north of neutral dialog

January 4, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Bob Kidder, Chairman, Chrysler Group, Detroit

As I sit down to enter this blog, I vividly remember savoring a glass of Pinot Noir at Sanford Winery in the scenic hills of Santa Rita, California, a few years ago.  What does this have to do with a North Of Neutral dialog on meaningful careers?  Well, I was having a lively conversation with one of the owners of the vineyard, Bob Kidder, who was hosting the evening.  When Kidder and I spoke most recently, he was in his office in Detroit, looking at the challenges as newly appointed chairman of Chrysler.

The journey

From a humble family background in Iowa, Kidder got a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Michigan and a MS from Iowa State University. He signed on to work for McKinsey’s Chicago office as a consultant in 1972, where he had a successful run for six years before he joined Dart Industries as VP of Planning and Development.   Dart was acquired by Duracell in 1984, and over the next four years Bob advanced from VP Finance to CEO, serving in that role (and later additionally as Chairman) for the following six years while Duracell became a portfolio company of KKR, the fabled private equity house that first bought out and subsequently floated the company.  Bob created significant value during this period, and found himself in a position, in his late forties, of being able to retire.

Not ready for the vineyard

And indeed he tried just that by acquiring a partnership stake in Californian vineyard Sanford, and a beautiful home in the hills of Santa Barbara. But in 1995, less than a year after seeking to retire, he accepted repeated requests from KKR to come back and lead Borden, a Columbus, OH, based $20bn portfolio firm, which itself consisted of a spectrum of companies ranging from dairy farms to pasta makers and bakeries and including well-known brands such as OXO Good Grips and Elmer’s Glue.  Having concluded his assignment for KKR by 2004 – and by now realized that retirement was not for him – Bob set out to found 3Stone Advisors, a private investment firm focusing on with clean technology.  In addition to this role, Bob served on the boards of EDS (he has since transitioned from that board to Schering Plough) and Morgan Stanley as well as a range of other institutions, such as the Columbus Children’s Hospital. Earlier this year, Bob Kidder succeeded Robert Nardelli as Chrysler’s chairman as the new corporation takes shape in Bankruptcy Court, and as it starts an alliance with the Italian automaker Fiat SpA.

When I congratulate him on his new role and ask how he is doing, he laughs: ”I am a busy guy – I am on the board of any industry sector that is struggling currently: Finance, Pharma and Auto.” On a more serious note, he shares that “I feel very honored to be given this new leadership assignment.  Getting there has been a mix of hard work, common sense, education in its broadest sense, engaging the right talent and empowering them to make decisions, good communication and of course, luck.”

The payoff

Kidder reflects upon the reactions when he accepted to become chairman of Chrysler:”A number of people congratulated me, but there were also voices that questioned my decision to accept such a ‘thankless job’. What made it most appealing to me was that here is a huge challenge, different from the industries I worked in so far, and a unique opportunity to give back to my country.”

Throughout his career, Bob Kidder has sought out the thrill of overcoming challenge. And indeed the first thing I remember seeing in his office was a sign which reflects his personal mantra: ‘Strategy is messy and iterative’.  Appreciating the connection between strategy and metrics, Bob is intrigued by his partnership with Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and Chrysler: “Sergio is a very down-to-earth, straight-forward and bright leader whose unconventional approach makes it interesting to work with him. I see my role as striking dialogs with Sergio on priorities and to share the results of our discussions with the board.” Rather than being directive, Kidder focuses on having a supportive dialog with Marchionne. His emphasis is on building and running a productive, independent board of directors:”I have been a CEO for a long time myself, I have learned what to do and what not to do.”

Equally, Kidder enjoys meeting on a regular basis with Ron Bloom, the “Auto Czar” as Kidder calls him, to discuss Chrysler shareholder value, CEO valuation and succession planning. “I am not doing this role to gain publicity or to make financial gains, I truly enjoy being a part of such an important and historic effort.”

Are there moments of pause?

During our conversation, what struck me was why, after a remarkable career as a business leader, Kidder retired to the sunny hills of Santa Barbara, California, for the short span of one year, only to return to Columbus, Ohio to take on another major role.  And in the same vein why, after decades of living the hectic life of a CEO, Kidder at the age of 64 accepts one of the most challenging if not nerve-wrecking responsibilities in the country.

When I ask him what winding down means to him, he laughs: “Frankly, I don’t understand the concept. For me, relaxation comes from staying active, from continuing to learn and from being in the company of bright, Type A people, making a difference.”

That does not mean that he does not wind down: one of his favorite past times is football. I recall being puzzled by the license plate of one of his cars, which reads: ‘UM OSU’.   Even here, Kidder manages a unique perspective, one that is unthinkable for most fans of either team: archrivals University of Michigan and Ohio State.

Changing gears in turbulent times

Tapping over 40 years of leadership experience, I am keen to hear his thoughts on what drives positive leadership and how intends to lead Chrysler’s turnaround:

O Think big picture

“You need to think big picture. Ask yourself: what is the greater organizational objective? A good leader needs to have the ability to think like a generalist, to broaden the lens beyond the current scope.”

O Hire top talent

Kidder sees people at the core of any organization’s success. “Starting with my days at McKinsey, it is tremendously powerful to work in a high density of smart people, it is absolutely infectious and drives peak performance.”

O Cultivate team spirit

“People in an organization need to feel like they are part of something special. Similar to my experience at McKinsey where, once joined, people embrace a lifetime fraternal bond, it is key for an organization’s success to nurture these connections.” Starting with the board, Kidder led his group of new directors through a 3-day intense orientation program. Interestingly, for the first day, the board did nothing but drive every model that Chrysler makes, with engineers in the passenger seats who would explain the details.

O Focus on opportunities

Human energy plays a central role in a positive change agenda. Focusing on strengths, optimism and opportunities, Kidder confirms: “Sergio Marchionne’s mantra is: ‘everything is up for change’. I personally support his notion that nobody is supposed to be locked in, lifting artificial constraints put on people.”

O Effectively listen

He applauds Sergio Marchionne’s ability to deeply listen to concerns and ideas that subordinates and stakeholders share with him. In line with this, as chairman, Kidder regularly sets out to speak with decision-makers in the firm to see what changes need to be made and checks whether there are any strategic disconnects or red flags: “I am an additional pair of ears, here to support Sergio in his role.”

O Communicate clearly

Kidder emphasizes the importance of having open communication between an organization’s leadership and its employees and stakeholders: “We need to let our people know what our vision is, where our priorities are and what we strive to achieve.”

O Empower people and hold them accountable

When Kidder became CEO of Borden, then a very bureaucratic and highly diversified structure, one of his first decisions was to decentralize the firm. Kidder gave individual CEOs decision-making power, encouraged them to take risks, to succeed and also to fail. Also new to the firm, these business leaders were held accountable for their results, which drove a cultural change and ultimately had a positive effect on bottom line.

O Engage leaders who possess ‘the guts to make a decision’

A proponent of participative leadership, Kidder is strongly opposed to the concept of shared governance, a model under which all constituents need not only be heard but also have to agree on next steps before action can be taken: “This, to me, is really the absence of leadership. Such an approach lacks clarity and it slows down decision-making unnecessarily.”

So why does an executive who has accomplished everything prefer helping Detroit to kicking back in the vineyards of southern California?  Because – for him – the rewards of positive leadership make it a journey worth pursuing.

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