Having experienced the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s while living in Hong Kong prepared Lori Ryerkerk to some degree for the COVID-19 pandemic. Ryerkerk, who is chairman, president and CEO of Celanese, a global producer of chemicals and specialty materials, says that because we can’t anticipate what the next crisis will be, it’s always critical to build an organization that is “resilient and robust.” But one thing the current pandemic has taught her is that “no amount of communication is too much” – and that the more inclusive that communication is across a company, the stronger the company will be.
Rising up the ranks from engineer to top management roles at Exxon helped Ryerkerk earn a reputation as one who gets results. After 20 years at Exxon, her experience enabled her to transition to leadership roles at Hess and Royal Dutch Shell. She joined Dallas, Tex.-based Celanese in her current role in May 2019. Celanese has approximately 7,500 employees worldwide.
Ryerkerk spoke about her career and how the pandemic is reshaping her company’s culture and her own leadership style during a recent interview with Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli as part of a virtual event series titled, “Leadership in the Wake of COVID-19: What Enterprise Leaders Will Need to Survive and Prosper in the Years Ahead.” The series is hosted by Knowledge at Wharton in partnership with the 2020 Wharton Leadership Conference, the Wharton Center for Human Resources, and the McNulty Leadership Program.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Peter Cappelli: Lori, I wanted to talk first just a little bit about your own career. We had done a study a few years ago looking at the top executives in the largest U.S. corporations, and about 20 years or so ago there was not a single woman in any of the top 10 positions in any of the oil, gas, or chemical companies in the U.S. It was an industry that seemed particularly resistant — or at least late in coming — to having women in top positions. You didn’t come in laterally; you started out in the industry, and worked your way up. What was that journey like for you?
Lori Ryerkerk: You’re right; oil and gas has not been an industry that attracted a lot of women, nor did [it do] a good job retaining or promoting women. I came in as a chemical engineer. I joined Exxon in Baton Rouge, [La.], in 1984 as an entry-level engineer.
I was 21 years old, blonde, and from the Midwest, and in the South, I was not a good fit. I was the only woman hired at that facility that year. I heard everything you would imagine you would hear at that point in time — “You shouldn’t be here; you’re doing a man’s job, why aren’t you having babies?”
Fortunately, I grew up with three older brothers, and so there was probably nothing you could say or do to me that would terribly insult me at that point in time. Early on, I just took the attitude that I can’t control what you think or say, but I will control how I respond. So, I ignored a lot of it, and I just kept working, because I loved the engineering work, I loved the complexity of it, and I liked the operating environment.
And luckily, Exxon is a company that values contribution over anything [else]. If you worked and got good results, you would have new opportunities open up for you. I benefited from that meritocratic system where it was based more on that than on relationships or anything else.
I was given [many] opportunities [at Exxon] to grow and develop not just my engineering skills, but also very early on becoming a supervisor, developing leadership skills, commercial skills, and other skills. [I was] ultimately running a large refinery in Texas, a chemical plant in Louisiana, a joint venture while living in Hong Kong, and a global organization around public relations and government relations.
I learned you’re going to run up against a few other things — as a woman in that industry, you stood out. That could be a good thing if you did things well, but it was obviously [also] a curse. You didn’t have some of the room to make mistakes others did, and so [you faced] more pressure related to that. But the company was a meritocracy, and that was a big help.
“Having that technical credibility goes a long way in establishing your credentials, and then people start to learn your style.” –Lori Ryerkerk
In some ways that’s the advantage for women in some of the technical fields where there’s not a strong power structure, and it’s more about knowledge and the ability to get things done versus whom you know. When you’re working with male engineers, so as long as you do a good job and you can talk their technical language, it is a reasonably level playing field.
Don’t get me wrong, it was hard. You feel isolated, and it was before the days of mentors and sponsors. I never had one of those, but I had some good supervisors who were all men, but who gave me good advice and guidance. I had some bad supervisors, too, but that was also helpful because it gave me a good example of what I didn’t want to be like as a leader.
After 25 years, I was in government relations and public affairs, and I wanted to go back to running a business. It didn’t look like that opportunity was going to be available to me for some time. Most of the women at my level were being moved into corporate functions and support roles. I didn’t want to do that, so I left Exxon. I went to Hess for a year-and-a-half. It was a great experience, and it taught me what the meaning of cash is, which is something you often don’t get at a big company like Exxon.
But it was too small and I ended up going to Shell and doing the job I always wanted to do in Exxon, which is running a business. [That was in] Europe and Africa.
