Learning by example: How to stay in touch

John Crowe, who heads the North American operations for Saint-Gobain, outside new HQ in Malvern. He loses his Paris colleagues every August.

Like many CEOs, John Crowe, who leads 15,000 employees as the chief executive of Saint-Gobain's North American division, worries about being out of touch -- with employees, with customers, with vendors. "I think CEOs can get too insulated and stay in their ivory towers," Crowe told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

Staying in touch, sometimes, can literally mean staying in touch -- which is a lesson he learned early in his career with the global building materials company.  "You try to emulate the good things you see in your career and you learn from people. You take the best things and try to build them into your own approach."

Here's the story Crowe told me:

Crowe, as an executive, had been in charge of building a plant in Venezuela. The plant's hourly employees were paid standard wages, but those wages were lower than wages in France, for example, where Saint-Gobain is headquartered.

Opening day ceremonies came and...

.... "This big boss from Paris flies in on a private jet from Air France. It was a dirty plant, very dusty, very dirty," Crowe recalled. "You can imagine that our factory workers would have been at a lower socio-economic, academic level. So we had two different societies. So the big CEO comes and he’s a good guy, very personable guy. And we have all the suits [there for the ceremony] and we gave [the workers] clean white T-shirts.

"They just stayed away. No one told them to stay away, but they didn’t feel comfortable coming into the inner circle.   They were ringing this area that we had cordoned off for this ceremony. We were drinking champagne and eating a little bit.

"This guy from France, on his own, unscripted, said, `Who are all these people?'

"We said, `They are our workers.' And on his own, he went over and went all the way around this ring. They were just watching and he went around and shook every person’s hands. This guy was such at a high level of French industry and these people couldn’t be much lower in Venezuelan society.

"Do you know what impact that had? It was incredible."

"I think it was the motivation, the human touch and sensitivity and appreciation," Crowe said. "They knew who this guy was – he went and did it. Everyone else was mingling and they were out there by themselves. His human instinct was, this wasn’t right. They are important to this place. So he went and did that. That resonated with me. I want to be like that. I try to shake the hands, thank the people. Everybody is important."

Monday's blog post: Crowe trades in his corner office.