Inside the C-suite

In this first in a series of conversations about leadership, Dean Jim Bradford chatted with Chad Holliday Jr., the newly appointed Chairman of Bank of America and Executive in Residence at the Owen School.

From the Spring 2010 edition of Vanderbilt Business

In this first in a series of conversations about leadership, Dean Jim Bradford chatted with Chad Holliday Jr., the newly appointed Chairman of  Bank of America and Executive in Residence at the Owen School. Holliday is the former Chair of the Board of DuPont, the Chairman of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness and a founding member of the International Business Council. He is also the co-author of Walking the Talk, a book that details the business case for sustainable development and corporate responsibility.

Jim Bradford and Chad Holliday
Jim Bradford and Chad Holliday

JB: You have an engineering background and took an early job right out of school with DuPont.

Talk about that job. What was it?

CH: I started here in Nashville as an engineer in a plant. My job was to make that part of the plant more efficient and effective. We were making Dacron. I had no intent to stay with DuPont for a long time or any big company because I thought it would be constraining. My best friend and I had a deal. I was going to work for DuPont for five years, and he was going to work for GE for five years, and then we were going to come back and start this company that we had as a project. I failed on my end.

JB: Did he stay with GE?

CH: No, he started the company. It worked. He did really well.

JB: Talk about your initial aspirations. Did you have some idea of what you wanted to do at DuPont? Was there a specific reason that you went there?

CH: Not really. My aspirations were nothing close to what I was lucky enough to achieve. I saw the guy who was the head of my engineering group. He was this stately guy who had a nice office with a couch. I thought if I could get that before I retired, that would be great. I think it’s pretty hard to know what your aspirations are starting out. It’s just a matter of learning from every job.

JB: Do you remember your first promotion at DuPont?

CH: No, but I remember I’d been working there three months, and they brought us all into a conference room. There were probably 40 of us. They announced that they were going to shut down a big part of the plant and 100 exempt people were going to lose their jobs. I thought, “Hmm, I’m the shortest-service exempt person on this site, so this is probably not good news.” I remember I went to my supervisor and asked, “Does this mean I need to find a new job?” He said, “I don’t think so.” I said, “I can’t deal with ‘I don’t think so,’ ” but it all worked out.

JB: What was your first job managing people?

CH: After being an engineer for about two years, I became a front-line supervisor in a chemical plant running 24/7. I think that was probably the most valuable experience of my life. Even today I think back to the three years I was on shifts managing people and to the real-world experiences they were dealing with. I learned a lot from them.

People can do so much more than they’re challenged to do by their job description.

—Chad Holliday

JB: What are some of the things you learned?

CH: People can do so much more than they’re challenged to do by their job description. We often would promote from within, and as a front-line supervisor, I had three people who, I felt, were capable of being promoted. I actually assigned each one of them a book to read and let them report on it, which was a bit unusual. I also would give them different jobs. All three didn’t become supervisors, but they made major progressions. And I found it made a big difference using them to help me with the rest of the team. For example, we decided we would publish a newsletter every night for our employees. Our newsletters were pretty popular. All of those things were, I’m sure, nowhere in the DuPont playbook.

JB: Was there a DuPont playbook? Was there something that told you how to perform this job or manage people?


CH: There was a two-week training course for front-line supervisors that told us all the basic stuff. I’ll never forget that I took the course when professional unions were becoming popular on the West Coast. Afterward we were asked, “What questions do you have?” And I said, “What are you doing to make sure we don’t have a professional union here at DuPont?” It was just an honest question. Well, that was not a good question to ask. Throughout the rest of the day, I was talking to higher and higher levels of management about why I wanted to start a union for engineers. I learned you have to pick your questions carefully.

JB: What did you learn about your management style as you went through this early stage of your career?

CH: I think it’s important to rely on others and reinforce them. There’s no limit to what you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit. It really is a team environment. And then there’s the very simple act of telling people you appreciate what they did. So many times we forget to say thank you. Those are very simple things, but we tend to focus on the money instead.

JB: So how do you motivate people? If it’s not about the money, what are the carrots and sticks you use?

