The future of work at Dow means nobody is left behind


Published on: June 2021

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

Here’s a question you’ve probably heard more than ever lately: what does it mean to bring our organization into the future?

It’s what leaders at some of the best-known companies in the world are asking, including Karen Carter, Chief Human Resources Officer & first-ever Chief Inclusion Officer at Dow, the global materials sciences company. Carter has held a variety of business and leadership roles since joining the company over 25 years ago, and she describes the future-focused work she’s leading now to be some of the most rewarding and exciting of her entire career. Here’s why.

It accelerates who we want to be

“Future of Work” isn’t a new concept at Dow, and Carter points to the 2019 separation from DowDuPont as an important moment and launching pad for what was to come. “As the new Dow, we recognized that we had a unique opportunity to determine who we wanted to be and make very intentional choices about what that could look like for us,” says Carter.

She points to other external drivers that provided the additional momentum to address the future at Dow in an even more deliberate way: “Yes, COVID certainly accelerated our attention to ‘future at work’ in the ways you might imagine. For instance, we’re focused on a thoughtful return to work policy, we’re making important investments in our technology and our digital capabilities in multiple ways. But for us, expanding the definition of modernization means a different level of consideration to world events or social unrest, to race and equity, to our leadership and our culture – we knew that addressing those issues would become an essential part of our definition of modernization at Dow.”

Everything is connected

The north star guiding Dow’s modernization efforts is the company’s ambition: To become the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive, and sustainable materials science company in the world. “Everything we’re doing links back to achieving our ambition. For example, you’ll see important digital upgrades to support our manufacturing and commerce, which strengthens our ability to create and deliver our products more sustainably. We partnered closely with our customers to inform and co-create how we can drive more innovation, agility, and ultimately improve the customer experience through enhanced technology.”

Modernization must also connect to Dow employees in very real and practical ways, says Carter. “When you talk about modernizing workforce capabilities, it’s easy to think that this means you’re being replaced by technology or robots. That’s not what we’re talking about. This is about long-term employability for our employees and ensuring nobody is left behind in our transformation.” She adds: “That means we must address both skills and competencies, and also our mindset and culture at Dow. We’re approaching this in an integrated way in order to move the needle.”

Modernization means fully stepping into your place in the world

At the heart of modernization comes a long-held value at Dow: Trust. “You can’t modernize without trust. For us, this means that employees have to trust that they have the right skills to take advantage of digital transformation. Customers have to trust how our use of technology benefits everything we do as their partner. And, we have to trust leadership, says Carter.

“Surveys today that tell us that people trust companies more than the government or media in some cases. Who would have thought that this would mean that we have an obligation to address societal issues as a global chemical company?” She describes what this means for Dow this way: “We have to take action, we have to collaborate and step outside of our gates to solve problems. We have to fully embrace our position in the world, and that goes beyond profits. To earn your seat as a modern company, you do this: You help society.”

“We must modernize ourselves”

Not surprisingly, modernization and digital transformation is a massive undertaking for a global company like Dow. Add to the mix the general pressures of operating in a complex, competitive industry, and the stress of Covid, Carter recognizes that it is easy to get overwhelmed in the level of changes happening for all of us. “We can make this much easier when we help leaders recognize the positive outcomes that come with modernization, starting with their own lives.”

Making the leadership shift

To do that, Dow has evolved its definition and expectations for leaders, starting with a different contract for leadership at the company. “We expect leaders to empower employees, to have more authentic conversations, to demonstrate inclusive leadership in tangible ways. It’s about having a distributed leadership model, versus a hierarchical one, driven by collaboration, versus command-and-control. Leaders must be at the forefront of modernization, and that means we have to be very selective about who we put into our leadership ranks, so we have leaders who are showing up committed to being on this journey.”

Carter anticipates that this shift in leadership will be tough for some to embrace. “Many of us grew up in an environment where our worth was tied to how many people reported to us. That’s not what modern leadership is about. You aren’t climbing up the ladder to get a seat at the table. You’re climbing up the ladder to pull someone else up.”

At the heart of this approach is accountability: “You aren’t just responsible for the decisions you make today. You’re responsible for the ones you made 15 years ago. How many people are better off today because of decisions you made earlier in your career? That’s how we have to think about leadership today, as a modernized company. If we can do that right, we’ll be in the very best position possible to achieve our ambition and create the very best future for ourselves, our employees, and our company.”

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