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Idea Agent

For 25 years, alumna Lina Echeverria (PhD, Geology, 1978) led teams of glass and ceramics scientists at Corning, Inc., through the development of inventions ranging from giant flat television screens to dental bridges. In her book, "Idea Agent" (AMACOM, 2012), Echeverria describes her experiences and offers insight into managing creative people and creating cultures of innovation. She discusses the book in the following Q&A with writer Corey Binns.

October 9, 2013
Linda Echeverria
Lina Echeverria: "True leadership is service."

Are the brightest people always quirky and difficult to manage?
There's a belief that scientists can be real weirdos, off on their own. Well, some of them are. Some of them aren't. If you want the best and the brightest, you're going to have some that are difficult to manage, and you're going to have some that are quirky. But it's not that, well, you have to tolerate them. No! You want them. And you want them to contribute their best and to understand that you're comfortable with their quirkiness.

What makes scientists different, or even difficult, to manage?
We ask scientists to always be questioning the world. We ask them to not believe in what comes, but to question it.

When they start putting the mirror in front of us, asking, "Is that really true? Have you thought of this?" as a leader, we have to not go into defensive mode. Embracing creative conflict is such an important part of the creative process, yet it is such a feared part of managerial experiences. It's very tempting for leaders to feel they always have to be right.

What was your secret to leading teams of scientists and other creative people?
There's a great temptation to think that leadership is about having the power, leadership is about always being right, leadership is about controlling and being authoritative, and being on top—and it feels good.

But really, really true leadership is about servicing others. True leadership is service. It's the service that allows others to really expand and be the best versions of themselves that they can be. True leadership is also about service to the organization, leading the organization with the integrity and demands that everybody behave according to this conscience.

You were the first woman to graduate with a degree in engineering geology from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia at Medellín, and arrived at Stanford as a geology student in 1974.
Geology was going through a very exciting moment in the1970s. It was the revolution of plate tectonics, mountain building was being understood for the first time. The West Coast was leading the parade and Stanford was right there.

How did you shift from studying plate tectonics to glass and ceramics at Corning?
Moving from geology and geochemistry, which I loved, to corporate America was something that I never expected to do. I was not a happy camper, to be honest. I remember my Stanford advisor, Professor Emeritus Bob Coleman saying, "Lina, not everybody gets everything all the time. Just follow what life brings you."

How wise of him.

I did research in ceramics, and with my geology background I was very well equipped. In fact, Corning is still hiring people from the geology department from Stanford. When I was responsible for the glass and the ceramics groups I hired several people from Stanford because they are incredibly well prepared to understand the world of materials. They're better prepared than anybody else.

In your book, you write that you didn't quite fit in with the other women at Corning when you arrived. Was that an intentional choice?
First of all, you have to put yourself in the world of women in corporate America in the 1980s. We were part of that tip of the wedge opened by the women's liberation movement. But there was also the need to prove that we were just like the men, we were just as good as them.  

In a strategic way women back then understood that, even with their clothing, they had to send a message that we can have that image of a leader. Even today it's easier to accept an image of leader if he's six feet tall, wearing pants and a tie.

That's a little different from your leadership style…
I am a five-foot tall woman with curly hair and who wears bright colors. I'm a Latina and I grew up among a lot of bright colors and expressive people with very forceful gesturing. I always took risks in what I was willing to express and the opinions I gave were never tamed by fear. That's who I am.

But I did learn from watching my calm Anglo counterparts how to deliver a message that would be accepted. I found a comfortable place where I could continue to be true to myself while being effective within Corning’s culture.

How do you think your courageous attitude has affected your leadership style? Most people find it more comfortable to play it cautious.
If you are a timid leader, a leader who is afraid of proposing things that may be risky, a leader who is afraid of sharing a vision because it may not happen, it’s going to be difficult for your team members to emulate courage. The best way to make people comfortable with the potential for risk and failure is to be courageous as a leader.

What are you most proud of contributing to during your years at Corning?
In the 1990s, there was a little industry that was making very flat screens that were 4 by 5 inches for scientific equipment in labs. The process to make them was incredibly expensive because there was no glass substrate that could be taken to high temperatures without deformation that was also clean. This limited the TV industry's ability to grow the size of their screens.

I led Corning's glass group through the exercise of delivering the new glass compositions and the process to make them. And the world has never been the same. Now the size is only limited by the height of the bridges under which the trucks carrying the glass have to go.

By writing this book about your success as a manager of 50-person teams of researchers at Corning, you have followed your own advice, "Become an expert and let the world know about it."
My teams were always very successful. They delivered on time, they delivered things that people thought were impossible, and they delivered solutions to manufacturing issues that the plants had been stuck on for months.

I started the book after going through a very aggressive form of breast cancer and retiring from Corning. I was left in a vacuum. My professional life represented a lot of my activities for years and all of a sudden I didn't have it. So I filled this void with writing about how I had managed people.

Do you take off your managerial hat when you leave the lab, or are you always on duty?
Yes, sometimes I try to create a little bit of awareness in my children's lives or try to bring them together in an argument. But the emotional charge is so different when it is your family.

My husband was a research scientist in some of those groups at Corning that I was responsible for. He was one of the hardest, most difficult people to manage in the group because he felt very comfortable being himself, which I was inviting. I could always count on him to be my worst critic and honest. Sometimes it was difficult, but it was always enriching.

You look for unusual characteristics in people to identify talent, such as musical ability, athletic prowess, and boat building.
Many candidates I interviewed during my career were very surprised when I wouldn’t even ask them about their technical accomplishments. I would ask them about their activities in the community, their hobbies, what they did during the weekend. Why? Because that gave me views into their ability to work with others, their ability to persist with difficulties, their ability to lead other people, and their overall creativity.

The person who enjoys plucking at the piano, hiking in the woods, and going to the theater is going to have that many dimensions. Somebody who tells you they are building their own canoe to carry the entire family and their backpacks is going to have a very different creativity than someone who does nothing but experiments in the lab. They're going to be addressing issues in the lab and in the workplace using many different aspects of life. That's what you're after—people who can look at the world from many different perspectives.

And once you've hired your creative team, should you leave them alone at the office?
People talk about making yourself visible in the hallways. No. Get in that office, find out how that person is doing. How's their grandmother? That way you can bring the entire human being and all of their dimensions into work.

How can you inspire, demand excellence, get the best out of people if you don’t know who they are? How can you be supportive of somebody if you don't know she is going through a crisis? How can you address somebody's issues when they're down or benefit from their energy when they are on a high? Knowing your people is not just understanding their credentials and where they graduated from and how many publications they have. It's understanding the many points of reference from which they can draw on.

It sounds like you would be a wonderful person to work for.
The people in my groups always had fun. That's the idea. The energy should be high. You want to love coming to work and you want them to love coming to work, too.