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Online Edition — March 2003

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Walking the Talk: An Interview with Chris Richardson
Looking Toward the Future
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Walking the Talk:
An Interview With Chris Richardson

As we wrap up this quarter’s discussion of ethics and values in American organizations, News for a Change felt it would be appropriate to share the wisdom of a business leader who had strong opinions on the topic. So we invited Chris Richardson, president and CEO of Square D and Schneider Electric—North American Division, to share his views. Richardson started his career as a supervisor at the company’s Cedar Rapids plant and moved up the ladder, serving in various leadership positions before receiving his current assignment. He’s had the opportunity to see the company’s ethics and values applied on a day-to-day basis under a wide variety of circumstances.

NFC: How does all the news coverage and growing unrest over corporate scandals influence your views toward corporate accountability?

Richardson: I can’t imagine any CEO who isn’t troubled by what we’re reading all too often these days, because it casts suspicion on anyone who leads a company today. But I’m more concerned about the growing and understandable skepticism among American workers and investors who feel that their trust has been violated. It’s clear that too many companies today have placed results—and not the basis of results—ahead of and at the expense of anything else. Results are clearly part of the equation but they’re not the whole equation. Companies have to be accountable for more than profits.

Can you explain how your personal values influence your management style?

Richardson: Earning and demonstrating trust has always been very important to me, and it’s something we’ve long emphasized at this company. After all, trust has been central to the 100-year success of our Square D brand. Trust is the root of ethical behavior. It’s about honesty, and it’s never misleading. Trust should guide the way one deals with colleagues, customers, communities, everyone. We also emphasize fundamentals like commitment to individuals, focus on customers, teamwork, and risk-taking. Then and only then do we evaluate results. They stem from our other core fundamental values. What we’re reading about corporate wrongdoing and violations of trust only reaffirms our commitment to these fundamentals.

What do you do to earn trust and help employees embrace your fundamentals?

Richardson: We’re an open organization, and I’d like to think we communicate as well as or better than any other company. Communication is essential to building trust. We also devote great energy to ensure that our entire 17,000-person work force in North America understands why we make the decisions we do to create opportunities and sustain a leadership position in our industry.

Hopefully, the silver lining in all the recent corporate scandals will be improvements in
corporate governance, improved oversight, and better safeguards for employee retirement plans. But even more important than new laws and regulations is the willingness of a company to communicate openly and honestly at all times and to make good on its commitments. That’s what trust is all about.

What makes this company unique?

Richardson: I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of an organization that puts ethical business practices highest on its priority list. We’re hardly the only company that can make this claim, but it makes me very proud to be part of a management team that puts a strong balance sheet ahead of short-term results. We’re conservative in our accounting processes in order to have a strong balance sheet that will allow present, past, and future employees, as well as customers and investors, to benefit from it. This enables us to invest in our business.

Many employees have worked here for their entire career. What does that say about the company?

Richardson: I think it’s a wonderful compliment to our culture. Our people come here to do the best work of their lives, and we provide them with the tools to learn and to grow. Their average length of tenure is a rarity in today’s world. I’m celebrating my 35th year here, and we have a great number of people who have been with us for more than 20 years. Most of us have come up through the ranks.

Our industry also has a unique and special culture. Whether it’s the distributor or contractor, or even our competitors, there’s a sense of decency and fair conduct that seems somewhat rare in today’s business world. There’s a great sense of purpose and mission because our products and technologies and services are so mission-critical. There’s an understated but distinct sense of pride that runs deeply throughout this industry.

How would you describe your style and approach to leadership?

Richardson: I believe that leadership is about setting direction and creating a climate where people are engaged and motivated. It’s about lifting the organization to a higher level, demonstrating a willingness to take on the tough jobs, and being accountable for results.

Leadership also requires maintaining a proper perspective on work in relation to everything else that is important in the lives of employees. I think that people need to achieve balance in their lives between those things we need to do in our family life and those things we do at work. People need to focus on what really matters to them and their families and to not be overly distracted by things that are totally out of their control. Typically, there are few things in business that are truly life-and-death. We have to be careful to not take work so seriously that it jeopardizes the other equally important parts of life.

I recently stood on the beaches of Normandy and got a sense of what those soldiers were facing. Now that was life-and-death. I had my time in Vietnam, and I sometimes think about that. When I look at leadership from the perspective of a corporation versus the perspective of stepping out of a landing boat on a Normandy beach, the two don’t quite compare. But the truth is, everyone ultimately has an opportunity to be a leader, and you need to prepare yourself for that moment.

Is leadership more difficult in tough times?

Richardson: Absolutely. Leadership requires the ability to solve the hard problems that every company encounters. Naturally, this is especially difficult in challenging economic climates because unpopular decisions have to be made. This requires going places where you have to go instead of where you want to go.

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