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An Interview with Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Nalco, Part 1

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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J. Erik Fyrwald wasn’t looking for a new job when the world’s leading water treatment and process improvement company tapped him to be its new President and CEO. But the more Fyrwald investigated Nalco Company’s track record and potential, the more tempted he was to leave his long-held executive position at DuPont. Just months before the 2008 economic crisis, Fyrwald made the move. Along with a variety of other topics, he talked to TheHighCalling.org about the timing of his decision and about the challenge of guiding Nalco’s 11,500 person international workforce through the crisis without the benefit of having had time to build its trust.

Water treatment sounds like such a vital line of work. How did you develop an interest in the field?

I had been working for DuPont for twenty-eight years when I got a call from a recruiter asking if I would be interested in considering a position with a leading company in the water treatment area. I told them that I was not interested, that I loved what I was doing, "but thank you very much." He was persistent and so I studied the market opportunity in water treatment and energy services and then I studied the company. The more I dug into it, the more I liked it. At the end of February 2008, I joined Nalco.

You became CEO before the economy crashed. How did you manage and how are you managing in this chaotic business environment?

Well, it's been tumultuous everywhere. The economy is challenging for every company. It was challenging for DuPont, it’s challenging for Nalco and challenging for our customers and our suppliers. So, we're all in the same situation. As the leader of a company, I have a unique opportunity to work with my leadership team and try to shape the response. Although it's been challenging, I’ve found it energizing because it's a time when people really understand the need for change. Lots of good ideas come out. If we engage our organization, rather than sticking our heads in the sand, we get a lot of really good ideas that can make the company work its way through this and come out stronger.

How did you get your colleagues and subordinates to trust you without having a long trust-building history together?

The first thing I did was to listen. I spent a lot of time traveling around the world visiting customers, visiting our people, listening to what was going right and what was not going right, communicating back what I was learning, both the good and the bad through email, through videos, through town hall meetings in which I did a lot of Q & A. I got a lot of email responses as a result of that.

I was trying to make sure that I wasn't getting up there telling everybody how much I knew, but instead was listening to what both marketplace and Nalco experts were saying we needed to keep building on and what we don't do well that needs improvement. I asked where we had the talent within the company to drive the right kind of change and what kind of talent we needed to acquire from outside the company to compliment the talent that we had. And then, I put it all together in logical steps, but moving as fast as I felt comfortable moving, and the leadership team felt comfortable moving with me.

To summarize, it was listening, getting out there, communicating, and getting my leadership team together to build a view of what we needed to drive change together so that we were all pulling in the same direction.

It sounds like you hit the ground running. What sustains you personally to take on such huge challenges and not be shaken?

I wake up every day and go to work believing that I'm going to do the best that I can and that it's not about me. It's about the greater good. It's about doing the right things and knowing I’m trying to build a company for the long haul that can do good for the world and good for its shareholders. And so, I feel energized about it. As long as I’m working for the right reasons, any challenge thrown at me is just another thing to deal with. It doesn't come across as miserable. And, as I address the challenges, I feel good about making progress.

You have a degree in Chemical Engineering, but many of the skills you’re describing sound like skills a person would learn in business school. Did you gain them through on-the-job training?

First, I had a good experience in high school, but I spent a lot of time playing sports and probably didn't study as much as I should have. So, when I got to the University of Delaware, where I studied Chemical Engineering, I had to study very hard to get through and do well. I developed a work ethic somewhat before college, but it was reinforced in college. Also, studying Chemical Engineering, I thought was a great undergraduate degree, because it's kind of a combination of science and mathematics in that you’re faced with a complicated problem. You don't get fifty problems on a test; you get two.

So, you've got to think through problems and dissect what's really important information and what's not important. You have to ask yourself: How do I figure it out? And, how do I get to an answer that may not be exact? There may be some approximations and some ways of figuring problems out that, I think, grounded me for business, where there are a lot of problems in which I’ve had to think hard about them and think holistically about them.

I think the Chemical Engineering background helps. Working in a manufacturing plant and then selling and seeing business from a number of different angles was also helpful in developing some skills. But, then every day there is new stuff that comes at me. Often all I have is the ability to have a process to address things. I’m constantly dealing with things that I've never dealt with.

Did you attend the management program at Harvard before you were in a management position with DuPont or sometime later?

