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Mark Bassett on Leadership Methods and Team Building

on • 17 min. read

Episode 3: The Business Case Against Being a Jerk

We're up with our third episode of Scaling Clean, where I spoke with former CEO of Hemlock Semiconductor, Mark Bassett. During his impressive tenure, Mark saw sales surge even in the face of the COVID recession. He’s worked most of his career in heavy, mature industries, including 11 years rising through the ranks of Dow Chemical.

And he’s actually Dr. Mark Bassett, with a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering and 10 peer-reviewed journal articles on non-linear dynamics and chaos in electrochemical reactions. I thought all of that made him a compelling interview for our Scaling Clean listeners, given how many companies in our sectors are growing manufacturing firms with a highly technical product line.


Thanks to Mark Bassett for his time. Thanks also to the wonderful members of his team we’ve gotten to know in the last several years: Brooke Beebe, Steven Holty, Michael Parr, Peter Molinaro, Phil Rausch, and Phil Dembowski.

Listen to the newest episode on Apple, Spotify, Radio Public, Amazon Music, iHeart, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.


Mike Casey:  This is Scaling Clean, the podcast for clean economy CEOs, investors, and the people who advise them. I'm your host, Mike Casey. My day job is running Tigercomm, a firm that counsels companies that are helping move the US economy onto a more sustainable footing. I get to meet the people who are succeeding at building, funding or advising the most successful companies in your sectors. So each show we try to bring you usable insights from these leaders so you can apply them to the business of running your business.

My guest today is Mark Bassett. He just stepped down from an impressive tenure as CEO of Hemlock Semiconductor that saw sales surge even in the face of the Covid recession. Mark's worked most of his career in heavy mature industries, including 11 years rising through the ranks of Dow Chemical. And he's Dr. Mark Bassett. He's got a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and 10 peer-reviewed journal articles to his name on topics from non-linear dynamics to chaos at electrochemical reactions. I thought all that made him a compelling interview for you, as scaling clean listeners, given how many companies in our sectors are growing manufacturing companies with a highly technical product line, plus, Mark is a generous man and a thoroughly wonderful human being, and that's why I'm thrilled to have him on Scaling Clean. Mark. Welcome.

With your background, how would you summarize your career as a corporate leader? 

Mark Bassett: It's been an interesting career. I think frankly when I began, I certainly didn't envision, I don't think anyone could envision it. As you said, I'm a Ph.D. chemical engineer, very technical. I did a postdoc in Berlin with a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and then started in central research doing kind of big Fortran models. Nobody out there probably knows what Fortran is. It is an old engineering language for reaction systems. And at that point in time, my aspiration was to be an R&D group leader for a blue sky, long-range R&D group. And as I got exposed to more and more things and grew as a person, I just had a natural kind of progression to where I am today. 

I never started even 15 years ago with the idea that I wanna be a CEO. I was just looking at what I did today and what I maybe wanna do next. And as I look back on my career and all the kind of job decisions that I made and why did I make them, they were all really at the core a decision that would allow me to be in a role that would make a bigger and bigger impact on the business and people. And then that was kinda how I ended up where I am today. And again, I never could have envisioned it 30 years ago, frankly. 

Mike Casey: Looking back, do you see inflection points maybe in your upbringing or in the early stage of your career where there were mentors or people who encouraged you, that set you up to eventually take over the range at Hemlock Semiconductor? 

Mark Bassett: I think early in my career, I had two great bosses who were mentors. I moved from a central research group to a business research group working for a guy named, Brian Keane, with whom I'm still friends today. And what was interesting about Brian was that he was super creative, a lot of technical people just wanna get patents, and that’s all they care about, kind of the intellectual challenge or interest of doing something. And what Brian cared about was how you use technology to make the business better. And I learned that from him and absorbed that passion. And as a result of that, I got more and more interested intellectually in how what I was doing made an impact in business, which led to a bifurcation point for me to get out of technology about nine years in my career and get into more of a finance job, which was set up to be a pass-through job. 