I had everything against me going to the role, but I enjoyed the job, loved running that team, and after three-and-a-half years was asked to move on to a global role for Shell, which I did for five years before I retired. Six months later I went back to work, taking the CEO role at Celanese.
Switching Corporate Cultures
Cappelli: I wanted to ask you about the Royal Dutch Shell/Exxon story. These are two companies that are famous for operating in very different ways, with very different cultures. And they also don’t like each other very much. Going from one to the other must have been a fascinating experience. How were you welcomed or initiated in Royal Dutch Shell when they knew you were an Exxon person in terms of your training and expertise?
Ryerkerk: They are very different companies. Exxon is very data driven, and very focused. It has evolved over time, but during the period I was there, it wasn’t really about people liking you. It was really about getting things done. You had some characters that weren’t all that likable but were successful in getting things done. In some ways it was a tough culture, but you knew where you stood. It was very straightforward.
Shell is much more about relationships, who you knew, did people like you, did you get along with everybody more so than even getting things done. Again, their culture also continues to evolve. I would almost put it down to as much the difference between an American culture, which is about get-it-done and success, and a European culture, which is more about social values and a cohesive society. It’s all about doing things collectively.
When I went to Shell, especially joining in Europe, I think initially people who were going to be working for me were afraid I was [like] the devil coming in. But in some ways I was fortunate because I was going into a manufacturing organization. [It helps] when people realize that you know a lot about refineries and chemical plants, you can talk the technical talk, you’ve done it at all the levels, and you can talk to operators and mechanics, as well as to senior people.
Having that technical credibility goes a long way in establishing your credentials, and then people start to learn your style. [They realize that] you’re there to help [them] do better and get better results.
It helped that when I was in Exxon I lived and worked in Hong Kong for nearly four years, because that was a good experience in learning how to work in a different culture. In Asia, if you’re very direct, people will always follow the guidance of the leader; they’ll never express their opinion. You had to learn to keep your own opinion to yourself to draw people out. In Europe, every country had its own nuance. In Africa, [it was] a different nuance. Being able to take that experience I had in Asia and in my global jobs from Exxon into Shell was a skill I had to learn as I went through my career.
Cappelli: What advice would you have for people moving to a new country or a different company? You’ve done it fairly often.
Ryerkerk: This will go against a lot of the leadership books that talk about [how in] your first 100 days you need to have a plan, and you need to make all of these changes. I would tell you that you need to spend those first 100 days getting to know people and the company, and talking to people such as customers and suppliers.
Within that time, [you should be] keeping your mouth shut and listening to what everyone else has to say, and understanding the entirety of the landscape — not just the technical work but the social situation, the community situation, and the reputational situation. All that just becomes so important the more senior you get. Otherwise, you can make some big missteps early on that you will spend the next five years trying to recover from.
“Building that organization and having that inclusiveness gets you through anything, because you don’t know what the next thing is going to be.” –Lori Ryerkerk
Resetting in the Pandemic Era
Cappelli: We wanted to ask you about your experience in the pandemic, because your company has operations around the world. Could you tell us a little about what the company faced, and you faced as a CEO, when the pandemic began? I guess you probably saw it in China before most U.S. business people.
Ryerkerk: Yes, and to be fair, I had a little bit of experience. I lived in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic. COVID-19 has been different, because it is much more global than SARS, [and with a] much longer duration. As a company we did start dealing with it in January when it first emerged. My facilities in China are mostly centered around Shanghai, [which] is not far from Wuhan. Then we saw it move to Europe, [where] my two biggest centers are in Italy and Germany. And then it moved to the U.S.
We have been able to run all of our manufacturing facilities. We have had no cases of COVID-19 for any of our employees in Asia. We’ve only had 10 cases in Europe and in the U.S. Through better hygiene and better social distancing we have been able to keep our operations up and running as needed for demand.
We did go to work from home at all of our offices. I have a fantastic team around the globe. They have all been extremely productive working from home. We’ve kept contact with customers.
But it’s been different. We’ve all had to learn. We’ve had to increase communications. We all like to think we’re good communicators, but this [aspect] has changed in the role of CEO over the years…. During this pandemic period, I’ve sent a note out to my organization twice a week. And we have pictures, blogs and videos [among the many] ways to connect the community. [We have also been] reminding people that we have mental health services available everywhere in the world. [We tell them]: Reach out if you are having trouble, or if your family members are having trouble, and take care of yourself not just physically, but also mentally.
