Driving innovation Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

The average workday is eight hours long. And if you’ve scaled the company mountain up to senior management, chances are you’ve worked pretty hard during those eight hours each day.

George Hamilton has. In 29 years at Dow Automotive, he has worked his way up from a fresh-out-of-college management trainee to president, a role he has filled at the $1.5 billion, Auburn Hills-based segment of Dow Chemical since 2003. But along the way, he’s also learned that what you do during the other 16 hours of the day can be just as important to your company as what you do at the office.

You never stop being the leader of your company, even when you trade in the suit and tie for jeans and jogging shoes at the end of the day. Every trip to the store, every evening walk, every Friday night out at a restaurant can bring you into contact with potential customers, people with problems that can be solved by your company.

Hamilton says it’s not just about talking to people; you can do that from a phone in your office. It’s about living in the world your customers live in, gathering their concerns and ideas, and taking them to back to work with you, where your employees can then transform them into solutions.

“You start to run into people at the supermarket or when you’re out for an evening walk, or you go to a cocktail party at their house where people just talk about what they’re dealing with,” Hamilton says. “I’ve found myself sitting at high school football games. My son is on the football team, and the other kids on the team have parents who work for car companies, and guess what? We start talking about what we do.”

To Hamilton, being a president isn’t just about process management and vision strategies. It’s about finding a problem and then enabling your company to create the solution.

Looking outward
If you want to innovate, Hamilton says to look outward first instead of inward. There is a time and place for ideas to well up from within the company, but being in tune with your customers will give you the best chance to create solutions for them and build loyalty.

“Certainly have the mindset of solutions versus thinking about selling products,” he says. “It causes you to think differently about what makes your customers’ lives better. It all starts with thinking from the customers’ standpoint.”

It is always important to stay in tune with what your customers are dealing with. Away from the office, it might be a chance meeting with another executive. In the office, Hamilton tries to be more proactive.

Dow Automotive brings together cross-sections of customers for daylong meetings to take the pulse of what they are dealing with. The company supplies major automotive manufacturers with sealants, adhesives and plastic components, so the issues their customers are dealing with are often complex.

“We’ll sit and talk about what challenges they are dealing with and what we area working on,” Hamilton says. “We try to find out what would provide the most value if we could come up with a solution.”

He says you should strive to find not just the problem but the story behind the problem. When speaking to a car company, Hamilton and his senior managers want to find out how they assemble their vehicles, what happens to a vehicle after it is sold and what types of service issues their consumers have.

Having that background gives Dow Automotive a better chance of coming up with a solution that will completely address the need of a given customer.

“We knew that two of the biggest issues facing many car companies are increasing the fuel efficiency of their vehicles and improving labor costs,” he says. “We found that with some unique adhesive chemistry, we could reduce the number of mechanical fasteners and spot welds in a vehicle, which reduces their labor costs and reduces weight, which makes a vehicle more fuel-efficient. So a lot of it is understanding what they are trying to do.”

Through repeated contact with customers, you might find that you sit down to solve one problem but end up solving several.

“We might only be dealing with one issue, but as we think about the other solutions it could provide, you might find you are addressing two or three or four needs,” he says.

Enabling employees
Finding out what a customer needs is only the first half of the battle when you are trying to be a solution-driven company. The other half is enabling your employees to find those answers.

For Hamilton, it starts with keeping the company’s strategy simple — simple principles, simple language, even simple to print.

“I am proud to say that our strategy at Dow Automotive is a few bullet points on a piece of paper,” he says. “But the words are very powerful and very well-thought-out with regard to the organization, defining what we are about and what we are not about.”

Hamilton has a couple of favorite strategy-related sayings he uses at Dow Automotive: “One is, ‘We don’t chase cut steel,’ meaning that if a tool has been cut, if a decision has been made, then focus on the future,” he says.

“Another, is ‘We don’t chase competitors’ trucks,’ because that means the job has already been done. When you’re looking for the next innovation, the next solution, you have to frame it that way.”