I wasn't going into finance permanently, it was to go on and do something else. And then in that finance job, what I learned was that what makes or breaks a business was more on the commercial side of the business and less so on the operations side, although it's important obviously. And that was another bifurcation point for me because I thought I was gonna go back more into operations. After all, my roots were in manufacturing and technology and ended up bifurcating technology into a commercial. And again, very early in my commercial career, I had a great boss mentor who again, is still a friend today. That's a common theme with me.   I like to develop personal relationships with my bosses as well as the people that work with me, before me. Who taught me frankly all of my kind of underpinnings of what I believe commercially on how to win and be a great supplier and to have a great business came from Pat Gottschalk that guy I'm talking about, Pat Gottschalk. So I had two great bosses that formulated in me how to create value,  both inside the fence line within operations and then outside the fence line commercially. 

Leadership Styles

Mike Casey: Tell me about the first time you were somebody's boss. What mistakes did you make and what were the big lessons you carried forward into the years it followed? 

Mark Bassett: The first time I was a boss I was, I just had, I was an R&D and had two people working for me. I don't know that I made a lot of mistakes there. You have two people working for you. I think early on though I was not a very patient person and I was less inclusive than I could have been. And I remember the first feedback I got running this business. The person said that Mark's a great leader, and I like working for him. But we get on these conference calls and I'm, I'm running a global business and there's a lot of people on the call, I had this nasty habit, it's embarrassing to say, or I put the phone on mute and say something about the person talking and everybody in the room would laugh. And the person said, it's funny, but I frequently wonder like when I'm not in the room, what's he saying about me? And they were right. So I really kind of worked on creating a less abrasive and tough culture and trying to create a much more inclusive culture and still have fun.
  Mike Casey:    Being inclusive, being more emotionally intelligent. These are nice-sounding concepts. What I'm interested in is what did you find the benefits were to you as a corporate leader and to the companies you were working in of that softer style? What benefit did it bring you? 

Mark Bassett: So if you're trying to do within my group, the people who worked for me, I was always effective and, as I said, people put up with stuff because they knew I cared about. And so, I think the biggest benefit that I can point to was that if you're in a big company like I was, Dow Chemical, and you've got something you're trying to accomplish within your business, no matter what, you need peers and other businesses, peers and other functions, management above you to support you. And they can either make your life easier or they can make what you're trying to do much, much more difficult. And if your peers in other businesses and other functions think you're a jerk because you treat them poorly or you don't treat them with respect, they can make it a lot harder for you to get what you need to get accomplished in your business. Whereas if you took an extra five minutes to treat them with a little respect and explain to them what you're trying to accomplish and maybe be willing to compromise on a point or two so that they can accomplish what they need to accomplish. It may have taken a little longer upfront, but it makes getting other stuff done a whole lot easier. And ultimately I had to learn that the hard way over a series of years. Again, it's one of those things where it is what it is. You have your experiences in your growth and they make you who you are. I just wish I had learned that a lot faster. 

Mike Casey: I remember I had a best friend who worked for General Electric during the Jack Welch years. I heard from him and I heard from other General Electric contemporaries, these stories about Jack Welch and he paid well, but he was a tough customer to work for. And the story that stuck in my head was from Vic Abate, who used to run GE Renewables. And he said that he went to an end-of-the-year dinner with his counterparts running other General Electric businesses, and Welch walks in the room and he said, two of you at the end of this dinner are gonna get promoted and two of you're gonna be fired for poor performance. Enjoy your dinner. I've been wondering, as I've started this interview series, I begin to wonder, is there a business case for being an asshole? 

Mark Bassett: That's just never been my style and I just don't think long-term people respond to that, frankly. And I just don't. I've always, and this sounds kind of maybe corny or cliche, but any business I've run or Hemlock, a company I ran, to me it's a family. Once I've kind of had a team, I've tried to create a real team atmosphere and I viewed it as, ultimately I'm accountable. Now there are times when, if people fail to deliver or they make major mistakes, you have to hold people accountable obviously, but I just don't think that consistent style holds water or is sustainable over a long period or people respond to it. I think you just start seeing games being played and you see a lot of wasted energy and effort playing the politics in the game in an environment like that versus just one where it's much more of a team environment, which is much more collaborative and everyone's got a shared vision and goal of where you're trying to go. I just think where you set up that kind of competition, it's toxic and it's not good long term. 

