did not apply to me, because I moved, from Dow Chemical, to Sealed Air, so I was a brought-in CEO. I did not have any friends coming, as I moved up. But it happened to me, as I led a division or a subsidiary or things like this. I was a peer and then, all of a sudden, I became the CEO of Dow AgroSciences, which was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical. The minute you become the boss, everything changes. You don’t realize it. You don’t realize it, because you were friends with your peers. You weren’t friends all of them, but you had very cordial and good relationships with them. I spend 35 years at the Dow Chemical company and, therefore, you make lots of friends. All of a sudden, you become the boss.

You look at them and say, hey, we’re friends. But all of a sudden, they don’t see you as a friend, anymore. They see you as somebody with whom you had a very good relationship, but you are not their friend, anymore. All of a sudden, you became their boss. Becoming their boss means that they have got to filter what they tell you, and they will, because they know that you will give them the next merit increase and the next bonus. Therefore, they will be more careful in what they say and how they behave, in front you. But you don’t realize that.

It’s difficult. There is nothing more difficult than accepting the isolation of being CEO. All of a sudden, you become extraordinarily isolated. This is one the things that a friend of mine told me, the day I became CEO of Sealed Air and I was consulting with CEOs of other companies, who I knew well, who were friends. I was asking them to help me prepare for that. One of them told me, prepare yourself for being extraordinarily isolated. You have no friends anymore. You have people who have to respect you and who will, systematically, filter what they tell you and you make your decisions alone. You might ask the others but, in the end, it will always be your decision.

How do you navigate that unfiltering of information, up from the front line, to direct reports, to yourself?

Everyone has their own tactics. Because I travelled a lot, because I was doing all of those town halls, I would notice a few people who have a spark, who would be challenging, who would have interesting ideas and I would speak to them. I would bypass the hierarchy. Your direct reports don’t necessarily like that. Some have no problem with that; some are very nervous about it. Those who are nervous, are the ones who like to concentrate the power in their hands and give you a full menu. Those who have no problem with that, are people who are relaxed that their opinion is the consensus, the common sense and a well-thought out idea or strategy.

But that was my way of doing it. I would just go and probe down, in the field. I would test ideas, with people, one, two, three levels below. They are the ones who know.

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