Podcast: former President & CEO, at Momentive – Jack Boss
Hosts: Rodney Apple and Hinesh Patel
In This Episode:
We speak with Jack Boss, President and CEO of Momentive Performance Materials. Jack shares his supply chain career journey starting as a mechanical engineer, then after ten years in positions at Honeywell and Allied Signal, saw the need to get an MBA. He highlights the value of seeking out advice, working with good mentors, being a succinct communicator, and being a flexible, self-aware learner. Jack saw the career-enhancing value of understanding the financial impacts on businesses and supply chains. He emphasizes how leaders are chosen based on their ability to work across multiple disciplines. He also strongly suggests getting international experience, preferably on-site. Jack sees the next three to five years needing emphasis on retention of talent, deployment of automation, and a better understanding of how to incorporate ESG in industry.
Jack Boss’s Bio:
(01:56) So let's get started here with a little bit of history. Get familiar with your background. Tell us a little bit about how you started your career and some of the key influences you had along the way earlier in your career.
I’m a blue-collar kid from Pittsburgh, first generation college. I’m a mechanical engineer from WVU, Rutgers MBA. Early on in my career, I was fortunate to have some really good mentors and leaders that trusted me, trusted my judgment. Given my work ethic, they let me take on more and more responsibility. Things like sending me to Europe, sending me to Asia early on in my career. Just kind of let me figure it out by myself. Make sure you seek advice. Don’t be afraid to seek out somebody who you respect that can be honest with you and give you good advice in your career, really help you with those blind spots, make sure that you thank them and make sure that you appreciate them. Having that person in your career, that’s willing to do that for you, I think is just key early on to make sure you’re on the right track.
(02:59) You mentioned your blue-collar background. There are a lot of people like that, that aspire to do great things and maybe don't have the best opportunities. Any tips as you were getting into your undergraduate degree that helped you craft your vision so that you could go on to much greater heights than you thought?
I would love to say that early on, I was that self-aware, but frankly it took me awhile to really understand that, I guess the one anecdotal thing that I always remember is when I was at Honeywell and then Allied Signal early on, I was sitting in my office and a Columbia MBA started in the office to my left, and a Cornell MBA came in to the office on my right. And I knew quickly then that I probably needed to go back and get an MBA. I’m not suggesting that an MBA is a must, but at that time in Honeywell, I was self-aware enough to know that the financials were key and understanding the financials, and as an engineer, my background was sales and engineering at the time, I knew that that was a key next step or key next building block for me was to have that financial acumen on my resume to make sure that I could have confidence in the boardroom and understand my numbers, et cetera, as I was being promoted.
I guess I did mention self-aware early on. I think if you have nothing else, being self-aware and knowing where you stand is key early on in your career. Just making sure once again, that you have that person that can give you that feedback. I can’t stress enough, when you get the feedback, don’t debate them, thank them and make sure you can appreciate that person in your career.
(04:38) You've got a pretty broad background. Obviously, you worked your way up to CEO level and have been on several boards including right now and would love to learn at what point in your career did supply chain or operations, manufacturing, when did you get involved with those areas and how did that impact your career going forward?
The first glimpse I got into the importance of supply chain was when I was promoted to product manager. When I graduated as a mechanical engineer and the professor asked who in this room, who’s going into sales and marketing, I was the only one who raised my hand. And so I started right out of the gate going into technical sales and I started my career carrying the bag. And I say that that’s an important part of anybody’s career. If you have the opportunity to carry the bag and be in front of the customer, but I’m not sure I fully appreciated supply chain until I got into the product management role, which was my next move.
You really appreciate supply chain when you see the full P&L you see the full balance sheet, or at least you see a partial balance sheet as a general manager, where you’re focusing on working capital, and you understand the implications of supply chain and not only your P and L, but on your working capital on your balance sheet.
The combination of going back to get an MBA and that general manager role, the combination of those two is a launching pad for me career-wise. If I had to advise anybody on when to go back and get that advanced degree, having that experience under my belt, that 10 years really was the right time to go back and get the MBA.
