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How Rakesh Sachdev stepped up when Sigma-Aldrich needed his leadership the most Featured

7:01pm EDT February 29, 2012
How Rakesh Sachdev stepped up when Sigma-Aldrich needed his leadership the most

Rakesh Sachdev did not see this day coming. Sure, he and Jai Nagarkatti had talked about leadership transition and succession planning at Sigma-Aldrich Corp., but that was years down the road.

Sachdev insists the thought of being CEO of the 7,890-employee life science and technology company had not crossed his mind for even a moment.

“Obviously, this came as a surprise to all of us,” Sachdev says.

The “this” Sachdev is referring to is the unexpected death in November 2010 of Nagarkatti. He had been with Sigma-Aldrich since 1976 and had served as CEO since 2006 and chairman since 2009.

“It was hard for me to know we had lost somebody like Jai the way we lost him,” Sachdev says.

It was perhaps even more difficult at that moment because everything seemed to be going so well with the company.

“We had been implementing a lot of initiatives, so we pretty much had a game plan of what we wanted to do for our customers, with our products and with our facilities,” Sachdev says. “We had also been embarking on more acquisitions as part of the company’s plan to grow inorganically. That was all going on.”

And now this. Sachdev found out while on a plane preparing to fly back to St. Louis.

“It was Saturday morning and I got a call from our general counsel to inform me of what had happened,” Sachdev says. “It was a very brief conversation because I had to shut my phone off. There were a lot of things racing through my mind as I flew back to St. Louis. By the time I landed, I wanted to call the board and discuss it with the board, which I did.  To the board’s credit, they had already met and they had made some decisions. I spoke with the board late into the night and we had a plan. That’s what happened.”

The plan was in place and the very next day, a news release was sent out reporting that Sachdev had been elected as the $2.3 billion company’s new president and CEO. A conference call was scheduled for that Monday to address the situation publicly.

The next step would rest with Sachdev. How would he address any concerns that employees might have about what had happened? How would he respond to customers or other stakeholders in Sigma-Aldrich who might be concerned? Suddenly, this was all his responsibility.

Show your strength

Sachdev may have had a few moments of anxiety about his sudden ascendance to the top at Sigma-Aldrich, but he didn’t let anyone know that.

“For the most part, I felt pretty confident,” Sachdev says. “I felt confident because I knew that we had a company that had great people. It’s not just about the leader, although that’s important. We’ve had an outstanding team here. So I never had any doubts that the future or what we were going to do with this company would be any different. I think we were on pretty solid footing.”

Dealing with the unexpected, including tragedy, is something that you’ve got to be prepared for. There’s too much at stake for you to think, “Oh, that would never happen to us.”

“Just being prepared is the mark of a great leader,” Sachdev says. “I look at my own career and I say this to a lot of the young people here. You have to step out of your comfort zone if you want to do big things and great things. I’ve always done that. I’ve changed industries. I’ve lived in different geographies. To me, that’s very fascinating to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation and try to wrap your arms around it as quickly as possible. I think that’s helped me personally.”

By putting himself in situations where he didn’t initially know exactly what to do in every situation, Sachdev says he learned to adapt.

“When you do have an incident like the one we had with Jai’s passing, having stepped into difficult situations, I guess I was quite prepared,” Sachdev says. “I would say, be prepared and be organized in terms of working the things that are going to be really important. You can really get defocused. Being focused at a time like this is very important, as you were pointing out. Who are you going to talk to? Why are you going to talk to them? How are you going to communicate? Have the communication story. What is said and how it’s said is very important to a lot of these people.”

In the aftermath of Nagarkatti’s death, Sachdev knew he needed to talk to people. Initially, it was to serve as a sounding board for their grief. But it was also to give them reassurance about the company’s future.

“There’s a professional side and a personal side anytime something like this happens,” Sachdev says. “They want to be reassured that a transition like this is not going to have any adverse impact on them or the company. Giving that reassurance is very important, not just for the employees, but most of the stakeholders. The other thing is there’s a human side when this happens.

“Given that in Jai’s situation, he had spent over 30 years with this company and given a lot, they want to hear how the company is thinking about a leader who has just passed away and just passed away suddenly. We had a lot of conversations with our employees about the great memories they have of Jai as a leader. You have to address both the human side and the professional side. That’s what employees want to hear.”

As you’re talking to your employees, you also need to think about the people outside your company who want to be contacted and informed about what’s happening in the wake of this difficult situation.

“All our stakeholders are important, but there are some very important stakeholders we have and you want to make sure the message got out to them immediately with me calling them,” Sachdev says. “Typically these calls are pretty short, so we were able to arrange these calls. This is not a very long conversation. We prioritize who we were going to call. We had an agenda for hour by hour what conversations were going to take place with the employees and where and with customers and with whom and even with suppliers and community leaders.”

You should use your gut and go with it to help determine who gets a personal phone call and who can be informed through other means. The key thing is not to try to rush through it to get back to your normal day-to-day routine.

