Jean-Lou Chameau Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

You have just assumed the presidency of a multibillion-dollar institution, and what is your first order of business? To listen. Just listen. That is precisely what Jean-Lou Chameau did. Before starting his job as president of the California Institute of Technology, he sat down with hundreds of the 8,580 employees and elicited their feedback on nearly every aspect of the institution. That is the best way to understand an organization’s culture, problems and opportunities. When that organization has an annual operating budget of roughly $2.1 billion — Caltech also oversees NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — developing that understanding is crucial. Smart Business took Chameau’s advice and listened to his thoughts on communication, defending tough decisions, and how to attract the best and brightest to your organization.

Practice transparency. You have to be fairly open and genuine in what you say or do. You have to be very, very transparent.

The benefit is that people will feel good about sharing information with you. They will help you define your ideas, your goals, and they will work with you on the issue if you are very open with them.

Being open means that you will tell them the good, the bad and the ugly, and share the issues with them. In any organization, from time to time, you have tough times. If you have been open with people and didn’t hide anything from them, you build up lots of good will. When the tough issues arise, they’re willing to work with you or give you time to solve them.

There’re always situations in an organization where you cannot share all of the information that you have. And again, that’s an advantage of being very open with people. When you tell them, ‘In this particular issue, I cannot provide you with more details at this stage,’ they will say, ‘Well, OK. He must have a good reason.’ If you have built up trust and good will, people trust you.

Interact with your team. I try to interact oneon-one with as many people as I can.

It doesn’t have to be for long. When I walk across campus and I run into an employee, be it a staff member or faculty or a student, you chat with them for five minutes on whatever topic of interest.

If you keep doing it, every time you do it, you are not only sharing information with one person, you are sharing with many people because they talk: ‘I just met the president, and we talked about this.’

The word goes out. It does filter through the organization.

Try to communicate with people as often as you can on a formal and, more importantly, an informal basis.

Every time you do it, even if it’s only with one person, you are, in fact, influencing more than one person.

Defend tough decisions. You have to be a bit of a cheerleader for the organization, (but that) doesn’t mean that you don’t make tough decisions when they have to be made.

People would not respect for very long a person who is only a cheerleader and cannot address the tough issues. I do not view the two sides as being incompatible.

When you make a decision, an easy one or a tough one, make sure you always have a good rationale behind it.

There are always pros and cons in every situation. You may reach a conclusion, and somebody else may reach a different conclusion, but they will respect you if you have a good rationale behind whatever you did.

Foster research. Try to promote programs and make sure you have resources and an environment that allows people to work on those great ideas that they have.

If you look at it from a corporate standpoint, you have to keep in mind that if you want to assure the long-term success and competitiveness of your organization, the R&D has to be part of it.

You have to convey that to your employees, even in tough times. It’s easy to say, ‘We’re going to invest so much in research,’ when things are going well. Typically, when there is a little bit of a problem or business is not as good, it’s the first thing to be cut, and usually, it’s a mistake.

You have to try to convey the importance of research to the organization. I found that the best way, usually, is to be very specific.

You take a product that you are selling today, and you say, ‘By the way, this was based on that work that we did two years ago, or three or five years ago.’ Working through an example is the best way to show people.

Attract employees with the product. To attract and retain the best employees, you need to have a good product.

The place has to be exciting. They have to feel that they came to a place where there is innovation, to a place which is going somewhere, and that there is long-term potential for them.

As a leader, you can try to be convincing and be a good cheerleader and provide good opportunities to people, but you can never replace the product. If you have a great organization, people will want to work for it.

(If you don’t have a good product), you have to be very upfront with them with the situation: ‘We are at situation A, and I want to go to Z.’ Give them the sense of how you feel you can go from A to Z.

If they realize that you understand the situation and have a decent shot of success, success will make it a very attractive place in the long term, and you can convince people to join you.

People want to be in a situation where they can come and really have an impact on an organization. When everything is going very well, it’s nice to join an organization. But for some people, it may be more exciting to say, ‘Well, there is an opportunity here. I can really transform it. I can really play a role in achieving a vision there.’

HOW TO REACH: California Institute of Technology, (626) 395-6811 or