(06:14) You're sitting on multiple boards, both private equity public, you've sat in the CEO seat and been a member of the board in that way. That's a broad view of many companies. What have you learned that you can share about the view of supply chain operations in general from the very top?
I don’t think the top of the organization necessarily needs all the details, but I think it’s important that they know they’re being well managed. At the mezzanine level of the organization, at the director level, at the VP level. And we will drill down occasionally at board meetings. When I had my leadership team meetings as CEO, I would drill down deep because having grown up across multiple disciplines, I could drill down when I needed to in operations and supply chain and sales and marketing and finance, and you’re going to be tested and you need to be prepared with the details, but at the board level, being able to succinctly and quickly deliver the impact.
I think we all can debate what we mean when we say supply chain, but in the end, nothing really sits outside of it. They don’t call it the integrated supply chain for nothing. It truly does integrate across the company. The rest of the organization, frankly, is there to support supply chain. I know it’s hard to, some people don’t see it that way, but if you include sales in that statement, you include the customer, the front end of the supply chain, that’s the case.
(07:45) What are you look for when you're trying to identify and recruit great talent, perhaps those that you've got high aspirations for?
Somebody that’s has worked across multiple disciplines across multiple regions
is always a big plus. I look for really raw talent, somebody that has good analytical skills, good financial skills, good acumen there. And I used the term integrative thinking. Just being able to connect the dots, and that’s why having that experience across multiple disciplines, being able to connect the dots is just so important for a supply chain leader, especially as you move up in the organization. And the other thing is somebody that can establish good business processes or just good processes in general. Those are probably the two key things.
When I was at Honeywell, one of the things Dave Cody used to say is he looks for leaders that can execute on two seemingly competing priorities at the same time. You always use the supply chain example or inventory as an example, how do you lower inventory levels while improving service levels at the same time, they seem like competing priorities because you always tie lower inventory levels to lower service levels. And so, he looked for people that could be integrative thinkers that could do both at the same time. Seeing all the pieces and knowing where they sit and understanding them I think is key to being able to deliver on that kind of challenge.
(09:09) For a lot of people who are midway up the food chain or earlier in the food chain in their career, they look at risk and governance and don't fully have their head wrapped around it. Is there something you learned along the way, particularly as you got into the last 10, 15 years of your career around risk and governance?
Mid-level, director level, VP level supply chain leaders can understand how a CEO thinks or how the board thinks and appreciate it and show that they appreciate that is very helpful. Supply chain robustness has risen to the height of what we call enterprise risk management is something that the board is accountable for, the CEO is accountable for. Supply chain robustness, especially as of late, along with cyber has risen to the top of that risk management profile. And you’ll hear me talk a lot about optionality and I think that’s what we like to stress with our supply chain leaders and our business leaders is just having optionality around our supply chain. You hear story after story of where businesses that don’t have that globally are in a tough spot right now. We’re having a lot more discussion around global supply chains and we all know what we’re faced with now. Also doing it with integrity is becoming more and more important. Making sure you have the proper audits, foreign corrupt practices, having safety at the top of your priority, having diversity, inclusion. So, it’s not only having good, robust supply chains, but it’s how you do it and where you do it, is becoming more and more important to the board and to top management.
(10:44) You've worked across many different international boundaries. Could you tell our audience what's important for early to mid-career professionals, what they should focus on learning, adapting, to help improve their careers and strengthen their global supply chain as it relates to both the supplier side, as well as the end customer.
It seems like it’s a little less vogue these days to move around, maybe as much as I did. I did 10 different moves in my career, but I still think it’s critical to have international experience if you can get it. Whether it’s a bubble assignment, a short-term assignment, a second language, cause global supply chains, they’re always going to be there. And I think having that international experience, understanding other cultures, somebody who’s not easily overwhelmed with other cultures and global supply chains, that experience goes a long way. I never had an international assignment per se, but I’ve been on several three-month bubble assignments with Honeywell and they were the most eye-opening. Seeing how people do things differently in different regions of the world and bringing those back and sharing those across regions is critical. I think people are viewed, much more capable leaders, much more capable executor’s if they have that experience.