Selecting the Right Team, Hiring, and Firing

Mike Casey: When you've taken over the leadership of a company, what did you learn about selecting the right team? How did you decide to keep one person and replace another? 

Mark Bassett: I have four broad criteria. Number one, I like talent. Everyone likes talent. And I've got some real strengths and I like people like me as well. But I know where my weaknesses are and I like to surround myself with complimentary people as well. That you have to be talented at something. I like people that take extreme ownership. So like I said, this like HSC to me was a family and I gave everything I had to that company and I treated it as if it was my own personal company, even though it wasn't. I want people that have extreme ownership, I wanna be working with them because they're gonna go above and beyond to deliver exceptional results and help the team win. 

The other thing that's important to me is what I just talked about as a team, they have to be real team players. If you're not a team player, that is the easiest way to get off my team. And then they gotta wanna get better. So they've gotta wanna be developed and everyone needs to get better. I need to get better from the top guy to the bottom guy.   I want people that want to get better, but if you're working for me, that means you're a leader as well and you've gotta be passionate about helping your team get better too. That's my criteria. 

Mike Casey: What have you learned about hiring? 

Mark Bassett:  It's a crapshoot <laugh>. No, I mean, what I learned a long time ago is that interviewing is just tough. I mean, some people come in and they're an exceptional interview. They interview well, they come off great, and they have all the right answers, but then they get in the job and they're not that exceptional. And other people are horrible interviews. And frankly, I believe for the vast majority of my career, I was a horrible interview, but I think my results always spoke for themselves and I did a great job and I was a bit of an oh, I never expected that from him, guy. So I like to generally hire people I have worked with at all possible because I know what I'm getting or people I know have worked with them. 

Because then again, I respect them and I know what I'm getting. If I can't do that or it doesn't work out, I tend to do my best when I'm interviewing to test for those kinds of criteria we just spoke about. I tend to like to ask weird questions or odd questions to see how people respond to them. The other thing I like to talk about is things that people have learned. I like people that are pretty introspective and are constantly asking themselves what did I learn in that job? Or what could I have done better? Or what did I do right? What did I do wrong? I asked them a lot of those kinda questions. 

Mike Casey:  What's the guidance sheet offer on firing people? 

Mark Bassett: You'd just be open, transparent, and honest. I mean, that's all you can do. What is it, and why is it that you're letting them go? And again, it depends. If you're coming in and you're deciding to let someone go quickly, and bring someone else in, that is one of your guys, it's a different situation from someone who's been working for you for multiple years and it's been a recurring performance issue. Those are two different situations. When I've had to deliver tough messages inside, people working for me and I've had to do that, I sit down and  I'm just really transparent with them about the feedback that they're receiving and try to get their honest assessment of whether they see it or not. I tend to ask them initially, what do you think your feedback is? And then go from there. But then just being honest and transparent on, what the deficiencies are and why they're being let go. 

Mike Casey: Going back to the arc of your career, what drew you to renewables? 

Mark Bassett: I wasn't drawn to renewables personally. I mean, what the situation was is I was running one of Dow's businesses. 16.20 Dow took direct ownership along with two other companies of Hemlock Semiconductor. And Dow owned 40%, Corning owned 40% and Shin-Etsu Handota owned 20%. Corning, who was the other major owner, basically told Dow that they felt a Dow person should run it. And I was the person that was asked, Hey, would you consider running this? And I happily jumped at the opportunity, because it was a new interesting opportunity, but it wasn't like I had a passion for renewables, just being transparent about it and trying to manufacture that opportunity for myself. 

Mike Casey: Did you develop a passion for them? 

Mark Bassett: I did. To be honest, it was not something I ever thought about or was interested in. But it's just such an interesting industry and again, I've been in these mature chemical industries that have been around for some of them a hundred years. They're not evolving very quickly anymore. And what's interesting about this industry is it's evolving and changing so rapidly and it's so complex in the sense of technologies evolving, players evolving, supply chains evolving, and geopolitics involved. There's just a super interest in pure business leadership and opportunity. It's just an amazing industry to be involved in just because of all the change and complexity that's involved in trying to get something done, at least outside of China. So, it's been a really interesting challenge and it's gonna be a really important industry for the next number of decades. So it's been great, and I loved it. 

