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Episode 8 | June 30, 2021

Steve Zerby, Owens Corning CIO

Fortune 500 CIO Steve Zerby talks with us about the culture of urgency that he is helping foster at Owens Corning and how it relates to ego, transparency, service, and more.

  • A common mistake in technology leadership (1:07)
  • What is OC’s “culture of urgency?” (3:31)
  • Urgency vs. Panic (8:40)
  • Building a low-ego / no-ego organization (10:20)
  • Having a “flattened” hierarchy: challenges and benefits (19:46)
  • The necessity for skill (23:12)
“Checking the ego at the door isn’t something we do every day. It’s just who we are.”
Steve Zerby
Owens Corning CIO

Episode Transcript

Luke [00:00:00] Steve, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Steve [00:00:03] Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Luke [00:00:04] Awesome. Well, I want to talk to you about some behavioral stuff at Owens Corning in particular, what you call the culture of urgency that you have been fostering there for a while as a leader. But first, maybe we can introduce that topic by talking about where your interest in leadership kind of comes from.

Steve [00:00:22] Sure. Thanks, Luke. You know, I think there’s a bit of an irony to technology and leadership and that if you talk to technology leaders around the world and you ask them in regards to what’s perhaps the greatest asset that you have in your organization or as a technologist, they’ll often answer the question that somehow some way with the words, well, my my team, my people are my most important asset. And then thirty five seconds later, in almost any meeting, that very same leader will be talking about technology and process and you’ll never again hear them talk about people. So, you know, as I worked through my career. You know, being a technologist, you get involved in hundreds and thousands of projects and meetings and you invariably find yourself trying to land a very difficult project, process, reinvention, new technology, and you’re just trying to eke out incremental gains in your company. One percent here, three percent. They’re a four percent boost here. And over time, it became really, really clear to me that one of the greatest ways to to bring benefit to your company lasting benefit is to really become a leader that can get the very best out of your team all the time. I mean, imagine a team with hundreds or thousands of employees. And if you can master getting five percent more out of them, that dwarfs almost any technology project, almost any process reinvention project that you could ever, ever bring to bear. So I, I really became fascinated with this motivation and and the leadership it requires to get that out of your team, to get that extra one percent, two percent, five percent and not up in a forceful way, but it kind of an elegant behavior driven. They just perform better way.

Luke [00:02:20] So as I mentioned, I want to talk to you about this culture of urgency, which is something that you had talked about in an interview with Martha Heller a few years back. So maybe you could just start by talking about what a culture of urgency is.

