north of neutral dialog

June 1, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Bill Massa, CEO Synagro, Houston, Texas

Imagine standing inside a giant tank. The tank is filled with two million gallons of sludge. Waist deep in what you force yourself to think of as oatmeal, you are inching forward purposefully and cautiously. Purposefully, because your task today is to clean up decade-old treated human waste with a pressure hose. Cautiously because your partner just advised you that the ground is extremely slippery!

This is what I saw Bill Massa, CEO of Synagro, the nation’s largest provider of comprehensive waste water treatment and conversion services, do on CBS’s Emmy nominated series of Undercover Boss at the end of March. This most watched premiere episode of any reality series, ‘Undercover Boss’ follows different leaders every month as they leave the amenities of their headquarters to examine, incognito, the inner workings of their companies.

In this episode, Massa comes across as a likeable, down to earth guy with a good sense of humor – even when he is faced with potentially working alongside alligators in a sewage lagoon. So, what motivates a senior leader to agree to get his hands dirty, and what does reality look like beyond what we see on TV?

The company

Bill Massa became CEO of Synagro in 2009. The company, owned by private equity giant The Carlyle Group, converts sewage sludge into marketable products including green energy. It also designs, builds, owns and operates biosolids recycling facilities/systems. Their specialty is in drying, pelletizing, composting, digestion, renewable energy generation and incinerating biosolids, which they sell as nutrient-rich fertilizer or green energy fuel.

An optimistic start

The oldest of four boys, Massa was born in Brooklyn, New York, and for most of his adolescence grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. When Massa was in high school, his father asked whether he was planning to go to college and how he was going to pay for it. Bill Massa remembers thinking it would be a mix of work, loans and support from home. “I was quite wrong,” he laughs remembering. “My father responded with ‘Well you have two of these three right. You are the oldest, we have modest means, what we do for one we have to do for all, and we have to focus on retirement.”

Confronted with this challenge, Massa started looking for solutions. He attributes his capacity to achieve his goals and stay motivated to learning from his mother. “My mother is an amazing person. As a young girl her mother passed away, her father abandoned the kids, and she grew up in a series of foster homes. But despite all of the adversity, she always had a positive outlook on life, and now at 77-years-old, she still has it.”

While some of our natural characteristics are embedded in our genetic DNA, scientific evidence supports the case that optimism is cultivated at a young age and is informed by the explanatory style that children observe in their primary care giver. (Reassuringly for those of us who do not grow up in such an environment, science also informs us that, even later in life, we can learn to change our outlook and, through consciously challenging negative self-talk, develop a more ‘optimistic’ perspective.)

In line with an optimist’s habit of interpreting challenges as temporary, changeable and local, Massa secured a ROTC scholarship with the US Navy, and began his engineering degree at Northwestern in Chicago. He later transferred to Cornell, and managed to take his scholarship with him, something that had not been done before: “When I am told that something is not possible or can’t be done, I get very excited about doing it! That I definitely get from my mother.” Massa’s resourcefulness and strong motivation to achieve his goals points to another psychological trait: hope. Both hope and optimism are positively correlated with performance and the ability to be a transformational leader[1]. A journey Massa was about to embark on.

Pivotal moment: management vs. engineering

As part of his studies, Massa worked in a company as the junior amongst a group of engineers. It was this experience that shaped his decision to stay with the Navy beyond college, as it offered him ample opportunity to become involved in management. “There was this brilliant guy, Rudy, a very smart engineer. He was managed by this young kid who clearly didn’t know as much as he did. All of us would always go to Rudy for answers, yet he wasn’t at all appreciated compared to the value he provided. Rather, management was getting all the glory. So I thought if I get an engineering degree and go into management, maybe I can change this dynamic.”

After graduating with a Bachelors degree in electrical engineering from Cornell in 1982, Massa joined the Navy’s Nuclear Submarine Training and stayed on for seven more years. He advanced rapidly through the ranks and emerged at the top of his peer group. In 1989, equipped with an MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he decided it was time to leave: “I had a good career going, but I knew that I wanted to do a lot more with my life. Five days after my first son was born I had to go to sea for three-and-a-half months. My younger son was born while I was at sea.”

