How a small-town guy from Reading learned to lead a global company

Terrence Curtin, TE Connectivity chief executive, with a transparent car, showing all the connectors TE Connectivity manufactures.

These days, Terrence R. Curtin, 49, travels around the world, leading a global, $12.2 billion highly technical company, TE Connectivity Ltd.  That’s a lot of globe-trotting for a guy who grew up in Reading, didn’t even leave town to go to college, and still, with an address in Lancaster, doesn’t live too far from his elementary school.

“I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania,” Curtin said, during our Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. TE Connectivity, formerly Tyco Electronics, makes connectors and sensors, often used in harsh environments, such as oil rigs or space travel.

Curtin said he began to travel for business in his 20s. Before that, he stayed pretty close to home.

TE Connectivity has “always been global, and we just get more global,” he said. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful to other global companies, but we’re truly global. We are truly a third, a third, a third [in the Americas, Asia and Europe]. Most companies will say they’re global, and they’ll say, `I’m 60 percent United States, 10 percent Asia, and I got a bunch of stuff in the UK.’ That’s not global.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you really think of us, it is we have a $1 billion business in Japan; close to a $1 billion business in Korea, a $2 billion business in China. Then every country in Europe we’re in.  I’ve had the pleasure to experience the tension between when a German talks to a Frenchman, an Eastern Bloc person is talking to an Italian. It’s actually an asset for us. I’ve got to experience over the past 25 years all of that.

Would you tell me a specific story that illustrates some of the cultural lessons you’ve learned?

Early on, I was in a bunch of meetings with Germans, and I was the only American there. We walked out and it seemed like the meeting went fine. Then all of a sudden they say, `We’re not doing business with them.’ I ask why. `They never made eye contact. I don’t trust them.’

So, if you are dealing with Germans, you better make eye contact?

You better make eye contact. You go over to Latin cultures in Europe, so whether that be France, Italy, Spain, you can’t be definitive, like “No.” It has to be much more of a winding discussion where you got to be respectful. You’re not going to sit there and go, “No we’re not doing that.” That’s insulting.

Did you ever make a mistake?

I think I have made mistakes, especially when I was younger. Not as much in the Latin area, but in [showing] respectfulness in Asia, So, I’m a fast speaker. I did get feedback that `Everybody loves when you come here, but you need to slow down. You have to pause.’ You have to have some natural leeways, because they’re going to be respectful. They’re not going to say, ‘Can I interrupt you?’ They’re not going to do that.

Who delivered that lesson?

Our Japanese leader, he grew up in Japan, went to Stanford. He was a nice mix of understanding Japan, but also understanding the US. He and I were very close. He still works for us. He said,  “Hey Terrence, can I talk to you a little bit?” He goes, “Just pause. Give them space to make that respectful comment.'”

You were lucky to have such an honest mentor. Do you think young people should pursue a global component to their careers?

You can say, ‘I’m going to bunker in and say I’m going to live around the culture I’m in,’ or you can really have the opportunity to work with teams that will challenge your mind to learn those cultural differences. It will be harder because many times it’s time zone difference. You will understand the practical limitations of where somebody thinks in one language, but you might want to speak to them in English.

I always say, ‘Don’t shy away from those [experiences].’ I know that it may feel harder, but when you think about our world, which is a more global world. I also look at the benefit I’ve had. You should push yourself into those opportunities. What I like about our company is, we, at times, move people, so if want to live somewhere else in the world, we have people that go for a year or two. It will make you a better person.