Steve [00:02:34] Sure, sure. For me, developing a culture of urgency in your organization isn’t really about getting work done. It’s about becoming a real strategic and valuable person, an organization to your company. And, you know, you forever have heard this this paradox that a lot of people have around it is desire to be strategic or is it tactical? And you often hear what I call kind of a CIO whiny list, which is, you know, people want us to do big things, but they want to cut our budget. People want us to be strategic, but we’re not in those meetings, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And, you know, my my thought has always been there’s really two primary ways to to solve that problem of making the function strategic. If if this happens, you must be involved, et cetera, et cetera. And so the culture of urgency is really around this notion of providing great service inside of your company to all of your stakeholders. And the notion there is, look, that, you know, if I can provide great service to a series of stakeholders, I will be valuable to them in some way. And that value will cause me to get invited into bigger and bigger and bigger discussions, bigger and bigger stakes, if you will. And one of the best ways I’ve found to actually have people feel that value is bring a culture of urgency. And and what I always say is when somebody brings a challenge to you or brings a problem to you or brings an opportunity to you, they can never be more urgent about it than you are. I mean, you have to create a feeling that in that moment, what they are bringing you is the most important thing in the world. And you have to behave in a way that that demonstrates that kind of urgency. And then you can imagine if you just kind of use a little bit of imagery and think about your own life. When you’re most disappointed in a situation around service, it’s often when it’s a bigger deal to you than the person providing the service when you feel like somehow you’re having a crisis or a need and they behave in a way that they’re just doing their job right. It’s just going through the motions. And so, you know, the cultural urgency is really, really important. There are some things that I think you have to do in order to really set your organization up for that. I think you have to put experienced leaders in that are very, very broad and willing to go across kind of all the gray and dark lines that surround organizations and accountabilities and responsibilities. I think you have to have and really given them the latitude and the resources to actually get a large amount of the work done at their own discretion. So they’re not walking down the hall, running up the stairs, figuratively or not, to to get permission from somebody else, to get an understanding for somebody else. You have to enable those those urgent leaders, not only with their career experiences, kind of lifetime of experience and judgment they have, but also give them the resources to do that. And you have to obviously align on some big kind of guidelines, soft lines, as to as to where all those all that latitude comes from. And but at the end of the day, and I always say this, right, if you’re the IT person it lady, that guy in the room. In a large business forum, and no matter what goes wrong with technology, everybody stares at you. Right? And what’s not OK is to say, you know, I, I don’t work on supply chain systems or I don’t work on this. That’s not what I do. I want you to treat it almost like you’re a lifeguard or you’re not a lifeguard in the case. You walk past the swimming pool, you’re not a lifeguard and you see somebody drowning. You don’t keep walking, right, regardless of whether you’re that lifeguard or not, you help that person. And that’s the kind of urgency that I want from our function as we go through the course of our day. We’re going to encounter problems that are a little bit outside of our strike zone, not my department, not where I spend most of my time. But if you make yourself terribly useful in a very positive way and you’re willing to cross those lines and be that lifeguard in that moment, it’ll be amazed at how much utility that people see in you and how you can turn that utility into really participating in the much more strategic things in the company just by being the kind of person that people want to invite in.

Luke [00:07:45] So I have a lot of follow up questions for the things you just brought up there, but maybe first I think a lot of people here urgency and they think of panic. Maybe you could elaborate on the difference between the two.

Steve [00:07:56] Yeah, I do think of them as quite a bit different. I mean, to me, urgency is and has always been about great service. And panic is about this organization not knowing what to do. Urgency is very, very purposeful, very, very thoughtful in regards to it’s a response to an opportunity that you see through your day. And it can be helping somebody fix the most tactical thing in the world. It can be helping them think through an organizational design element because of your experience and thoughtfulness. It can help. It can be thinking through a major solution to a supply chain problem, all of those. It’s more the notion of service and speed, not necessarily anything chaotic and and like overly responsive and unplanned. I would actually tell you that the folks that I, I manage and have been around in my career that that give me a sense of urgency are also some that I would tend to to to say are some of the most well thought out people that I know. They just never seem to be out of control. As a matter of fact, you’re you’re often marveling at how quickly they can help solution something. Without ever being daunted by the size or the scope of the of the challenge or opportunity.

Luke [00:09:25] So it’s it’s kind of like the stoicism is what’s lending them the speed, which, you know, I think that makes a lot of sense. You also mentioned the value of being brought into meetings with higher and higher stakes. So I wanted to ask you about where it he kind of sits in Owens Corning, because I know that not all, but some CEOs struggle with having it perceived as an equal business partner. And I imagine that’s more common in manufacturing, where the end product is primarily like a physical good. So I wanted to ask whether that has been an issue over there at Owens Corning and if it was whether there was like a tipping point where that changed.