The Role of an Effective CEO and Advice to Younger CEOs

 Mike Casey: How would you describe the role of the effective CEO if you were gonna teach a Michigan State business school course? How to be a CEO, how would you open that course with a description? 

Mark Bassett: There are a few things. I think one of the biggest roles of a CEO is creating an aspiring shared vision of where all of you are trying to get to. What are we trying to be and what can we become and why is that so special? Because I believe, and then to create this sense of team, because I think when it's all said and done, people wanna be a part of something special. And so I think one of the big roles as the CEO is to create that aspiring vision of what are we as a collective gonna try to become, layered on top of that is you really gotta work to create a team because ultimately it is a team. It's no different from a sports team. 

I love sports analogies, and I think when you have a team, everyone has a role and everyone wants to feel like their role is important. You have to create an environment where everyone understands what the role is and why it's valuable. I think you've gotta create an environment where people wanna be rewarded and recognized. And so you gotta create that. People wanna have a chance, most people anyway wanna have a chance to grow and develop both professionally and personally. Wanna try to work on that. And then last but not least, I think it's important to try to have fun, and that's the cultural side of it. Trying to create an inspiring vision and a team, a constructive team culture. And then the other part of that, obviously, is the foundation of it all. 

I think one of the big jobs of a CEO is to effectively allocate resources, whether they're people, capital, maintenance, et cetera. And it's really to focus the organization on the literally one or two handfuls of things that are really gonna move the needle. I think one of the mistakes leaders make is they've got this list of 50 things they want everybody to go work on, and it's really a handful of things that matter and is gonna move the needle, and it's your job as the CEO to focus the organization on this handful of things that are really gonna move the needle and then drive execution against those things. So, create the right culture, and I'm all for an aspirational positive culture where people want to come to work and feel like they're a part of something. And it's all about focusing your resources on the few things that matter and executing them against those. 

Mike Casey: So in that hypothetical course you teach, the second lecture you give is the most important advice you would give to younger CEOs of clean economy companies. What would be on the list? 

Mark Bassett: Listen and observe. Listen to your team, observe your organization, and be visible and present. I think in addition to that, the other big piece of advice I'd give is to be really authentic and as transparent as possible. I'd rather you be too transparent than not transparent enough. 

Mike Casey: Okay.

Mark Bassett: Authenticity is really powerful because people know you're not playing games. I remember a while ago, I told my coach that I was gonna do something and they recommended I don't do it because it was gonna show vulnerability. I actually kind of broke down into tears as I was sharing this with the organization, and it was in front of 60 leaders, and that turned out to be super powerful. Because it takes courage to do that. And you wouldn't believe how many people came up to me after that and said You know what? That took guts. And I'll run through a brick wall for you because you showed that level of vulnerability. Young leaders wanna be macho, when they know everything, and don't wanna be challenged. That's the exact wrong thing to do. 

How You Determine Success

Mike Casey:  Last question. In business, particularly as a corporate leader, is your success more determined by what you do or by what you actively choose not to do? 

Mark Bassett: That's a great question. Ultimately, it's a little bit of both. When it's all said and done, you've gotta execute against the few things that really matter. Now that gets to your second point, which is, one of your big jobs as a leader is to eliminate work. I don't know how many leaders I've seen that created work. And so I think, in a lot of ways it's a little bit of both. You've gotta eliminate the noise and focus the organization on the big things that matter. 

Mike Casey: Mark Bassett, this has been a terrific conversation. I don't know that I've ever had a boring one with you. I thank you for being on Scaling Clean and I think that people are gonna get a lot of benefits from your words of wisdom. So thank you for your mentorship of me. Thank you for your willingness to be on the show and thank you for the work you did for the Clean Economy. We appreciate it. 

Mark Bassett: Thanks a lot, Mike. I enjoyed it. As always, I love these discussions at any time, let me know and I'll be happy to get back on.

Mike Casey: Hey, our thanks to Mark Bassett for his time today. This is Scaling Clean, a production of Tigercomm. And I'm Mike Casey. Thanks for joining us. You can subscribe to our show for free anywhere you get your podcast. And while you're there, please leave us a rating and review. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks for listening.