David Weidman, BYU alum and former CEO of Celanese Corporation, a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 technology and special materials company, answered students’ questions about how he went from an engineer to a CEO on Friday, April 14. The Engineers Mean Business Club hosted the Q & A session.
Weidman started by sharing that he graduated from BYU with a degree in chemical engineering, moving on to business school at the University of Michigan. He started off his successful business career running businesses as a general manager for 10 years until he started working for Celanese. He stayed there for eight years, spending some of that time as CEO, until he retired and went on a mission with his wife.
He then gave students the opportunity to ask him questions.
Q: How did you become a CEO?
A: “One, engineers are really good at solving problems. All of you have been tossed impossible things and you’ve figured out how to take chaos and organize it and put it in some type of valuable solution. That’s a skill set you have developed as you’ve gone through your engineering program. A job of a CEO is no different than that,” Weidman said.
He said as a CEO, he tried to live in a world that he thought would exist five years from now, always looking towards the future. He said that in order to be a CEO, one has to keep up their skills and try to broaden their problem solving skills. He also talked about the importance of teamwork.
“One of the things I was very comfortable with was not being the smartest guy in the room. I used to require that the team I had around me were all smarter than I was. Not necessarily smarter on a broad base, but smarter in HR, in technology, in manufacturing, in marketing, or in sales. They had to be able to bring something to the table beyond what I could bring. We respected each other’s skill sets and tried to bring out the best in each other. The other thing you have to do is be willing to work about 10 percent harder than everyone else does.”
Q: In your experience as CEO, what did you find was the biggest disconnect between business people and engineering people?
A: “In many cases it was the time frame that they each keep. As engineers, we like to solve problems. We’ll take a problem and solve it based on our environment right now,” Weidman said.
He explained that business people recognize that the benefits of a project or activity are going to play out today and in years down the road. Technology people, on the other hand, tend to answer today’s problems, but not always address the problems of the future.
Q: How much time did you devote to work?
A: “You vary it depending on where you are in life. We (my wife and I) sat down early and said ‘the weekend is untouchable. I’m not going to work on the weekend.’ I did that, as much as I could. During the week, I’d normally get to the office at six in the morning and I’d leave the office around six at night. I travelled an awful lot, so I’d be gone and some jobs I had later on in my career, I was gone from home a night to three or four nights a week, but that was the agreement we had. There were opportunities that came to me, we sat down and talked about it and said ‘at this point in our family’s life, we don’t want to commit to do those things.’ You modulate it and set boundaries,” Weidman said.
He also said that people have been respectful of his boundaries and his faith throughout his career and that his faith has been a strength in his career.
“Just live your life. Live your faith! It’s a strength, it’s an asset, not a liability.”
Q: Should I go to business school right after school or wait a while?
A: “In today’s world, if you’re going to spend time getting an MBA, go to the best schools that you possibly can. Set your sights on top ten or top twenty schools. Those people only accept people with significant work experience, so I wouldn’t advise my kids to go get an MBA right out of school because I know the schools they’d be admitted to wouldn’t be the ones that would have a meaningful impact on their standard of living, or on their ability to make contributions on the world. Try to get into the best school you can, in order to do that, you’ve got to go out and work and get a great job and build a good resume and then take the time. Get into debt if you have to, go to a great business school, then get out, and make a great career for yourself.”
Q: What would be some specific benefits in the business world having an engineering background?
A: “Don’t discount the value in your life of doing hard things. Don’t discount the value and confidence you get from sticking with something and doing it just because it’s hard. How do you get confidence to do hard things? By doing hard things! An engineering program is not easy, it’s hard. I know it’s hard. Push through and do hard things. Learn things about yourself, learn how to do hard things, and I promise the lessons you learn by doing that will serve you well.”
Q: Do you think there is a place for engineers with a business background as opposed to a business person with an engineering background?
A: “Absolutely! You need to step back and say ‘What are my skill sets? What are the things I’m really interested in?’ If you’re some place in the middle like I was, you say ‘Am I more interested in business or am I more interested in engineering?’ These people in the middle, they’re incredibly valuable to corporations. If you’ve got strong interest in both areas, but lean more towards engineering, I’d broaden yourself and get a business degree as well. I think it’s always helpful.”
Q: When it comes to preparing to go to business school or becoming an executive, do you think we should take this time to take some business classes?
A: “Yes, take a business class or two. What would happen if you took a business class and you hated it? Then you have all this engineering stuff and decide to go into business and you get into and go ‘I hate it.’ Take a class or two. Take a basic accounting class or an econ class. Get a sense of what that part of the world is like and if you like it or don’t like it.”
Q: For students looking for jobs and internships, how do you get them? Also, how is the best way for engineers to network?
A: “I’ve been out of the business world for five years now, but I’d tell you to keep networking, keep talking to people and keep going. Persistence is a big thing. Keep knocking on doors. Networking in your career is one of the most important skills you can possibly have,” Weidman said.
He added that networking is essential throughout life. He explained that networking is establishing relationships with people that have value beyond helping you find a job. Students should start building their network now by getting to know everyone they can, even if they are introverted.
“Networking isn’t based on whether you’re introverted or extroverted, it’s based on thinking about things and then going out and doing it.”
Q: I want to make it to a higher position within a company fast, but how often should I say I want to keep moving forward? How do I say that?
A: “First, it’s important that people in organizations know the skill sets that you have. As members of the Church, we sometimes hide our candle under a bushel, so we are reluctant to talk about our experiences, our talents and our skill sets,” Weidman said.
He said it is employers’ jobs to find people that have certain skill sets and can solve problems, so when you tell them what you can do, you are helping them do their job.
“By telling people who you are and what you’ve done, you’re helping them solve a problem they’ve got.”
He continued by telling students to keep their options broader rather than more narrow. He also urged them to tell employers what they want.
“As long as you’re honest in telling someone that ‘I have interest in advancing and I really see myself in management. I have some skill sets. Things you’re doing are really interesting to me and I see big possibilities of this career path that I’d like to go,’ you’re staying on safe ground, so I say go ahead and do it.”
Q: In your career, from what have you gained the most satisfaction?
A: “People. Without a doubt it’s the people that I’ve worked with. It’s like going through war with them. It’s like a brotherhood or sisterhood. It’s remarkable. When you’re out there with an organization that does something some people never thought was possible, and you recognize it’s because of the team you are working on, there are very few things that are more satisfying than that.”
Q: As a CEO or a manager, did you have people reach out and get to know you?
A: “You’ve got to recognize when you get in the business world that you’re not hired because you look great or you’re quick, you’re hired and you stay hired because you can make a big contribution. Think about it, if you’re putting together something that has winning as a goal, you’re going to get the most talented people you possibly can on your team. That’s what the business world is. They want people to contribute and help them win and succeed. What I tried to do was figure out as much as I could how does my boss and his boss define success and then I worked really hard to make them successful. The more successful you can make the organization, the more successful you’ll be."