Alumni from Ecolab Share Leadership Insights with First-Years

Failure is the fuel that makes you successful. As a leader, you must take risks to drive your organization ahead. Learn to live through the ups and downs.

This advice on leadership was offered to Chicago Booth’s first-year class at the McKinsey Leadership Lecture, delivered by two alumni who are top executives at St. Paul, Minnesota-based Ecolab Inc.: Thomas W. Handley, ’81, president and chief operating officer; and Jill Wyant, ’02, executive vice president and president, global food and beverage. They spoke to a packed room at Harper Center on September 10.  

The lecture was the official kickoff of this year’s leadership development activities for the Chicago Booth Leadership Development Office and the discussion was moderated by Harry L. Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management.  

Ecolab, which specializes in commercial water, hygiene, and energy technologies, operates in 170 countries and reported revenues of $13.2 billion last year. It is consistently ranked as a top innovative company by Forbes magazine.

“It’s a big company that no one has heard of,” quipped Handley, who joined the company in 2003 and rose through the ranks to become president in 2012. In 2009, he recruited Wyant, a rising star at GE, to fill his former role as global leader of Ecolab’s beverage division. The two Booth alumni quickly developed a mentor-mentee relationship and Davis asked how that plays out.  

Handley said that Wyant offers valuable feedback and also brought discipline to Ecolab’s work processes. Wyant said cultivating a relationship with a mentor is a powerful way to thrive and build leadership skills in a corporate setting and that she has gained from Handley’s coaching and sponsorship.  

“It’s good to have Zen with your boss,” she said. “Tom has walked with me, become my friend. He taught me, ‘Don’t let things lose momentum. But don’t change too much, too fast. Ponder. Be thoughtful.’ ”  

The pair fielded a range of questions from the students, who attended the talk as part of their Leadership effectiveness and Development (LEAD) course. The two-month course is a feedback-intensive program that enables students to promote the kind of self awareness needed in leadership roles. For examples, students are videotaped during a problem-solving exercise, so they can see how they operate in a small group and relate to their team members.  

“The students have to find a leadership style that’s effective for them,” said Jeff Anderson, associate dean for leadership development.  

Programs such as the McKinsey Lecture expose students to a range of leadership styles.
“Make courageous choices,” Handley advised the students. You’ll try things that don’t work and there’s always a chance of failure. “The cost is bumps and bruises,” he added. “But you learn something each step of the journey.”  

It helps, he advised, to concentrate on the most important matters and not be distracted by peripheral issues: “Know what will make you rich,” he said, and know what dangers could be detrimental or even fatal to your business.

Handley started his career in the food service industry and subsequently joined Procter & Gamble Co., he said, because it was known for its talented workforce and for producing leaders. He started with an industrial assignment in Mexico: “I used the back door as often as the front.”  

It’s critical to decide what is important to you, what you want to accomplish, Handley added. He said he asks job applicants, “To where are you driving the bus?” and told the students, “I’m shocked that more than half don’t articulate an answer.”  

Wyant said she had to overcome setbacks, including some dull job assignments. Early on in her stint at GE, her team was threatened by the loss of a big customer. “You’ve got to learn to play injured,” she advised the students. “There are always ups and downs—but how do you move through them?”—Judith Crown