This past November, Andrew Liveris went to the White House for a meeting with the president. That in and of itself is a pretty significant life event, but in Liveris’ case, it was as much about the journey as the destination.

Liveris is the chairman, president and CEO of The Dow Chemical Co. A native of Australia, he’s held numerous positions at Dow over the span of nearly 40 years — roles that have taken him to places such as Hong Kong and Thailand, before eventually moving to Dow’s Midland, Mich., corporate headquarters, where he became CEO in 2004 and chairman in 2006.

As the head of a $57 billion corporate giant, Liveris was among a group of influential CEOs invited to the White House to take part in a meeting on jumpstarting American business with President Barack Obama.

The Australian who came to America by way of Asia now sat in a room with the leader of the free world, among those tasked with helping to chart a course to rebuild key economic drivers as the country — and world — continues to recover from the recession.

“The conversation we had, with a dozen CEOs across various business sectors, it felt like a different meeting than any previous we have had,” says Liveris, who spoke as part of a presentation at the 2012 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum.

“The president has had a lot of things written and said, and he takes it pretty personally when he hears that he doesn’t know business. Frankly, the evidence over the past 3½ years is that he doesn’t work with business and doesn’t know business.

“So in this meeting, he didn’t talk all that much,” Liveris says. “He let us give it to him, and we let him know what it would take to create a growing America again.”

For Liveris, it was an opportunity to step back, reflect on where his company had been over the past few years, and where it was headed —  and what steps he and other influential business leaders would need to take to ensure that their companies, and the whole of American business, would remain strong into the future.

Understand the landscape

By his own admission, Liveris was kind of naïve in his first couple of years as a CEO, particularly when it came to the business community’s relationship with government.

“I thought I would go to Washington, talk about the things that matter to my company, then I would leave and something would happen,” Liveris says. “That clearly did not work.”

After a number of trips to Washington with little progress in developing the business-government relationship to the point that it produced results, Liveris realized that no one on either side truly had a grasp of the game they were playing.

“I remember when I was watching TV and hearing about how American manufacturing had to die, how it had to move overseas because of labor costs,” he says. “That’s when I realized that absolutely no one was getting this.

“No one understood innovation, technology, or how one invents. No one understood the business models of creation, of new wonderful things that help humanity, things that are an American right.

“We have done this for over 200 years and yet we’re saying we should no longer manufacture, and we should just be a service economy,” he says. “If you want to be a service economy, go to the U.K. and see how it worked for them.”

Liveris says Silicon Valley is a hub of innovation, in large part because it is full of big companies who try to maintain a small-company mindset. If you can marry the resources of a major corporation with the flexibility and creativity of a smaller enterprise, you can hit an innovative sweet spot. It’s a position Liveris has tried to assume at Dow.

“Silicon Valley is an intersection of incredible academic institutions and entrepreneurs inventing, innovating and allowing startups,” he says. “That’s what I do. I have $1.7 billion in R&D, and I’m doing that every day. I’m innovating and trying to scale up. That is manufacturing.”

Liveris wants Dow to set a tone for innovation throughout the country. He wants companies, both large and small, to think in terms of innovation and developing ideas.

“This country needs dozens of Silicon Valleys,” he says. “It needs innovation hubs throughout the country. That was recommendation No. 1 from the meeting with the president. The president will give legs to an advanced manufacturing partnership, within which we have identified 11 technologies that America can win on a global basis.

“We have picked the technologies where America can win, not by creating winners and losers among companies, but by designing an innovation hub so the best minds in America can participate, including entrepreneurs, big companies and some government money to stimulate creativity and scale things.”

Invest in human capital

Innovation needs fertile ground. It needs companies that invest in the resources that enable innovation. It needs executives and managers that sustain a culture capable of promoting innovation. You need programs that reward and promote innovative thinking.

But those factors alone won’t drive an innovative mindset. You need to recruit the talent to innovate.

Even if you don’t budget for R&D the way Dow does, Liveris says innovation-minded talent is a must for any organization that wants to grow and evolve.

“I am a great believer that rigor mortis sets in unless you create a burning platform,” Liveris says. “People get comfortable and complacent quickly, especially the larger you get as an organization. You have to change things.”

When Liveris was named CEO of Dow, he called up a number of successful CEOs who had succeeded in driving large-scale change throughout major enterprises, asking for advice on preventing complacency and enabling innovation.

“One of them gave me this great piece of advice,” he says. “It had to do with the phases of change that cause the human pipeline, the talent pool, to respond and be its very best.

“It’s about the moon shot, the mission. If I can be inspired by the mission, be energized by that, that’s the key. I have to create that dynamic inside the top and middle ranks of the organization, and more importantly, the front line people.”

To Liveris, leaders get elected every day. Each day is an opportunity to create buy-in throughout the organization, an opportunity to inspire employees to follow the path blazed by leadership.

“You lead change,” he says. “You build a team around change. You have to do it with the long vision in mind, but with the idea that the short-term needs have to be met. We all suffer from ADD.

“We have become an ADD society where everything is breaking news, so the dynamic around a company — particularly a public company — can kill the long vision. You have to deliver in both the short-term and the long-term, and if you live those two paradigms, you need a unique type of human talent.”

Liveris calls it “living intersections” — finding and developing talent that can achieve both short-term and long-term goals.

“No longer do we do single-lane highways,” Liveris says. “We’re living intersections all the time. The intersections between the short-term and long-term require a unique type of talent — sometimes we call that change manager a change leader but that’s too high level.”

The managers you bring in to help spur change and formulate a vision for the future while delivering short-term results have another important set of opposite-end factors to master: They must understand the business from a global level, while still grasping the effect of the vision and goals of the organization on individuals working at ground level.

“You do still have to get down to the three-foot level,” Liveris says. “What does it mean to the person on the floor? What does it mean to the R&D leader? What does it mean to the salesperson?”

And no matter what position a given person fills, that person’s talent will only reach its potential if you can tie their individual and department goals to the overall goals of the organization, and then reinforce innovation-centered values that emphasize a willingness to create, experiment and learn from mistakes.

“You can’t box people into something and say, ‘Go invent,’” Liveris says. “You have to give them a chance to fail. You have to let them be a part of the entrepreneurial activity. You need to motivate them to see how their project, their work, can change humanity.”

How to reach: The Dow Chemical Co., (989) 636-1000 or www.dow.com

The Liveris File

Liveris on Dow’s history of success: We’re actually one of nine companies that are still around from the inception of the New York Stock Exchange. There are only eight others who were there since the beginning. We’re not afraid of change. I didn’t get this gray hair easily; it came hard. We have in our DNA the willingness to face reality and take the change and bet the company. To be companies of size, that’s a lot of heavy lifting. I’d like to say we’re in the seventh inning … from a portfolio point of view. We have the technologies. We have the weapons but we’re in the second or third inning from a cultural point of view.

Culture is every person in the company, and Dow has a value proposition at the personal level. As a young chemical engineer, I had a lot of offers, but I chose to leave my great country of Australia to live in this great country, not because I think you’re greater but the company called Dow has a better value proposition to a human being. I was attracted by the people.

Liveris on sustainability: One day Dow Chemical won’t be known as Dow Chemical; it will be known as Dow. Dow sticks to the brand of the diamond (logo). The brand will stand for … our commitment to sustainability, but not sustainability as a noun, sustainable as an adjective. Sustainable business, sustainable profits, sustainable planet are the same things. How you actually marry the intersection between environment, economy, society, business, government, society.

Takeaways

Understand your industry.

Value innovation.

Find and retain great talent.

Published in Detroit