General Motors and Merck Board Member Patricia Russo On Directorship In An Era Of Disruption

© AdobeStock
Corporate Board Member recently had the chance to talk with Pat Russo about her experience dealing with disruptive tech, both as CEO and a director of companies in the throes of transformation.

With respect to investors, the messaging to the investment community was all about here’s what we can control, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s what you should monitor quarter after quarter. So that was probably less complicated because of the nature of the crisis.

There was also, of course, the employee base from a prioritization standpoint. Everybody had to know, “Here’s what we must do, here’s how much we must do by when.” So I was doing quarterly broadcasts for the entire company, and we would report out on the progress we were making on our turnaround plan, which is what we were in the midst of executing.

As you go through a reduction of half of your workforce, how do you hold onto your key people and keep them motivated?

Look, it is exhausting. It is not at all fun. It’s incredibly unfortunate because we obviously couldn’t keep all of the people that made that company what it was during its booming time. How do you keep people motivated? For the people that I worked with, including the folks on the senior team, it was about saving the company. It was a matter of pride. It was a matter of working to preserve the assets as best we could, given the situation.

If you looked back at Lucent’s genesis, you could argue it was Western Electric in the Bell system, so there was passion around, “We have to make this happen.” None of us like it, it’s tough, but our job is to save this company for as many of our employees as we possibly can, for our customers, for our retirees. There was just a sense of obligation that I felt, and I know the senior team that led all of this change with me felt, and that’s how you do it.

What are some of the key sort of lessons that you would pass on about leading in a time of crisis?

I learned there is a distinction between managing and leading. The planning, what actions will we take, who will do what by when, are all management activities you do. But if you’re the leader of a group of people, in a really trying time, who you are and how you show up is really important. So I distinguished managing and leading. What do I mean by leading? For example, I never used words like, “I hope” [as in] “I hope we get through this. I’m hopeful that…” I said, “We will.” That’s just a simple example, like language from the leader of an organization in times of stress, body language, visible, facial expressions and the words you choose really matter. That was one of the key learnings.

Another learning is, especially for an organization used to doing things comprehensively, holistically, systemically, was that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. When you have to make quick decisions, roughly right is what you will have to solve for because time is of the essence. And I learned—and everybody learns this—you cannot over-communicate. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Say it, say it again, and then say it again.

Also, celebrate your successes. When we were going through our turnaround, I measured how we were doing three ways. The first, which I held people accountable for, was, “Are we doing what we said we would do?” You can still be burning cash, but if you’re doing what you said you would do, that’s something to acknowledge. The second was, “Are we making progress? Is it better than it was last quarter or the last time we measured it?” Even though it took us a while to get back to breakeven, it was important to me that we celebrated progress. And the third measure was, “Where do we need to get to? How much further do we have to go?” That keeps everybodys’ minds towards it’s never enough. It’s important when you’re in these times of turnaround to find ways to help feel good about something. I never said to the organization, “We could go bankrupt,” but I was very honest and realistic about the severity of the situation and the toughness of the actions that we would have to take. I have found that people within an organization generally know when there is trouble. They see it, they know it. They want to know that you acknowledge it and you’ve got a plan. The last thing you want to do is sugarcoat a real problem when everybody else knows it’s a real problem. So genuineness in communication, authenticity in communication, being honest about the reality of the situation was helpful and, frankly, necessary.

Every now and then I sat in my office with my CFO when it felt like the sky was falling and everything was collapsing. And what I learned is the sun comes up tomorrow. It does. You get to get up again and go fight the good fight. And you have to hang on to your optimism— because just from a personal standpoint, it’s important to hang on to that so you can keep doing the things you need to do.

  • Get the Corporate Board Member Newsletter

    Sign up today to get weekly access to exclusive analysis, insights and expert commentary from leading board practitioners.



    Directors Forum

    Dallas, TX



    20th Annual Boardroom Summit

    New York, NY