(12:05) When you look around the world right now, internationally, globally, the difficulty we're seeing as economies go through convulsions, restarting because of this pandemic. What advice do you have as it relates to owners or investors?
It’s tough, we’re in such flux right now. I’ll go back to that optionality comment I made before. We’re faced with supply bases that are at risk, carriers, ports, duties, currencies, regulation, it’s just all culminating. It always was there. We know it was always something you had to consider, but it just has been heightened significantly heightened and businesses are looking for ways to get creative, to try and keep those supply chains as robust as they can. You’ve got to get creative.
I’d say the other thing is no secret is just recruiting and retention of global talent. Clearly that’s top of mind for everybody. All three boards that I’m on, probably the number one reason we’re not hitting our 2021 goals has nothing to do, obviously, with demand. It’s all about supply based disruptions and talent and lack of workers. It really is a supply constrained market right now. And I think we all know that, but I don’t think it’s going to change a whole lot anytime soon. And so, having those robust supply chains, having recruiting and retention shored up, I think is going to be key.
(13:47) How do you see the operating and supply chain world changing within the next three to five years? And how should future leaders prepare themselves for these changes?
Retention of good talent will be key, especially with the whole move to remote. And I think leading through others, good leadership talent, being able to lead through others, especially in remote environments, going to be important, keeping pace with the related technology to that it’s going to be key, automation. I know several people that are in that bit. They can’t keep up with the requests for automation where it makes sense, obviously, in a manufacturing environment,
given some of the labor challenges that are happening right now. I think there’s going to be a big shift where it all settles out. I think nobody really knows, but it’s clearly going to require more and different out of our future leaders than maybe historical.
It’s clear too that ESG, environmental safety and governance is come to the front as well. Diversity inclusion. I mean, this all has to be integrated. Sustainability is key and it has to be real. It has to be embedded in your culture. People try to get away with it and sort of fake it and put out a brochure. And I don’t think that’s going to fly anymore. So, I think companies have to be serious. You don’t have to be on the leading edge of ESG, but you have to be serious about it. And I think more and more, institutional investors and just employees in general are going to look for that in a company going forward.
(15:18) As you look back on your career, you might've had some key aha moments when it came to operating leadership. Are there certain things that you could share that you say looking back, I really wish I had known that earlier?
There are a couple things. One thing that helped me a lot and I probably took longer than I needed to as an engineer to get here was just simplifying it and making my communications succinct. I’ve had several CEOs that I’ve learned from across the years that really wouldn’t even continue in a presentation in a board room unless you were able on the first slide to really articulate very clearly what we were going to talk about for the next 30 minutes. And if you couldn’t do that on the first slide in the first minute you had to come back. And so I learned early on how to make my communications simple. So just making sure you’ve got everyone connected. So, you know that 30 minutes or 45 minutes when you’re doing your global supply chain meeting, everyone comes away knowing what they need to do coming out of that meeting.
The other thing I would recommend mid-level manager doing it should just show what they’re doing and show how it impacts the P and L or the balance sheet, whatever. I think a lot of times at the senior level, you hear all these great projects and productivity and the numbers, but connecting it to the balance sheet or connecting it to the P and L, showing specifically, for example, how margins are expanding as a result of what we’re doing, I think helps highlight, Hey, you want to know that they know what they’re doing is impacting and how it’s impacting the P and L. And so just making sure that going into the meeting, you know your audience, you know what you’re trying to show for what you’re doing. I think that would be two things just from a career development standpoint.
And then if I had to shift gears and say, what I wish I would’ve learned earlier was just managing in a downturn. Another one will come. A lot of people that have been in their jobs now for 10 years, haven’t experienced a significant downturn. All those key learnings. I don’t know if they still exist, but if you can manage in a downturn and not get hurt, I think it’s going to be a real differentiator. And if, and when it comes having that execution capability, that speed, sometimes just brute force is necessary in a downturn, a significant downturn, just being prepared for that, I think is something that I wasn’t prepared for when I was a general
manager, I got run over by inventory where, there was a lot of things that I missed that having had a second chance to do that, I would have done very differently.