Steve [00:10:12] Yeah, I think there’s a couple of dimensions to that. First of all, I mean, I think we all when we look at the world we live in today, no matter where we work, what products we produce, what services we produce, I think at the end of the day, we all understand that technology plays such a vital point in everything that we do. So as a technology leader, I think you have to have a little bit of self-confidence that comes from just knowing that the universe that we live in today is power in a great deal by technology, including the companies that we all live in. So for me, I and I have that kind of reassurance myself of of the importance. But I would also tell you that another key element of our leadership paradigm in our function is in and around the ego that you often find. And I say this all the time, I don’t don’t doubt the people with significant egos can be great technologists. They just can’t work on our team. They can’t be a great technologist on our team. And the situation you described is really a good example of why that is so important. You know, if you walk around your company, figuratively speaking, every day looking to do things that make you feel good about the perception of your function because they make you feel good, kind of as a person with an ego, I think you’re really in for a battle. You just can’t win. And I don’t really believe it makes a difference what kind of company you’re in. We prefer to think of it as kind of a no ego, low ego approach. And we the word team to us is really a big deal. And I, again, often say that if you if you can’t feel good about another teammate carrying the flag across the finish line just because it’s not you, then you probably can’t be on our team. You know, you’ve got to be able to get as much joy out of seeing people around you succeed as you do your own success. And if you do that, it really frees you up to be able to be impactful in a company like ours or any company. I mean, the reality is in a manufacturing company, there is a massive supply chain that runs on top of technology. The ability to plan, make sauce, deliver product is all rooted in technology. The fact that we may not be the headline story in the company magazine. That’s OK with us, the all that’s important to us is that that supply chain that we power runs the best it possibly can with the technology that we put together and that our company, our company successful and our teams are successful. And if you think about it that way, it just a lot of that’s what I would almost call silliness around trying to position your function to be more in the limelight or or get more of the attention just becomes a discussion that you never you never end up having. You know, checking the ego at the door is it’s not something we do every day. It’s just kind of who we are.

Luke [00:13:31] That’s such a great answer. I love that. And so you do need your leaders to be not just lifeguards, but also egoless, enlightened bodhisattva.

Steve [00:13:42] Well, humility is certainly something that we wear on our on our sleeve all the time. And, you know, if you start putting all of us together, you think, oh, my goodness, that sounds like a unicorn. I mean, where do you find one of those? You know, I found that one of the ways you can build an organization, record, recruit an organization and retain an organization is actually have the courage to talk about it. Just the way that you and I have been talking about it. The brochure that we put together when you talk to us in an interview or when you talk, you hear about the work we do, matches exactly the behaviors that we have and expect to have inside of our organization. And I say this all the time. I have a rather we have a large company of, I don’t know, nineteen thousand employees. I suppose right now we have an IT organization of two hundred and two employees, which is not a terribly large organization for an enterprise our size. So often when I talk about humility or being egoless or all of these, these parameters that make for this formula, somebody will say to me, well, how are you? Do you think you can really attract people like that? Well, if your attrition rate is three or four percent and your organization’s two hundred and two people, I only need to find six of those people on planet Earth that want to come work for us. I don’t need to find six hundred or six thousand or sixty thousand or perhaps it could be a bit of a challenge. And the beauty of when you find those six are you’ve been so outwardly honest about what good looks like here is you you get the benefit of very low attrition because the brochure matches the job and it matches what they’re looking for. Now, candidly, does that same brochure cause 6000 people to run screaming that they don’t want to be a part of it? It probably does, but that’s OK. I mean, you kind of build a brand and a culture that you think you can win with. You place a bet that it is a winning hand. You’re not afraid to talk about it out loud. It will attract people that will stay and it will repel people that are nothing more than attrition that would have happened anyhow if you had somehow tried to kind of soften the edges on who you are or how you work.

Luke [00:16:05] So just curious, but it seems like there’s kind of an irony to trying to, like, recruit people and reward people with humility in the sense that people who have big egos are the most visible. Right. So it seems like it would be harder to identify people who almost by definition, aren’t like trying really hard to be identified. And, you know, when it comes to whether or not a person is driven by ego, I mean, that’s a pretty fundamental personality trait. Right. So do you have any insights into sort of putting your finger on that trait about people?