CH: I think people stay with an organization because they’re getting development and they like the people they work with. When DuPont moved into Singapore, we found we could not differentiate any of our benefit plans. The government wouldn’t let us do it. At first we thought it was terrible. Then we looked at it more closely and realized it just meant we had to provide a great place to work: Our supervisors had to be very good, and we had to provide better development than the next company. It’s critical that employees grow and develop and that they be treated as a professional part of the organization no matter what their job is. Another good example is when I was at a plant in Charleston, S.C. It was the first big manufacturing role I had—maybe 1,000 people. The plant manager said, “I’ll come see you once a week. I only want to talk about the development of the front-line people. We’ll talk about that for an hour, and that’s the only time I want to see you.” I heard that and thought, “Yeah, that’s until the first thing goes wrong.” Well, I was there for three years, and those were the only times I ever saw him one-on-one. We would meet every week. We would sit there with the front-line supervisor talking about how we’re going to motivate Joe or Mary. We’d ask, “Are they a good team player? What do they need to be a success?” It’s amazing when you focus on those details. When measured against all these performance parameters, we beat our competition. I really think there’s something to it.

JB: You mentioned Singapore. When did you first take an international assignment, and how did that come about?

CH: It was in the mid-’80s.

JB: You’d been with the company for how long?

CH: I’d been there 15 years. They started talking about the need for an international assignment. I thought it was going to be Geneva, Switzerland. I told my oldest son, “You need to take French because we’re going to Geneva.” When I came home and said, “We’re going to Japan,” the first thing he said was, “Can I drop this French class?” Going to Asia was a big shock, but taking an international assignment was something that my wife and I wanted to do. I think it was really good for the family.

leadershipcompassJB: Did you volunteer for that, or did somebody pick you? Did you let it be known that you would take that kind of assignment?

CH: Yes, I let it be known, but I think people probably see those things as a lot more formal and organized than they really are. I was shocked at first when I learned it would be Japan, but I had this rationale as to why they picked me. I’d been to Japan several times, negotiated a couple of joint ventures and built a plant there. I thought, “Oh, that’s pretty logical now that I look at it.” But the people who interviewed me for the job didn’t even know that I’d done those things. It was not as organized as you might think. Sometimes you just have to take the opportunity that comes up.

JB: What was your role in Japan?

CH: I was President for DuPont Asia Pacific, so I was responsible for 14 countries.

JB: Did doing business in a different locale change your perspective in any way?

CH: I found out very quickly that people back at corporate headquarters couldn’t help very much because they really didn’t know the issues I was dealing with, and also they were 7,000 miles away in a different time zone. I had to make some tough decisions on my own, so I grew very fast. Also I found that when I couldn’t speak the language in any of the countries I was living in, including Australia—I couldn’t speak the language there either—I really had to rely on the people around me. The key to the whole thing is developing people and giving them confidence, as opposed to trying to make the call yourself.

Audience: I used to work for a large company. When I interviewed for the job, they assessed me to determine how far I would go in the company. What do you think of assessing the potential of employees so early in the process?

CH: I would never do something like that. I don’t see how you can make that assessment in the first meeting unless maybe by using stereotypes. We don’t do that at DuPont. As employees gain experience and their drive and desire starts to come out, we eventually offer them development and other programs that signal they can go higher if they keep working. I think labels, though, especially early on, can be detrimental. If you get a good label, you may think you can take it easy and get there, and you won’t. Or alternatively you may decide that you can’t reach that ambition.

Audience: As you move into a new position as a leader, how do you go about either informally or formally assessing the team that you’re given? How do you decide who is a good fit?

If you think that someone has a developmental need, sit down and tell that person—not in a formal way, but in an informal setting. You’re trying to help that person win.

CH: Go talk to the people who do the real work in the organization, be it financial or whatever, and they’ll know. They’ll tell you pretty quickly. Just go out in a very informal way and listen to them, and that will give you a great assessment. You can do it in about three or four weeks. And then the biggest thing is, if you think that someone has a developmental need, sit down and tell that person—not in a formal way, but in an informal setting. You’re trying to help that person win. I generally start with the assumption that everybody on the team is going to be a winner.

JB: You’ve talked about assessing others, but leaders have to make an assessment of themselves as well. What have you found that you’re good at and not so good at?

