We interviewed the former CEO and president of Sealed Air Corporation to discuss the challenges that he faced as he rose in a hierarchy, and how he kept himself 'close to the front line' once he was at the top.

During the full interview we explore:

  • The importance of trust and humility as a leader
  • Responsibilities and loneliness as a CEO
  • How courage sets leaders from managers and how to cultivate courage
  • Sealed Air's transformation and how to structure industrial companies to control price
  • How to communicate new strategies internally and externally

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.