Steve [00:16:39] Yeah, I mean, clearly how they react situationally always gives you a bit of a clue, right? Little things like you talking about where to place a couple of people in your organization or you place a function and you know, you have those that are always looking to make their function bigger and then you have those that are looking to put those people where they belong in the right function. And so, I mean, little indicators like that where they’re keeping score in some way other than, you know, from a big picture, what is the right way to do this? I would tell you also for me. You have to be able to see self-confidence in people, because I think self-confidence helps people be self-critical. It’s really hard to be critical of yourself. If you’re not confident about yourself, of matter of fact, you kind of normally see the other behavior, you see people that aren’t very self-confident, who are constantly defensive about who they are, constantly want to expand the conversation about their importance. So the one thing I found it pretty easy to see are people that are just quietly self-confident. That doesn’t mean they’re not nervous. It doesn’t mean they don’t worry. But they know who they are. Kind of at their core. They’re very self-confident that that lets them have conversations about where they can improve, that lets them have conversations around why, you know, Luke is doing a great job at this, even though he’s a peer of theirs, their ability to say that because they’re so very confident in who they are. So I think it’s a bit of an amalgamation of a lot of little things like that. And then, you know, again, honestly, I think people do self-assessed pretty well. And if you talk about its importance. No kidding. And you demonstrate its importance. No kidding. Like I said earlier, people will either be drawn to that or repelled by that. And you’re counting on some of those that were repelled by just the obvious sincerity you have around this as being ones that you don’t have to figure out. You don’t have to weed them out. I mean, they kind of do it themselves. People are quite terribly self-aware. I think a big part of the population.

Luke [00:19:02] So you spoke elsewhere about how the culture of urgency calls for a greater distribution of responsibility and a flattening of the hierarchy because that’s what allows people to respond and make decisions rapidly. But would you say that there are kind of drawbacks to that flatter hierarchy or challenges?

Steve [00:19:28] Well, I mean, it’s a good question, the the flatness, I think, gives the organization an overall bigger feel of inclusiveness. Right. Because, you know, to the extent you can kind of evaporate the difference between layers and departments and things, you do bring together this bit of a melting pot of different people. And so I think there’s there’s good benefit from the flatness that way. One of the challenges is that it really the transparency between people gets to be quite good because the interaction between different levels is quite frequent. And I think, as we all know, on different levels of the organization mean different things. But it also brings different accountabilities and different priorities at the different levels. And and as you push these all together, you need to make sure that the different levels are not just doing things, doing things together, but actually explaining the why. Because I think as you break down these walls and all of a sudden you have a vice president in a meeting that says they think we ought to go left and somebody else in the meeting that thinks we ought to go right lower in the organization, you know, you want this kind of team, not a total democracy, obviously, but this team approach where maybe both of those opinions have the same weight. And if ultimately you go in the direction of the vice president, the last thing you want people to believe is you went that way just because they have more stripes on their shoulder. So it’s really becomes incumbent. I think, as you get higher in the organization that you be able to discuss, illustrate and teach the why, like why they thought that was an important way to go, why they thought leftwards was the correct way and not right. Because if you don’t, you kind of end up with this. Everybody’s together and you’re trying to get the best out of this kind of inclusive group of people. But it seems like that person always has the decision that we follow. And when you can put the Y in there and it’s a credible Y and you take some time and teach it that way in the moment. Then I think it really does reinforce that, you know, this is about making the right decision that just happened to be the right decision this time and the next time it could be a different decision. But, yeah, the danger of being flat is just that. It’s, you know, it’s flat until it’s not. And then if it’s not, is it because it really isn’t flat or is there really good rationale behind it? And you just have to have some patience and in explaining the why things happen that way or where they happen that way. And I think that is important.

Luke [00:22:28] So we’ve talked a lot about this culture of urgency, it Owens, Corning. Is there anything else you wanted to expand on about that?

Steve [00:22:35] Well, you know, the only thing I do is we talk about behavior so much. And I at the end of the day, you do have to be a technologist, right? I mean, I don’t want to overdramatize the behaviors to the point where you can take a handful of people that are mediocre and technology and and wrap all of this this behavior around it. And all of a sudden, you’re a very powerful organization. This is this is about putting as much emphasis on behavior and interaction and attitude as technologists have put around technology for 50 years. It isn’t about, again, making technology less important. It’s about everything else, making everything else in the life of the technologies as important as technology.

Luke [00:23:27] Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on, Steve.

Steve [00:23:31] All right, take care.

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