When Massa speaks about his family, it is apparent how high this ranks in terms of priorities. Married for 30 years to his high school sweetheart (who is a senior executive in the software industry), he is about to embark on a two-week sailing trip in Greece with his wife and friends. He also makes time to balance his demanding professional life with some rounds of squash and tennis. “It helps that I only need about six hours sleep”, he says, laughingly putting things into perspective.

Corporate life

Leaving the Navy, Bill Massa joined General Chemical Corporation as a Financial Analyst, and was promoted rapidly. At the age of 32, he supported 40% of the firm’s general line of sales, and oversaw the national network of close to 100 distributors with sales in excess of $60m.

In 1994, he was recruited by Cambrex Corporation, another chemical manufacturer, and was charged with turning around one of the company’s weakest business lines. This turned out to be a tough assignment: “The business was really struggling with profitability, sales, quality and safety. After a lot of hard work we were able to take the business to record performance. I received a promotion to run a much larger business, and about a year later my former business was struggling again – I couldn’t believe it! The CEO asked – or forced! – me to add my former business to my current responsibilities. After a lot of reflection I realized I had not built strong and sustainable teams and processes.”

As with earlier personal and professional set backs, Massa showed an exceptional ability to adapt his responses to shifting (and often stressful) situational demands. He vowed to never “make that mistake again” and quickly assumed increasingly larger roles. In 2000 Massa was nominated President of Cambrex Specialty Chemicals.

Two years later, he was recruited by another Chemical giant, Celanese Corporation, to build a billion dollar global Performance Chemical Division through acquisitions.  He accomplished this and was asked to integrate and run the Division.

Massa ended up spending about 17 years in the chemical industry. “I liked this industry as it was very challenging and very diverse. It was a great place to learn sales, relationships, business, market dynamics and value propositions.”

Going green – a business case

In October of 2006 Massa launched his own consulting practice, focused on Private Equity Portfolio companies but, only a few months later, he was offered a unique opportunity: becoming CEO of Clean Earth, a recycler of contaminated soil and other hazardous and non-hazardous materials.

Massa assumed this role in January 2007, and saw some quick wins through increasing revenues and the firm’s profitability. However, he had now become hot property in the limited pool of senior talent, and was headhunted in November of 2009 to become CEO of Synagro. “I am a very loyal person and I always look to do the best wherever I am. I am also fairly rational, and have turned down many job offers. But when I learned about Synagro and its particular challenges and opportunities, I fell in love after about 30 seconds. I didn’t know anything about wastewater and sludge, but I saw a really good match between what I like to do and what I am good at – developing and executing strategies and building teams.”

Different from what one might expect, Massa’s main interest did not stem from becoming a ‘green’ CEO. He laughs as he shares his sister-in-law’s comment: “You have spent 15 years polluting the Earth, now you can spend the next 15 cleaning it up.” As Massa sees it, “It is a good business. Waste is waste. There is a lot of value and profit in waste. It is not any more complicated than that.”

Strategic rigor meets street smarts

Having come on board as Synagro’s new leader, Massa took over from a team that had been managed through fear: “The previous management had a very different approach from what I believe in. For some time they had discouraged risk taking, not invested in the business and capital equipment, did not develop people and had maximized short term business goals. There was no strategic plan in place, not even informally.”

Within the first 100 days Massa, together with a steering committee of twenty people, drafted a strategic plan. He later involved most of the managers in the company. “When we started out, I was literally the only person who had ever done a strategic plan.”

About two dozen of Synagro’s employees presented this plan to The Carlyle Group (Massa stepped back and assumed the role of ‘supportive audience’). The response was exhilarating. Of the hundreds of strategic plans that the investor had reviewed, they ranked Synagro’s among the very best. “It was nice to hear. But more important was that the Synagro team did not hear this from me, but from a critical outside source.”

