Ilene S. Gordon had established a proven track record of leadership success when she arrived at Corn Products International Inc. five years ago.
But the role she played building both expertise and a global footprint for Alcan Packaging’s 130 factories and 30,000 employees around the world would only go so far in helping her tackle this new position.
“I didn’t come in with all the answers,” says Gordon, chairman, president and CEO at the 11,300-employee company now known as Ingredion Inc.
“I had to rely on a very good team to understand the different dynamics in the ingredient space from agriculture, to texture and taste, to how you create ingredient solutions. So I’d say my experience base was helpful and I had a track record. But it was also important for me to come in and glean input from my team and the teams around the world.”
Gordon was brought to Ingredion to “take a successful company and transform it into a successful global leader,” she says.
“There was great knowledge among our employees on how to pursue operational excellence in many different countries around the world, as well as how to develop and produce products in the sweetener area and some specialty starches,” Gordon says.
“But I also saw that the company had not invested for a while in innovation and certainly had a missing piece in Europe — we were not capable of supplying global customers.”
Gordon took the input and knowledge she gained from conversations with the team to take a large step toward turning that problem around. She developed a plan and ultimately led the company to make the $1.3 billion acquisition of National Starch in June 2010.
“Probably the most challenging thing that I encountered in my first year-and-a-half was really putting those two companies together,” Gordon says.
Here’s a look at how Gordon got to know her team, built a plan and then helped bring two cultures together to turn Ingredion into a global powerhouse in the ingredient solutions industry.
Develop the blueprint
Gordon likes to refer to her first days in a new job as a “listening tour.”
“In my first three days — actually before I even joined — I had one-on-one meetings with everybody from my team,” Gordon says. “I asked everybody, ‘What are the three things you think we ought to change? What are the three things you think we ought to keep the same? And are there any personal views you have on our strategy going forward.’ Getting the input of the team early on before making any statements or decisions is very important.”
As the leader of a business, you are not overseeing a democracy. But that doesn’t mean you want to step in and simply deliver edicts as to how things will be done now under your authority.
“You have to be willing to let people know that you do listen,” Gordon says. “You are seeking their input and it’s more than just to check a box. You’re really trying to synthesize the different views. As the leader, you have to have the confidence to make decisions. It’s about gathering the facts.”
So when remarks are made through your discussions, you need to respond with questions of your own to get to the heart of the matter. It’s not about confrontation. It’s about getting at the facts.
“People might make a statement and I’ll say, ‘Well, how do you know that?’” Gordon says. “‘Where are the facts? Where is your data? If we don’t have data, let’s build data. That may mean getting some outside help, but let’s look at the facts. Where do we make money? Where don’t we make money? What’s our competitive position? How do we win in the marketplace, beat our competition and create value for our shareholders, and our employees?’”
As she talked to her team, Gordon was able to collaboratively develop a blueprint that was published in March 2010.
“To grow our company, we wanted to grow organically on our current capabilities in sweeteners and starches,” Gordon says, referring to the blueprint. “But we also wanted to broaden the portfolio with other types of starches and ingredients that will add value to our food customers. The third leg was to grow geographically, which could be Europe and parts of Asia. It was important to grow globally to supply the growing global food companies.”
Corn Products bought National Starch and Ingredion was born. Now Gordon had to make this new entity feel like one team that could take the company where it needed to go.