What scares CEOs

Don Lewis

You know what scares CEOs? They are petrified that they aren't going to find out something important about their companies because they are too sheltered by the people who directly report to them. They experience constant tension between the responsibilities of their position and, in many cases, the desire to be directly in contact with the most basic operations of their organizations and the people doing them.

"It’s one of things I have the biggest difficulty with because it’s one of the things I love," said Donald Lewis, president of SCA Americas, headquartered in Philadelphia. Its parent is a global Swedish company that sells napkins, diapers, adult incontinence products and feminine hygiene products worldwide. Lewis supervises 8,000 of the company's 44,000 employees and his territory encompasses 5,000 miles from Canada to South America.  

"I get energy two ways, being in front of employees and being in front of customers and I need that as fuel," Lewis said during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "If I’m stuck in an office too long and I don’t get to do one of those things, I’m not my best. One gives me a view from the inside and one gives me a view from the outside."

Why do you think the television show Undercover Boss is so popular?

The show actually contacted Lewis, president of SCA Americas, and asked him to participate. (I'm not going to include his picture, just in case.)

"I don’t know where I could go where people didn’t know me, but I think it’s kind of naive to think that," he said. "I want to make sure we have the time to devote to it.

Q: Is there some job you’d like to do?

A: I’d do any of them. When I was a previous paper company, we got trained on the forklifts and equipment. I’d have no problem doing that. I think it would be extremely interesting. I have no problem doing any job. There isn’t any job I wouldn’t do.

Q: What would you want to learn?

A: I’d want to make sure our people have a voice and a vehicle because I think sometimes, maybe there isn’t a  good way for people to give their opinion."

Lewis went on to talk about an email relationship he developed with one of his employees, a female machine operator at a factory in Wisconsin. She emailed him that she and the others felt neglected because he didn't come onto the plant floor as often as his predecessor did.

He emailed her back, saying that his predecessor had responsibility for just one factory. He supervises 23 and regrets that he can't be on the factory floors more often. He promised to visit. She "got back to me – [she] had never thought of that before."

Other than that, I asked, was there anything else he learned? He learned that the workforce at the plant was confused about its place in the company overall and that the leadership in the factory "was avoiding answering questions, because they were in the middle. So they were avoiding giving an answer until they got [all the information.] So it was a leadership gap," he said.

That gave him an opportunity, he said, to coach the managers there that "I don't know," is an acceptable answer to employees. And because of that one comment from that one woman, SCA decided to talk to other managers in other countries and in other factories,  about how to handle employees' questions when the situations were in flux. 

Tuesday: Having a life if you're the boss.