Chemical Industry Medal for J Brian Ferguson
9 March 2011
The America International Group has announced that the Chemical Industry Medal was presented to J Brian Ferguson, the retired CEO and Chairman of Eastman Chemical Company.
'Brian Ferguson is a passionate and effective advocate for the chemical industry,' said Sunil Kumar, Chairman of the SCI America Group. 'He is receiving the medal in recognition of his leadership in the successful restructuring of his company during a period of tremendous change. '
He received the medal at a dinner in his honour on 8 March 2011, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
What does your current job involve?
I am the retired CEO and Chairman of Eastman Chemical Company, a global chemicals, plastics and fibres manufacturer headquartered in the United States. Currently I serve on two public company boards (Owens Corning and Nextera Energy, Inc ) and consult with some private companies.
Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
I did. I remember having a chemistry set when I was about 10 years old. You could never sell those today in our more safety conscious world. I also remember taking things apart to see how they worked and putting them back together again (I was better at disassembly than re-assembly). And I remember reading a lot of scientifically-oriented books - science fiction, dinosaurs, volcanoes, etc.
When I got to high school, my interest developed further, and I took science courses all four years. I started SCUBA diving at 16 and was leaning toward marine biology or marine chemistry when I graduated from high school. But I truly had no clue what those people did for a living. It just sounded like a cool thing to be.
How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
I'm not sure if there was ever a defining moment of decision on that question. In my first college semester I took calculus, chemistry, physics and English. So my mind was already made up on the broad themes of my future career. I was working part-time in an engineering firm to put myself through school. That exposure ultimately convinced me to transition from a physical science degree to engineering. I think engineering better suited my personality and interests in building and fixing things as opposed to research and discovery.
What motivated you to pursue post-graduate studies?
It was quite along time before I attended any post-graduate education. Later in my career, my job completely moved away from technical disciplines to management and leadership. I attended the Harvard AMP programme for several months to sharpen those skills. But I never achieved an official post-graduate university degree.
What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
During my 34 year career in the chemical industry, I have probably had 20 different assignments. About half of those came during my first decade of work when I was developing my talents in a manufacturing unit in Texas. The rest were very diversified assignments from Washington DC to Asia to the corporate headquarters in Tennessee. The word that best captures my reaction to my various moves is 'surprised'. I was never pre-occupied with my next job. I rarely gave thought to how long each job should last and when I would move on to the next. So when new assignments came, I was surprised.
The biggest surprises were in the last 15 years of my career. An engineer working in a business unit at headquarters never imagines he will be transferred to Washington DC to work on federal policy issues. Following that, I never imagined I would transfer to Asia to manage our growth, or back to the US in senior executive roles. Each was a welcome new challenge. Each taught me something new that ultimately helped me in the next position. So I feel very fortunate to have had such a rewarding and fulfilling career.
What are the most important things you have learned in your career so far?
The words 'balance' and 'perspective' come to mind. By balance, I mean finding the best common path forward for customers, employees, owners and other public groups simultaneously. No public company is successful unless they find the appropriate balance of the often conflicting priorities of these constituencies. Almost by definition, the balance point you choose leaves each group less than completely satisfied. So it requires courage and resolve to lead in this inherently conflicted environment.
By perspective, I mean that my idea of the 'right answer' changed and evolved as I succeeded and failed in my work. Early in my career, my scope was narrow and I didn't appreciate how my work integrated with all other parts of my company. Later, when I had the opportunity to see the whole 'pie', I started to understand the wisdom of prior decisions I questioned as a younger employee.
What would you have done differently?
I wish I had moved faster on things that needed changing. I remember several situations where my gut told me we had to dramatically change something, but I delayed while I gathered more data and supporting opinions. There are certainly penalties for moving too fast on things as well, and they can be fatal. But in my case my biggest regrets were not moving fast enough to fix things that were broken.
How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
On a professional level, all large organisations have well established processes and structures to develop, execute and track key goals. So doing my part of that focused me mostly on short and medium term goals in support of my company. I really did not have long term personal goals, eg 10+ years regarding my professional objectives. As it turns out, that worked well for me because I could have never predicted some of the odd twists and turns that would eventually shape my career.
On a more personal level, I have always been committed to a healthy balance of personal and professional life. I have always reserved sufficient time and energy to give attention to my marriage, my family and my own well-being.
What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
A couple come to mind. In the first dozen years of my career, I worked in a well defined manufacturing hierarchy with clear chains of command and where decisions were driven exclusively by facts and data. When I moved to business and eventually to political roles in Washington, DC, I had to learn the subtle skills of influencing people who didn't work for me, and to operate in a world where facts and data may be secondary to other considerations in making decisions. That was a remarkable transition.
Later, as I took my first senior executive roles, I had to recognise that large groups of people were not only listening to what I said, but were going to take major actions based on my words. A these higher levels in the company, the stakes were higher, and people's lives - inside and outside the company - would be affected by me. That greatly heightened my personal awareness to ensure my words and actions were justified and supportable in light of all the available information.
What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the positions you've achieved thus far?
I can't say what works for everyone; only what I observed to work. My first advice would be to concentrate and excel on the job you have now and not on the job you think you deserve in the future. You get recognised for what you are doing now, not what you aspire to do someday. My most important advice is to be relentless in maintaining your personal values despite potential pressures to shortcut or 'colour outside the lines'. If you live your values, you become a person that is trusted and relied on. Be open to new challenges that you never expected, even if you're not sure you can handle them initially. And be the person who brings personal optimism, good humour and energy to whatever work situation you are in. People like to work with, and for, those kinds of people.
How have you achieved work/life balance?
I have always been deliberate about maintaining this balance. The fact that I chose to retire as CEO/Chairman of Eastman Chemical Company in my mid-50s should indicate to you that I continue with that commitment.
What is your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
I have no idea whether I have a 'leadership style', but I can tell you what I have done. I separate the more intellectual and data-driven pursuits of management (planning, staffing, organising, controlling, etc ) from leadership. Management activities appeal to your brain. Leadership done well appeals to your values and your heart. Good leadership requires that you understand the values and objectives of those you hope to lead. You must also develop a vision of how the needs of the company and the needs of the employees can be met together. Then it becomes the task of projecting that vision, aligning the people and the resources toward common goals, and providing appropriate motivation through words and tangible consequences.
Both 'management' and 'leadership' are essential to a successful organisation. Management (brain) without leadership (heart) is uninspired, stifling and leads to mediocre outcomes. Leadership without management creates well intentioned chaos and poor outcomes. A balance of both is needed, and that balance shifts with time and circumstances.
Regarding the question of keeping a team motivated, I have simple thoughts. I have always observed that you get more of what you reward, and less of what you punish. This simple law seems to hold true in every area of your personal or professional lives. If you ever think this law is not operating, it is because you don't truly understand what you are actually rewarding or punishing. My simple approach to motivating individuals and teams is to reward the behaviours and outcomes we want, and to shun or punish the behaviours and outcomes we don't want. The rest of the discussion on motivation is just details around those principles.