Since then it has all been about execution. “I absolutely believe in running a business with a plan, executing in line with the plan, and generating open lines of communication.” The plan’s comprehensive framework serves as a foundation and compass and Massa’s biggest challenge now is finding and developing the right talent behind the tasks that lay before the company.

These struggles are rooted in Synagro’s previous culture which was ruled by fear and risk aversion. To accomplish this culture shift, Massa spends a lot of time communicating in the field. “I aim to have a relationship which runs deep down into the organization.  What you see on Undercover Boss is what I do – I have been in plants and generally try to maximize direct contact with my leadership team, their reports and their reports. We are in the middle of talent review process of all managers in the company. I hold a quarterly company-wide conference call – for all employees to participate in – where I have several people make a brief presentation on how the company is doing and then for the next hour I answer any questions they may have from anywhere on any topic. The list goes on and on.”

Wings of compassion

As much as Massa stands ready to make tough decisions to create and lead a successful business, behind all that tough exterior is a soft heart.

Angel Flight East is an operation that transports seriously ill patients (free of charge) to medical facilities far from their homes. For over a decade, Bill Massa has been a part of their dedicated pilots’ group. In his spare time he uses his personal airplane, a Columbia 400, and regularly transports patients and their families. “I have been very fortunate in my life, I have worked very hard for what I have, have taken a lot of chances, risks, have fallen, picked myself up a bunch of times, but life has generally worked out very well for me. There are a lot of other folks who are not as fortunate.”

Massa was shaped by his own experience as one of his brothers was born with serious health issues. “There is only so much I can do for my brother, but Angel flights combine my love for flying with my desire to give back. I get a great deal of satisfaction and it helps to keep things in perspective. Most of my passengers face personal tragedy and loss. And yet despite of all of that, they are very optimistic and have a positive outlook.”

He describes one time when he transported an elderly married couple. The wife was just returning from chemotherapy, the husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I was struck by how grateful they both were, as it looked like they would still be able to celebrate the holidays together.”

A transformational leader

Massa – throughout his career – has been entrusted to lead change. While many of his peers may possess equally smart strategic vision, Massa has an edge. His ability to harness his own positive psychological capabilities, such as being hopeful, optimistic and resilient, equip him to be an exceptional leader who inspires confidence and trust in his followers.

In his current role of a smaller operation in a dynamic environment, his transformational leadership style promises to have an even greater impact than in the larger and more conventional environments in which he operated during his time in the chemical industry.

Add to this powerful mix his self-efficacy, which expresses itself in a solid confidence in his own abilities to complete a task successfully, and it is clear why Carlyle have most likely picked a ‘winner’ in their investment. Massa’s hopeful and perseverant leadership style portrays a positive future to his team. His innate ability to thrive on challenge and cope with failure will empower them to take calculated risks, to seek innovation and to rebound from setbacks.

There is a hopeful message in this for all of us: different from the personal strengths that we see as trait-like and innate, the psychological capacities of optimism, hope, resilience and self-efficacy are changeable. This in turn means that we can cultivate these capacities in ourselves and in those we lead by using a variety of proven interventions. The science of positive psychology has a lot to offer when it comes to strengthening the optimism and resilience muscles.

An increasing number of organizations are recognizing the importance of introducing and building psychological capabilities such as those which Massa carries naturally within his leadership teams. And it may not surprise that innovators such as Google, with their ‘Project Oxygen’, have formally integrated positive psychology interventions into their leadership training. More traditional operations, such as the US Army, are also coming on board, and the defense force has set aside $145 million for a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program. CSF is designed in collaboration with leading positive psychologists, and equips soldiers with a training that reinforces signature strengths, mental resilience and strong interpersonal bonds.

Thinking back to where it all began for Bill Massa, with his successful term with the US Navy, one might argue that he instinctively knew ’the secret’ all along: being optimistic, hopeful and resilient are the key ingredients to personal and organizational success, and to a fulfilled life.

[1] Peterson, S.J. et al (2009); “CEO Positive Psychological Traits, Transformational Leadership, and Firm Performance in High-Technology Start-up and Established Firms”, Journal of Management, Vol. 35 No.2, pp. 348 – 368

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