I was already in a management position, but I was between roles. I was moving from running the Sales and Marketing of our Palmer businesses to running our Corporate Strategic Planning Group. And so, there was a transition period there where it fit well to go for thirteen weeks to this Harvard executive MBA experience.

For our readers who are in transition, would you say these types of educational opportunities are generally beneficial?

Yes, very beneficial. I'd worked for DuPont for about twenty years when I went. It was a chance to step away and get some world-class coaching and to meet people from different industries who were also trying to develop as leaders. I built a good network there. I found it energizing to step away for a few months and think differently. I came back with new perspectives that enhanced my contribution at DuPont.

It's staggering to think that you manage 11,000 employees around the world and serve 70,000 customers in 130 countries. What is the key to your success?

Well, it's easy to stay humble because relative to big companies like General Electric and Siemens, we’re a small company. But, I think the key really is, first and foremost, making sure that I have very good people. Then, with those people, I establish a good set of processes. We set metrics—whether it's tracking ethical incidents, safety, financial numbers, or key things that we have to do to get to the right numbers around customer service or around new innovation technology launches. I make sure that we've got a good process that keeps getting better—that we're always improving. And then, you need to communicate a lot—written communication, emails or hard copy for people in some parts of the world who still won't read emails as often. There's also no substitute for face-to-face leadership communication; not just giving messages, but listening and adjusting to our people, to customers, to suppliers, to other companies that do things better than we do, whether it's in safety, or ethics, or running the business.

It’s important to always learn as an individual, as a team, and as a company. As long as we keep that mindset, we'll keep getting better. As soon as I start to think that I’m great or my company is great and can't get better, it's not going to work.

How does a person sustain that kind of energy level throughout a long career, as you've done?

Part of it is traveling around the world and seeing that there are always others—other companies, other people, universities, whatever, that do something better that I can learn from. That's part of it. We always need to keep focus on the customer so that they want to keep buying from us. We have to keep getting better, because the competition is always going to get better. So, in the end, the customer will decide if we're creating the right amount of value to out-perform the competition and win their business.

And then, I inherently want to do good as an individual and as a company, and because I believe in what our company is doing, that's more energizing than money or anything else could be. I wake up every day and feel good about what I do. And I go home and feel like I've made a contribution. That makes me want to come back in the morning and do it again.

Nalco has an impressive list of core values along with its code of ethics and sustainability goals. Since you weren’t out job hunting, what factors caused you to want to work for the company?

A couple of things. One was the attractive market opportunities. The water field is a very important area for the world. I felt the same way running DuPont's Agriculture Division, by the way. The food challenge for the world is tremendous. Likewise, water shortages and water quality issues are going to get more and more important for the world, so I felt good about coming into a company that is working in this area.

Also, getting to know some of the management and board members and their goals, reading about the history, getting a feeling that Nalco is a very professional organization and that people are motivated by making a positive difference in the world and by creating value for customers, shareholders, and society. And, yeah, a written set of values is important, but as I talked to people, I sensed they believed in those values. It wasn’t just words. I also thought there was a good base that we could keep building on.

Nalco’s interim Board Chairman, Rodney Chase, said you're "an exceptional motivator of people and a driver of innovation…business acumen, strategic insights, and commitment to sustainable development." Are those skills you developed over time or are they innate?

From the time I was young, my parents instilled a good work ethic, the importance of education and of doing good for the world. I always worked, either caddying or at different summer jobs. Then, I got a good education and had many good teachers through the years. I would also say, after starting work, having mentors who helped me learn not only how to be a more effective leader, but who also inspired me to be a leader.

I’ve held many different roles over the years in places around the U.S. and in Asia and in different parts of DuPont’s business. I've been in manufacturing and sales and marketing and strategic planning, all of which gave me different perspectives.

Would you say that teachability is a vital characteristic for an employee who wants to move forward in his or her career?

It’s absolutely important to always realize that you have more to learn. You always have to be better and you always have to help. You do the best job you can at the job that you're doing to help make other people better and help make the company better, and then other opportunities will follow.

So, people notice.

Yeah. Just do the best that you can.

Did you seek out mentors, or did they notice your work ethic and your desire to do good for the company? Were these formal mentoring arrangements or more informal?

They were informal. They came more from me getting to know people and then asking them for advice. Most people are glad to offer advice when somebody asks for it and really sincerely wants it.

>> Read Part 2 of our interview with Erik Fyrwald: Do Your Best and People Will Notice
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