Strong relationships can make the difference between a job and a labor of love.
As I enter retirement, I naturally find myself reflecting on my 41-years at Corning. I have been fortunate to be part of a company that produces life-changing technologies and to work with people who are passionate about making a positive difference in the world. Over the past four decades, I’ve witnessed countless changes, balanced numerous risks and opportunities, and experienced my share of adversity and triumphs. When I think of my “legacy” in the conventional sense, I’m proud that I contributed to Corning’s recovery following the telecommunications industry crash in the early 2000s through the growth of the display glass business. But when I look back over the sweep of my career, it’s the relationships I’ve built that give me the greatest source of satisfaction.
I can’t possibly acknowledge all the people who have had a positive impact on my professional career and personal growth, but a few experiences stand out because of the lessons I learned and applied to build strong relationships inside and outside the company.
1. Let people know they matter.
At Corning, we underscore the importance of valuing the individual. One of my early mentors taught me what that looks like in action.
I met Bob Gilchrist, a manager in manufacturing, when I was a section supervisor at Corning’s lighting plant in Central Falls, RI, not long out of college. When I left the company as a result of a divestiture and was feeling dissatisfied by the lack of opportunities with my new employer, it was Bob who encouraged me to come in for an interview so we could explore potential jobs at Corning. His invitation and the resulting job offer changed my life. But he did more than set my career in motion. He also taught me one of my most valuable lessons about being a leader and inspiring followers.
When you spoke with Bob, it was as though there was no place in the world he’d rather be. We’ve all had conversations with people who are looking at their watches or waiting for their turn to talk. But Bob’s total focus was on you. When you’re in a relatively junior position and a senior leader talks to you that way, it really makes a big impression. You feel like you matter, and you feel inspired to do your best. Thanks to his example, I’ve tried to lead the same way.
2. Disagree constructively.
Back when I was a young production supervisor, I received an assignment that posed an unusual challenge. There was a big initiative at the time to create a stronger partnership between management and the union, so we could move out of argument mode and into problem-solving mode. But one of the plant managers seemed to be resisting the effort. Corning’s manufacturing lead at the time told me, “We need you to go down and help get this guy on board.” The plant manager in question was my new boss, which made things interesting, to say the least.
After butting heads initially, I finally understood his position. He wanted to ensure both union and management benefited from the effort and that we weren't just engaging in a feel-good exercise. And even though I was sent down there to get in his face, he didn’t resent it. We disagreed a lot, but we also listened and considered each other’s perspective. As a result, we accomplished some great things. And because I kept my mind open, I learned how to be a good plant manager from one of the best in the business.
That ability to disagree constructively has helped me with customers as well as colleagues. No matter how strong or long lived a customer relationship is, there are times we’re at odds in terms of supply, price, or production timelines. But I always remember that our customers are trying to do the best for their companies, just as I am trying to do the best for mine. We seek common ground, we honor our commitments, and we never close the door on each other.
3. Be generous with your knowledge.
Ambitious young managers often clamor for a seat at the table with senior leaders. Or they approach new encounters wondering, “What can this person do for me?” But I’ve learned that passion is often a better indicator of influence than power, and the most valuable relationships can have modest beginnings. When you meet a kindred spirit, it’s almost always worth investing your time.
In 2002, I had just returned to Japan to lead Corning’s global Display Technologies business when I received a cold call from the founder of a tech upstart in China who wanted to enter LCD manufacturing and requested a meeting. I asked the commercial director for Display Technologies at the time, “Should we go?” He said “It couldn’t hurt. Let’s find out what he’s up to.”
We traveled to Beijing and met with this gentleman, who was looking for ways to grow a company called Beijing Opto-Electronics. He wanted to know everything about LCD manufacturing, from the glass to panel assembly and everything in between. We scheduled an hour together, but we ended up meeting for six hours. He spoke no English, and my colleague and I spoke no Chinese, so the entire conversation had to be translated. But the guy’s passion was obvious, and we knew immediately that he was the real deal.
To make a long story short, that man was Chairman Wang Dongsheng, who went on to grow BOE Technology into the largest panel maker in the world. And we were with him from the beginning, sharing our expertise, demonstrating our value as a collaborator, and earning his trust. Today, BOE is one of Corning Incorporated’s largest customers.
Not every relationship will be so impactful. But I’ve learned that almost everyone has something to teach you. And with each encounter, you could be laying the foundation for your personal and professional development, the growth of your company, and sometimes even the growth of an industry. Strong relationships can also make the difference between a job and a four-decade labor of love.