Speech: Gregg Sherrill, 2018 Executive Honoree

Bill Dawson: Hi everyone, I’m Bill Dawson with Tenneco, I’m excited to be here tonight. You may notice I’m not wearing my jacket, I left it on my back of my chair. Only problem with that, it’s my chair in my office about an hour away. But I was excited to be here, I couldn’t wait to get here.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Gregg Sherrill for more than 20 years. He and I met when he joined the management team at Johnson Controls, that was a product of a long time ago, if you read his bio in the book there, he left Ford Motor company a long career with Ford, and came to a large supplier, and that wasn’t something most people did in those days, but when he was there, that’s when I first saw him as a mentor. He brought with him a lot of business knowledge and a lot of technical expertise. He mentored his staff and his colleagues there as well. He had a unique style, and I got to know that right away with Gregg, because I asked him, “What are you reading lately Gregg.” Or, “Read any good books?”, and he responded “Well, yes, Durant’s 11 volume story of civilization, for the second time.” And that’s a true story.

Gregg has been a mentor throughout the time I have known him, he’s mentored students at the university where he got his MBA at the Kelly School of business in Indianapolis. I would go there with him many times, and I watched him talk to the students, talk about the importance of leadership, talk about what it means to be a CEO and practicing great communications. He was everything you want in a mentor. He was generous, he was authentic. He was always willing to spend time with people who wanted to follow in his path, and at that school, that’s who he had. He had an audience of people that he sat in that audience years ago, people that want to be a CEO, and they had one right there, and he was sharing his time, and sharing his stories, and his knowledge.

Over these years, I’ve also had the privilege to spend time with Gregg’s family. His four daughters, his son, and as I’ve gotten to know them, I see once again, and probably the best example of all of his communication, his mentorship, his leadership. Because you just don’t get a family like that without that. So Gregg, it’s my honor now, to present The Plank Center Executive Mentor award for 2018. Someone I’ve been lucky enough to call my CEO, my boss, my friend, Gregg Sherrill.

Gregg Sherrill: Well, thank you Bill. It has been 20 years, I hate saying that, but, we’ve known each other a long time. I’m going to divide brief remarks into two sections tonight, mentoring and public relations. Even though they get intertwined. And I am standing here possibly as the only non-professional public relations person in the crowd, I think. So that may make you a little nervous if I’m going to talk about that, but …

Mentoring first. For me, and I learned this from mentors, it’s really an integral part of leadership in my view, done correctly. And it is more than a one way street. I know from my own experience, and I’m going back to my years as a young engineer at Ford Motor company. And assigned to work on, in the mid 1980’s, programs with Mazda that Ford owned a certain percentage of, and we started doing some joint vehicle programs. And it was a strenuous time. It’s a long trip to Hiroshima, Japan. You’re tired all the time. I made 40 something trips in a three year period to Japan.

The culture clash, particularly in those days, was quite profound. There were corporate cultural differences between Ford and Mazda. There were certainly Western/Japanese differences between the two, and at times it was exhausting and you felt like you were getting nowhere. I can still remember a simple thing that happened. Because the programs were exceedingly important, the senior management at both companies, Ford and Mazda. I was just a young engineering supervisor.

We had to make written reports after every meeting, which I did, but there was one executive Vice President at Ford, that always wanted a meeting. He did not want just a written report. Now an executive Vice President to me, you’re talking about eight or ten levels different in the organization. I remember after a particularly tough set of meetings that we’d come back from Hiroshima, and he could see, I think, the frustration in myself, and we went on break, and we’re out in the hall, and all of a sudden, this man’s arm went around my shoulders. I looked down, it was him.

A little afraid I was about to get fired, but he said, “Have I ever told you about the time that I took on Toyota?” And he gave me an example of a frustration in his career, and that simple thing was like life lesson. I understand. And then other mentors I look back on, they almost always approached it with a question, “How would you deal with this, Gregg?” If you were presenting something, it’s “Have you thought of this?” Which might mean, your idea might be stupid, have you thought of this?