Frankly just having good leading indicators to understand about the market, most businesses don’t have great leading indicators. They say they do. Testing them occasionally to make sure you can see any potential downturns in your industry coming is important. And then how you manage through that also is just key.
(18:19) And speaking of supply chain careers, there's so much change going on, supply chain leaders need to adapt. What's your advice, how do you keep up with all of these changes going on? And what do you recommend that others do to focus on continuously improving their career?
Two comments. One is, just be a learner. I’ll go back to that comment on being self-aware. Make sure you’re constantly learning, whether it’s in forums like this, podcasts, classes, mentors, whatever you can do to be a learner and to continue to keep up on what’s happening, I think is important. As a leader, I need to know that my supply chain leaders are constantly looking at what’s out there and what’s happening, that they don’t get complacent because that’s when you start to build risk into your supply chain, when you get complacent and you don’t keep that optionality available to you. You need to make sure that you keep the nimbleness and the flexibility and the optionality in your supply chain. That requires continuing to focus on emerging regions. I don’t think there’s any turning back from the global markets and the global supply chains.
(19:28) What I've observed from the recruiting chair, I've always wondered, how did that individual rise up the ladder quicker than the others? I found that oftentimes, it comes down to fielding a high performing team as in hiring, developing, and retaining top talent. What do you look for when you evaluate talent for openings and what do you do to bring out the very best in your employees?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think there’s two things I’ll say. First one I’ll address is what do I look for in talent then the second one is what do I do to bring out the best in them. What I look for is people that are strategic in their thinking, they work on the business, not in the business. There’s some of the best supply chain folks I know, never really moved up. They failed as leaders when we tried to promote them because they didn’t have that integrated thinking, that strategic thinking. They need to work across various functions and understand that it’s really the entire P and L and balance sheet that we’re all working on together. So, having that strategic integrative thinking, it’s tough to assess, frankly, when you’re recruiting for that role as to how good they are in that area. So, I would just say strategic thinkers, and then leading through others.
I think you mentioned it just pure leadership skills, getting things done through others. A lot of integrated supply chain leaders just are doers. And they love to do, they’ll work 12 hours a day and they’ll have spreadsheets, but it’s important
as you move up in supply chain leadership to make sure you’re leading through others and hiring good, good people to work for you.
You have to force yourself to stay above the day-to-day and obviously hiring good talent, making sure you have the right organization structure in place globally, the right processes in place. It’s your job early on to put those processes and organization in place to make sure you can spend more time working on the business, not in the business. Having the right team underneath you and promoting the right people, carving out the time because your job is to improve that overall strategic process. At least that’s what I look for in a vice president or a COO is somebody that really can structurally improve the business processes and supply chain. And so just carving out time, forcing yourself to carve out time to do that is important.
I think it’s important to communicate constantly. I could never communicate enough as a CEO, as much as I thought I was communicating. All I ever heard was, we’re not communicating enough and it’s important for mid-level supply chain leaders, whether it’s a site leader of supply chain leader, a regional supply chain leader, it’s important for them to cascade my message or the senior managers let message down throughout the organization and it’s not easy.
I could tell future leaders based on who was doing a good job of cascading my message down throughout the organization. And I would do tests. I would test it at a certain plant level or region. Did they have a session with my slides or whatever? And how long did they take and did they make an effort to cascade that the company message, the strategy. And once again, those who really stood up and made the effort. It’s a leadership moment, frankly, for a lot of these mid and director level leaders as to how they actually communicate down through the organization. It’s a real test.
The second one is just recognizing how do you bring out the best? You’ve got to recognize people from the shop floor on up, and it has to be genuine and you have to be serious about it. And then providing career paths, making them visible. You’re making sure that you’ve got an unbiased process for evaluating and promoting talent. People see that. They watch the interview process. They see what gets posted, what doesn’t get posted. So just having a really visible career path and then making sure you have an objective process around promotions I think is key to bringing out the best in your leadership team and in your talent.