“Unless there is a crisis in a company, which was absolutely not the case at Sigma-Aldrich, my advice to any leader would be take the time,” Sachdev says. “You’re stepping into a new role and even though you think you know the company, it is a new role. Now you’re responsible for the business and all the employees and their future. Err on the side of listening.”

As time marched on, Sachdev says he found the planning that Sigma-Aldrich had done to be ready for change was paying off in a big way.

“This incident happened in mid-November of last year and I think we had a period of I would say a couple weeks where we went through a lot of communication,” Sachdev says. “But I would say after a couple weeks, we were back in the saddle and running hard.”

Be prepared

Indeed, planning did pay off for Sigma-Aldrich. Sachdev says it’s something every company should do no matter how the leadership team views its situation.

“Succession planning isn’t only about succeeding in events like what happened with Jai,” Sachdev says. “It’s about succeeding in the event someone were to leave the company or where we actively develop people by moving them into other positions so you have somebody to succeed behind them.”

You’re trying to build cohesion and camaraderie during the quiet times so that when the unexpected happens, you already have a foundation on which you can work and get things done.

“As the CEO, I had a very supportive board,” Sachdev says. “I was able to pull the whole senior management team together. We were all very aligned, so it worked. If you have your support system that isn’t well-aligned, that just adds more complexity. That’s why it’s important for senior management and boards to be thinking about being prepared and having alignment so when an incident like this happens, you don’t find yourself in a situation where there is misalignment.

That would be a very difficult situation. You have a situation happen in a company where there wasn’t alignment in the first place, something like this just opens up a huge crack. I would be more concerned about that. That would be fairly destabilizing in an event like this. Because we had done such good work in the alignment around the strategy and what we were going to work on, that was not the issue.”

Another thing to keep in mind, however, is that it’s not just your chair that you need to be concerned about.

“That’s true for many critical positions in the company,” Sachdev says. “We go through this process at Sigma-Aldrich and we embrace it. Every year we go through a very detailed succession planning process that oversees the top several hundred people. We try very hard to identify if someone were to leave or if something were to happen, we have a plan to put someone behind that in fairly short order.”

Keep moving forward

Of course, there does come a time when the business of the company must take priority once again. It’s then when you need to talk to your people about what makes your company great and get them energized about work.

“It’s creating excitement with our customers and when people come here to work every morning, they’re absolutely enthusiastic that they are working for the right company and they are making a difference,” Sachdev says. “Sigma-Aldrich has always been a company where employees come and feel they are working for an enterprise that is making a big difference for mankind. We are a science-based company and we do lots of interesting things. So as CEO, it’s my job to make sure that enthusiasm not only stays, but becomes infectious and that we’re able to get all our people fired up about what they are doing.”

You won’t get this kind of response if you’re the type of leader who only issues commands and doesn’t look deeper into what your people do each day.

“You have to make the effort,” Sachdev says. “You cannot as a CEO be a desk pilot and fly the plane from your desk. You have to get out and you have to be with the people. I enjoy it, because it gives me the ability to understand what our people are really thinking about. It’s very important.”

Sachdev moved Sigma-Aldrich forward in part by getting everyone focused on assisting the company’s customers. The fact is that while many of his employees mourned the loss of their leader, many of Sigma-Aldrich’s customers had no idea who Nagarkatti was.

“They are looking for value, product, reliability and getting things that help them succeed, not that help us succeed,” Sachdev says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about how do we as a company help our customers succeed. If we see it that way, it’s not important about individuals in our company such as the CEO or anybody else.”

And in the end, no one likely understood that fact better than Nagarkatti himself.

“As I told our people, Jai himself would have wanted us to be back on the agenda,” Sachdev says. “That was the kind of guy he was. We paid a lot of respect to Jai. He did great things for the company. But very quickly, we moved on to the agenda of the company and doing the things he or anyone else would have wanted us to do.”

How to reach: Sigma-Aldrich Corp., (314) 771-5765 or www.sigmaaldrich.com

The Sachdev File

Rakesh Sachdev, CEO, Sigma-Aldrich Corp.

Born: Ratlam, India.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, New Dehli, India; master’s degree in mechanical engineering, University of Illinois; MBA from Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.

What was your very first job?

Growing up in India, you don’t have the opportunities that kids have here to do part-time work. Basically as a student, you just end up studying and you don’t work for money. You don’t have part-time jobs. My first job was really when I was in college. I worked as an apprentice to overhaul Airbus engines at the airport in Calcutta.

Who has been the biggest influence on you?

My dad was an incredibly hard-working guy. He had very humble beginnings and he worked his way up to a fairly significant position with what he did. Hopefully I picked up a lot of the good qualities of just seeing the way he worked.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Be proactive and be focused and just get things done. We all have only so much time in a day. What I talk to the people here about is to just try to focus on what’s important. Don’t procrastinate. Be proactive and get it done. You’ll be surprised how much you can actually do.

What one person would you like to meet and why?

I would have liked to spend time with Steve Jobs, who, of course, is no longer here. But he was somebody who was creative with guts and was very focused. And as I was saying, he got a lot of done in one lifetime. I have a lot of respect for people who can accomplish a lot and not just be a flash in the pan with one success.