All Articles Leadership Strategy Dow Chemical's Carol Williams, on leadership and innovation

Dow Chemical’s Carol Williams, on leadership and innovation

4 min read


How do corporate leaders get employee buy-in, promote innovation, and improve U.S. industry and manufacturing? To find out, I recently spoke with Carol Williams, a Dow Chemical group senior vice president and president of the chemicals and energy division, and a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Our discussion repeatedly came back to an interconnected theme: delivering the kind of leadership that brings out employee buy-in and initiative, thus enabling Dow’s workforce to turn the world’s major issues into innovation and growth opportunities — all while the regulatory situation acts as a “disincentive.”

Every leader needs a foundation, and Williams’ is in chemical engineering. Pursuing that field in 1976, she says, was a clear sign of wanting “to step out and do something different,” even as some professors openly questioned women such as her. That willingness to try new things only aided her in future leadership roles, she said, and her engineering and executive-track experiences each contribute to effective leadership, and her chemical engineering background offers the benefit of “how to solve a problem,” whether in research work or later in business or purchasing situations. Forming a hypothesis and testing it for robustness, she says, applies in all fields.

That disciplined approach continues in applying the often-vague concept of leadership. Williams employs the “three Vs”:

  • Vision — Inspiring people to look enthusiastically toward the future that you describe.
  • Visible — Of your strategy, she says, “Communicate it in person.” This also involves making your vision visible to everyone, but also “tangible.”
  • Value — What does the employee’s contribution mean to bringing about the vision, but also, what does it mean for them?

One American example, Williams noted, was President John F. Kennedy announcing that the U.S. would go to the moon within the decade. When he announced this goal, she says, “He didn’t know how he was going to do that.” His plan had doubters, but Congress and the American people also had to be brought on board, inspired by how they could help and what could ultimately be accomplished.

At Dow, a practical application of leadership is in innovation, but first, Williams says, a definition of the term is important. Many people treat “innovation” and “invention” interchangeably, she says, but invention, while important, is but the “spark,” something that an innovator takes and implements widely — and profits from.

For example, she cited Dow’s work in solar shingles. “Driving the invention is solar, but innovation is putting it into the shingle,” including making such shingles more energy- and cost-efficient for residential installations. As the Earth’s population grows, Williams says, supplying food, energy, water and other needs will be paramount.

Innovation and investment are the ways Dow is responding to these challenges, Williams says, investing $1.6 billion in research and development last year while soliciting 500 project ideas that could potentially mean $30 billion in revenue. “You can make that money and have it address those world challenges,” she says.

One challenge is more immediate: The regulatory environment. “Whether you believe that this is the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world … why does the United States continue to have policies and regulations that act as a disincentive to manufacturing, the very enterprise that will be responsible for solving these problems and inventing the solutions of tomorrow?” Williams says.

She cites the loss of 42,000 factories, 5.5 million manufacturing jobs and the declining percentage share of the economy held by the sector.  “Unless we begin to focus on encouraging American manufacturing, we will continue to see these numbers — along with our national competitiveness — decline. This is not sustainable,” she says.

Her suggestions are threefold: A national energy policy, but one that supports sustainable manufacturing; “from a trade and tax perspective,” make the U.S. the country where companies want to be; and doing so while taking on “the over-growth” of regulation facing manufacturing. [Since our conversation, President Barack Obama has announced a $500 million advanced-manufacturing initiative and named Dow CEO Andrew Liveris as co-chairman)] Taking those steps, she says, will enable U.S. manufacturing to capitalize on one of the world’s biggest business opportunities.