(23:29) Professionals often have, as they're trying to work their way up the ladder, feel siloed a bit. For example, someone who's maybe worked primarily in distribution or primarily in manufacturing, but they aspire to do bigger and broader functions. How should they look for opportunities to broaden out so that number one they're seen, but number two, they're able to effectively step up to a larger set of functions?
The advice I give and it’s worked most of the time is to make sure you find an opportunity to take on a project outside of your function, or take on a new role. Don’t be afraid to take a lateral role to broaden your experience. I always find it
important to get some kind of commitment from management. You can’t get a guarantee that they’re going to bring you back in a different role but make sure people know why you’re taking it. That you’re building your resume. You do see a career path. If you take a role in commercial from operations or logistics or customer service that you’re doing it purposely and intentionally. So, to make it clear that communicate that. Whatever it takes to show that you’ve got that bandwidth or that differential management skill to work across different functions.
I had a guy that was a strategy leader for a large global chemical company, and he wanted that general manager role and he could never get the credibility around operations and supply chain. People saw him as just leading at too high of a level. And he took on a big cost project for the president of the division. And he delivered it. He was able to prove that he could execute on the ground and he had those skills to deliver operationally, then he got the next role, but whatever your function is, getting outside of it, any way you can to prove your bandwidth is critical.
(25:13) We've seen a trend over the years where supply chain finally has a seat at the table. In other words, the C-suite, and then we've also seen many chief supply chain officers move on up into the CEO role. We're seeing it happen a lot more these days. So, if a supply chain professional or operations professional wants to move up into that broader general management, perhaps a COO or CEO role, what sort of experiences and competencies should they focus on obtaining?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Try and get an understanding of what a COO or a CEO or a CFO deals with day-to-day. At a director, VP level, you have very few opportunities to see a CEO interact with the board or interact with shareholders or rating agencies or banks. You really never have the opportunity to see what they’re up against and what’s important to them. What kind of questions they’re being asked. If I ever had someone come up to me, a VP or director, say, Hey, I listened to the earnings call and I hear that our working capital is something they’re focused on. Just being able to understand some of what a CEO or a COO deal with day-to-day I think is critical.
The other thing I would say is soft skills. As you move up in the organization, if you’re a president of a division or a director, VP level, you pretty much have the qualifications technically, probably to become a COO or a CEO. Let’s face it, most of the time. It’s really that those soft skills, being a learner, being self-aware, getting honest feedback of your blind spots. What are the soft skills are you missing? Why haven’t you let people be frank with you about maybe why you wouldn’t be considered at the C-suite, and just take it, take the feedback in an honest way and try and improve upon it. So, I could go through a list of marketing, financial, analytical, but I really think it comes down to understanding what happens in the boardroom. Then trying to build skills around appreciating those.
One of the points I wanted to make, which I’m pretty passionate about is everyone thinks you’ve got to come up the traditional way with an MBA or an
engineering degree. But one of the best supply chain leaders I ever worked for, we hired from Enterprise rental car. He happened to be connected in the company with one of the executives, but he didn’t have an engineering degree or an MBA, but he ended up being one of the best supply chain leaders we ever had. The best M and A guy I ever worked with had a degree in art. I don’t want to dissuade people from getting the right education and background but I also don’t want people to think that because they don’t have the classic finance or engineering foundation and then an MBA, that they can’t rise to high levels in the company.
I always think about three things. I was told early on in my career that you sort of must haves. You’ve got to be self-aware, I’ve mentioned it more than once throughout here, without that you really can’t get to any of the next two. So self-aware learners is key. Being able to communicate once again, number two, and number three is just having that passion, work ethic, fire in the belly, whatever you want to call it, I’ll take that every day over any degree or any type of pedigrees. Having those three in place is critical. Obviously, it’s helpful to have a good undergraduate degree and an MBA, but it’s in no way a showstopper. You just have to have that minimum threshold of intelligence, know how to communicate and have that passion and that willingness to learn, and I think you can pretty much achieve whatever you’d like.