CH: I think we all have certain biases. For example, I’m a natural planner. If a crisis were to come up right now, my mind would want to find a solution that would keep us from sinking. Once I find that solution, I constantly want to improve it. I have to know when to back off my desire to make something better. Another example is that, in making decisions, I really don’t care whether it’s, say, 29.2 or 29.4. Most decisions I make are “yes or no” ones: Are we going to do it, or not? At DuPont I hired a chief operating officer who cared a lot about 29.2 or 29.4, and he would force me back in that direction. You should surround yourself with people who understand your biases because in that two-tenths of a percent there might be something pretty important that you miss.

In making decisions I don’t care whether it’s, say, 29.2 or 29.4. But I surround myself with people who understand my biases because in that two-tenths there might be something important that I miss.

JB: Are there others in your life who’ve helped you understand your biases? Maybe your wife? Has she been a good confidante?

CH: I think it’s important to keep your spouse or a close friend up to speed on what you’re doing. It’s also important to get feedback from them.

JB: Some people don’t share that information with their spouses or anyone else. Do leaders need someone close to them who can say what they really think?

CH: You don’t want to put too much of a load on your spouse because he or she might not have the tools to solve those problems. But I do think it’s important to have colleagues to turn to. I’ll often call colleagues at DuPont, who may or may not be direct reports, and say, “I’m dealing with this. What do you think?” I never make a critical decision without running it by people who know me well and who will tell me what they really think.

JB: One problem that many CEOs have is getting their direct reports to talk frankly with them. How have you overcome this problem?

CH: I think everybody has that problem. It has a lot to do with whether or not that person is bringing good news. When I was a plant manager in Delaware, I used to walk around the plant early in the morning. One time I came upon a machine that was on fire. It was blazing up about three feet. Fortunately it was handled safely, and the fire brigade put it out. Later at our morning meeting, the person responsible for that area said, “We had a puff of smoke last night.” I said, “In addition to the fire?” After that, word got around, and everybody told it straight. It turned out that the people reporting to him had not told him there was a blaze under that puff of smoke. In a situation like that you can’t tear somebody apart because they don’t know all the details. You have to allow the person enough time to solve the problem. You don’t want to jump in and take it away from them.

Audience: You mentioned teams and developing people. Are there two or three key differentiators—whether it’s personal characteristics or ways in which you approach your work—that have made you as successful as you are?

CH: One is don’t brag on yourself. You let other people do that if they want to. Also don’t care who gets the credit because, if you don’t care, you can get a lot of things done that way. And as I was saying earlier, you’ve got to say thank you for specific reasons: “This is exactly what you did that made a big difference.” I think public recognition is very important. It’s one thing to do it one-on-one, but if you do it in front of everybody else, that means that you’re going on the line and saying, “I really do think that’s good.” When I was in Japan, somebody came to me and said that the administrative assistant I’d been working with was really mad at me. I asked why, and he said that it was because she had a problem and was feeling bad and I hadn’t acknowledged it. I said that she hadn’t told me about the problem, but his response was that I should have been able to recognize it by her demeanor. It was a very serious point, and in retrospect, I should have seen it. She didn’t say a word, but I should have been able to see that change in behavior. I really learned from that. Every time I see a change of behavior in somebody, I always try to flag it to make sure that they’re OK, and people seem to appreciate that.

The key to the whole thing is developing people and giving them confidence, as opposed to trying to make the call yourself.

—Chad Holliday

JB: How have you found a personal balance in your life?

CH: Most jobs I’ve had are so demanding. You could work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I think it’s important to have other things, be it family or other interests, to balance things out. The same goes for getting enough exercise and sleep. Those may sound silly, but I find that they’re critical.

Audience: In my five years of working, I’ve always tried to identify role models and learn from their management skills. What are your views on mentoring?

CH: Every time we’ve started a formal mentoring process at DuPont, it’s had minimal results. So it’s much better to create the environment where people are encouraged to seek out others and to help when sought out. In every role I’ve ever had I’ve always looked to people who were willing to help me. I think a lot is in your attitude. If you have the right attitude and it looks like you want help, people will give it to you. If you act like you’re smarter than the next guy, they may not be there for you. When I became CEO, I contacted three other CEOs from outside the company and asked for their advice. They all were happy to do it. I picked people who were very good but who had different styles from mine. I didn’t want to simply reinforce what I had, but to actually learn from them.

To watch the interview with Chad Holliday in its entirety, please click here.

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