Now the question is, how much of this do we keep up going forward, and how long can we keep it up going forward? We are starting to get people back to the workplace. People are happy to be getting back to the office and are starting to get some of that social interaction again. But we’re being careful about social distancing and people wearing masks when they’re in common spaces in the office.
A lot of our leaders are continuing to work from home, although we have a schedule now. My CFO and I don’t travel on the same airplane. We’re alternating weeks currently, to make sure that if there were to be an emergence of COVID-19 at our location in Dallas, we both wouldn’t get it at the same time. A lot more time is being spent on keeping the board informed, and rightly so. They want to make sure not just that we’re taking care of the business, but also that we’re taking care of the employees and the social environment in our community.
Changes That Will Endure
Knowledge at Wharton: We have a lot of great questions from our audience. First, which positive changes in your corporate culture that have arisen from this crisis will most likely carry over beyond it? You talked about great communication and emphasis on mental health.
Ryerkerk: One of the good changes that has happened here is that this has made us a better global company. Our headquarters are in Dallas, and although we have people around the world, we were a little Dallas-centric.
Even though I have leaders that are in other parts of the world, we’d have the big group of leaders together in Dallas, and then other people calling in. Quite frankly, they probably never had an equal voice at the table. Now that we’ve gone to everybody having to call in, we’re starting to hear more from our leaders in Asia and in Europe, and they’re better able to get their voices [heard] in the room. We started to realize that we probably weren’t being as inclusive with our leaders who weren’t sitting physically with us.
“People want to hear from the leadership. They want that personal experience — the video, the virtual town halls, the letters, and they want to see pictures.” –Lori Ryerkerk
That changes how we think about our global model. We don’t want to be a U.S. company that operates globally, [but] we want to be a global company. That means that we need to rethink how we communicate, how we make sure we bring everybody in, and that we’re not being too U.S.-centric. Our leaders in other parts of the world have commented positively about how much more inclusive they think it feels now that we’ve all been working from home and on a more level-playing field.
We’ve also learned to have a lot of customer interaction and supplier interaction. We’ve maintained all that now through video and phone. My technical folks are using FaceTime and other apps to provide technical services to [our customers] who have molding issues, or different issues using our polymers. We’ve been able to do a lot more remotely than we ever would have thought before.
I think it tells us that we can probably have better customer service and better customer relations if we do more [of those things] virtually. Not that we’re going to completely stop seeing our customers, but maybe we will see them less often face-to-face, but a lot more often virtually.
And then, like everyone, we’ve just found as we’ve worked from home that there are a few things we’ve quit doing that we never need to start doing again. We’ve found opportunities to streamline, be more efficient. Frankly, we’ve found a lot of opportunities to automate and start using more of digital technologies — that has sped up our plan to go digital.
Knowledge at Wharton: If you had known a year ago that this pandemic was coming, what would you have done differently?
Ryerkerk: I don’t know I would have done anything differently. As business leaders we always have something happening, right? Whether it’s a hurricane or a typhoon or a snowstorm or an electrical outage.
We can’t anticipate [such challenges]. What we need to build is an organization that is resilient and robust, and that takes on the challenges. If we’re going to get it 90% right, that’s good. As long as we communicate, and we keep talking to each other and learning from each other, we’re going to get through it. Building that organization and having that inclusiveness as an organization gets you through anything, because you don’t know what the next thing is going to be.
Knowledge at Wharton: How has your own leadership style changed as a result of the pandemic?
Ryerkerk: I grew up in a results-oriented company, and so I tend to be very results oriented. I always thought I was a good communicator, but when you go into this kind of situation where you have to do it remotely, you realize you can be a lot better communicator and you can do a whole lot more, and there is no amount of communication that people think is too much communication.
People want to hear from the leadership. And not just corporate speak – they want that personal experience, the video, the virtual town halls, the letters, they want to see pictures. They want their leaders to be real people. This is a change from when I started 35 years ago, where the CEO felt like this big important person who must live in a castle somewhere.
They know we’re real people; they want us to be real people, and they want to see that side of us. They know it’s okay that we’re not always right, and it’s okay that we occasionally stutter on a call. It’s all fine. All of us respond better to real people. But that means a lot more communication — a lot more time spent talking, listening, and communicating through various forms.
Some people love [interacting] online, other people need push emails, some people want video, some people want written [communication]. Everybody needs a different form, and the only way to get to all of your folks is to use every possible form available. I thought I was a good communicator, [but] I wasn’t doing nearly enough before this. And so that will be a permanent change. Maybe it won’t be twice a week, but it will be more often, and more intentional communication than I would have done prior to this crisis.