Innovation is a key part of Hamilton’s strategy, but he says the message won’t mean anything if it isn’t consistently backed up by the actions of upper management.

“As important as the words is continually communicating them,” he says.

Hamilton says you have to back up the vision and strategy you create with daily communication.

“I want to make sure that when I am engaging people and we’re having dialogue, I am asking questions related to technology and innovation, and customers and solutions,” he says.

The final, and perhaps most important, piece is backing up what you have written and said with the proper resources and investment. Ideas won’t become products without financial backing.

“You have to make sure what your employees do is supported,” Hamilton says. “Support comes from making sure the right amount of investment is being made in terms of resources, people and capital.”

Let the people who innovate concentrate on innovating. Let them concentrate on the future of the company, not on the present, by giving them what they need to do their jobs today.

“People in those areas need to have the time to focus innovation and not get pulled into today’s business challenges,” Hamilton says.

Removing roadblocks
As the leader, you want to be accessible to your employees but you don’t want an environment where employees constantly need to talk to you, because that probably means the company is stumbling. “Being accessible is critical,” Hamilton says. “Employees need to know they can access management to get clarification around their issues and opportunities. But if we’re (running the company) well, the traffic to my door actually goes down because people are spending more time working on their ideas.”

Hamilton takes the same approach to listening to employees that he does when he listens to customers: He tries to get the whole story. If there is an internal problem, Hamilton tries to enable his employees and managers to fix it whenever possible.

“I don’t want to be perceived as the only person around here who can remove roadblocks,” he says.

But sometimes, to remove a roadblock that is hindering the innovation process, his direct attention is necessary.

“In some cases, it might be as simple as giving someone counsel,” he says. “In some cases, there might be a member of the team that, for whatever reason, did not support the idea, but the employee made a compelling case to revisit it.”

To help bridge philosophical gaps, Hamilton goes back to another tried-and-true practice: Face-to-face communication.

“In those cases, I’ll bring people together and say, ‘Let’s talk openly and candidly and get all the information on the table and form an idea of why we’re going to move forward, or, if not, to give a good, sound reason for why we are going to stop activity,’” he says. Hamilton sums it up in one word: “Cohesive.”

“To me, cohesive means an environment where people can be candid, can be challenged, can challenge at any level in my organization, including me, but do it in a respectful manner,” he says.

The only way innovative ideas are going to be able to make it past red tape and roadblocks to become solutions is if everyone involved in the process feels enabled to add their input. The person who asks the tough question is, many times, the person who gets everyone else to think about something differently. “It builds on an idea to say, ‘We were going down that path, but someone had the courage to ask that tough question that caused us to think about it differently,” he says. “If you can enhance an idea based on input, you could have a real winner.”

Hamilton says that, to an extent, risk-takers are born, not made. Some people simply have the intestinal fortitude to question an idea when nobody else is doing so. But even the boldest employees need to know that management is going to take what they say seriously, or they will soon clam up as well.

Building an environment where employees are free to add their input and have it seriously considered is a key part of building their confidence in the company. Hamilton says that if those who work for you feel the company is committed to their success, they will feel committed to the success of the company. “I don’t want risk-takers for the sake of risk-takers,” he says. “But if I have people who are really committed to the success of the company and start to believe in their business, they are more inclined to say what is on their mind if they believe it can be better.” Hamilton says it pays to be repetitive when communicating with employees. You simply cannot hammer home enough how much you value your employees and their ideas.

Hamilton takes his message with him when he travels both domestically and abroad. He believes it is one of the most important tools he has to enable customer problems and employee ideas to come together and form solutions that can drive his company forward. “I’ve created the kind of company profile where, if our employees feel their leaders are not hearing them, when I wander around parts of the world, I’ll hear about it,” he says. “Sometimes I do hear about it, and then I’ll come back to part of my leadership team and, if necessary, I’ll give them some more feedback and counsel. “That’s so important, communication. Communicating what we’re all about until we sound like a broken record.”

HOW TO REACH: Dow Automotive, www.automotive.dow.com