West Pharmaceutical Services CEO Eric M. Green graduated from college with a degree in chemistry and quickly landed a lab job with St. Louis chemical and equipment maker Sigma-Aldrich. And, almost just as quickly, he was moved off the bench and into management.
“It seemed kind of interesting that every six to eight months I was moved to a new role without knowing about it until I showed up,” Green said during our Executive Q&A interview published in the business section of Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. “When I was 27 that was my first opportunity to go lead a rather large group. I was asked to go run our Canadian company and I had no idea what a country manager meant. I didn’t know that it existed. The next day I was on a plane and I went up there and met the team. We had phenomenal success.
What was it like to be 27-years-old and being in that position?
I didn’t know what I was doing.
Imagine somebody being 50 years old and having a boss who is 27.
Well, that’s happened throughout my whole career.
How have you dealt with that?
Well, I don’t look at age. I look at capabilities. I would tell you one of the teachings that I had at a very young age from some mentors from other companies who kind of took me under their wing: `You have to surround yourself with the best.’ So, if you’d walk into a management meeting at 8:00 a.m. Monday morning, here in Exton and look around the table, you’re going to see that each and every individual on my team is smarter, better, more knowledgeable throughout their areas than I would ever be.
How did you get these mentors from other companies? Did you belong to a CEO group?
The way it started was we went to Toronto, my wife and I. My wife was unable to work because of the visa situation. I was running Sigma Canada. It was a rather small, decent-sized entity. She belonged to a local charity group that had other ex-pat spouses participating, and they were much older than she was too. We just started to get invited to a lot of different events and dinners and to get to know people. And, I’m a big believer in asking questions and learning from others. So, we had folks that were running companies like Wal-Mart, Chrysler.
But how exactly did you ask, and what did you ask? You’re sitting around at dinner. You have your wine or whatever. How does this come up?
So, they’ll ask you what you do. Immediately, I’ll answer quickly about what we do and what the firm represents, how we service our customers. Then immediately I’ll flip it and start asking questions like, `When you took over your role, what were one or two of the most troubling things you had to face immediately. What were the big questions that you were trying to address?’
You start asking questions about how they took the journey they’ve taken. You’d know a little bit about their business before you walk in there, enough to understand if they altered the course of the business. `How did you make that decision? What drove you to that decision? How did you get the team to support that? Then, how did you get the organization further?’ I mean all of the employees have to rally behind [changes], because if you don’t have the whole team behind you, it’s a pretty tough battle. That’s where I would take the opportunity to learn from multiple industries.
Now you are in a position to evaluate managers as they are coming up in their careers. Any techniques? What happens when you visit West’s locations worldwide?
One thing I learned a long time ago, again from another individual, is that you walk into a site and you start having management meetings. They sequester you in a conference room.
And then you are kind of trapped there, right? Maybe they don’t want you to see what’s actually going on.
I always ask the leaders and say, `Let’s just you and I go for a walk. Let’s just get out of here for a minute and we’ll walk through the plant.’ You can tell quickly how they interact with the employees.
What are you looking for?
I’m looking for how they interact. Are they looking eye-to-eye? Are they saying, `Hi, first name?’ When you walk in there is it like turning the lights on and everybody scatters?