But it was an interaction, and when I look back at that, and so many of them had not just professional influence, but life influence for me. I tried my best to integrate that in my own leadership style as I progressed up. And as CEO of a Fortune 500 global corporation, I don’t know how many countries we operated in, over 20, I probably spent over half of my time outside of the United States for 10 years. I always did operational reviews out in the businesses, not back at the headquarters in Lake Forest. Mainly to get to see and know people at all levels of the organization. And no matter what country we were in, we would have all day long operational reviews. We would always go out to dinner at night, and that’s where you got the one on one time with people. And could talk to them about what’s going on, and how do you feel about the direction we’re going?

I have to tell you, after 10 years of doing that, I could not tell you which of the two are the more important meetings. The all day long operational meeting, or the two or three hours of dinner at night with those same people. Getting to know them, and learning from them, and hopefully imparting some encouragement and that along the way.

Bill mentioned I have four daughters and a son. What he didn’t mention is, my four daughters are all between the ages of 36 and 42. My son is seven years old. He’s probably the reason I retired when I did, because I thought in the natural scheme of things, he doesn’t get his dad as long, as a lot of children do, but what I can do is give him time now. That’s my most important mentorship job in the world at this point. Is just to work and encourage him. My daughters have families of their own. My son has six nieces and nephews older than him, okay? One of them is ten years older than him. And he essentially has five mothers, okay. Which I have to apologize to him for someday, but our family works, and they’re wonderful, and they, like others have said, are what ground me.

I was in a session a couple of years ago, and George Will was speaking, the conservative columnist for the New York times. That’s almost like an oxymoron I think, but at any rate, you may have read some of this, because he wrote about it quite a bit back then, several years ago. About the difference in writing your resume, versus writing your obituary. Now that grabs your attention, sounds a little morbid at first, but then he explains it.

The things that you would write in your resume, which we spend so much of our lives worried about and doing, aren’t always the important things. And just the other night, my wife said … I’ve been a retired CEO now for a year and a half, a little over that. She said, “Do you miss it?” And I said, “You know what I miss?” I said I miss those dinners out in all those countries, including United States, and the people and talking to them, and learning about what was effecting them. Listening to what they’re wanting to do to see Tenneco move forward and all of that.” I said, “That I miss.” And then that George Will thing kind of hit me. That’s what I remember.

I didn’t say I remember the quarterly results, the analyst meetings, all the things that I got to be careful because the shareholders do hold you accountable for, but it was more of the things you want in obituary, not resume, right? And that’s something I think we all ought to think about, not in a morbid sense, obviously. Just in a values and quality sense.

Now, as the nonprofessional public relations person. I was blessed at Tenneco, with what I have said a hundred times at least, the finest public relations and communications department of a Fortune 500 company, and I mean that. Doesn’t mean I know all 500 others, or 499, but I can’t imagine them being any better. One of the things, as a CEO of a company, that you learn very, very quickly, is you’re going to spend a huge percentage of your time communicating, internally, externally, all kinds of constituents, but you have to do it. You have to do it consistently. A lot of people are depending on you getting that right, in our case, 30,000 employees and their families, and you can’t do it by yourself. And the respect I have, and they’re here tonight. Some of them from the corporate headquarters are sitting at this table here. Of course globally they’re not all here.

The leader during most of my time during that tenure, was Jane Ostrander and she cannot be here tonight. A former leader is here, Jim Spangler sitting back there. But the ability they had to help me stay consistent in messaging, creative with the consistency, but still consistent. And keep internally, as much as it’s possible, 30,000 people aligned on a single strategy, on a single goal. Which translates into externally, convincing investors, customers, banks, all of the constituencies out there, that you have a plan, you’re executing it, and the corporation is moving forward, in a very safe … That is, immeasurably valuable. Your profession, is immeasurably valuable to many people. It’s a profession that I think everyone here can be very, very proud of.

I have the utmost respect for it. I, at times said my communications people were not just my right arm, but both arms, because I just had to spend so much time at it. Doesn’t mean you don’t spend time on other things, but that was so fundamental. I appreciate them, and tonight I thank them, because they probably ought to be standing up here with me, and I thank The Plank Center for this recognition and all tonight, but I truly want to leave with this group, one CEO’s feeling of the criticality, and how important to the success, not of me, but to an entire corporation. Our public relations and communications people, they were second to none. I thank them tonight, and I thank all of you, and I appreciate this very much.

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