When I’m asked what I do for a living, I say, trying to be funny but mainly to avoid lengthy discussions, that I’m in the business of satisfying my personal curiosity at the company’s expense.
A joke it may be, but as ArcelorMittal’s head of global R&D, it is not far from the truth. Learning, discovering, and reinventing tomorrow are the main contributors to my quality of life, as they have been since a very early age. At the age of eight, living in the Soviet Union, I followed my father to the North of the country, where he took a job near the Bering Sea, the land of bears and Aurora Borealis. The stunning beauty of this amazing, everchanging sight awakened my unabated curiosity for things unknown, things so easily taken for granted. And ever since, I have been obsessed with finding out the reasons why things are the way they are in the world. In short, I was – and am – hopelessly and unconditionally in love with physics.
In 1979, I left the Soviet Union for the USA and the freedom to realise my own potential, and to give the same opportunity to my son and eventually, his children. I was deeply grateful for the opportunity given to me, and the thought of returning the favour never left my mind.
I took a job at Inland Steel, which is how I came to be immersed in the world of this omnipresent, yet also paradoxically invisible material. Steel is so often taken for granted, but it should not be. It is an amazingly sophisticated product that reinvents itself time and time again, at an ever-faster pace, in significant part due to the organisation I now lead. But I digress.
When I received my first promotion at Inland, my overriding feeling was excitement because it meant more people could work on my ideas. (I had just filed my first American patent and had far too many ideas to execute on my own.) This approach went quite well. When offered my next promotion, that logic continued and again, it worked. One day I realised I was using a lot of people to realise my dreams, but in doing so, was killing an opportunity for them to realise theirs, so I made a dramatic decision and changed the ways of the past, giving a lot more freedom to my colleagues. There were other changes too when Inland Steel became Mittal Steel, which in turn became ArcelorMittal.
When, in 2007, I took over ArcelorMittal’s Global R&D function, my responsibilities lay not only in formulating and implementing the technological strategy, but also in conceiving, building, and sustaining the organisational structure, in which people could work globally as one organism, dedicated to acting as the three musketeers: all for one and one for all.
To that end, I envisaged a new, truly virtual organisation which demanded a very different leadership style, as well as a different model for integration, communication, and a much higher level of interdependence. Our leaders had to learn how to be omnipresent on different continents and in different time zones through a Matrix Leadership Model, where global portfolio leaders were responsible for defining the results to be delivered and lab leadership took responsibility for realising them.
The young leadership had the courage to say yes to the risk in this approach. While being brave is a key prerequisite to success, it is certainly not the only one. (Some of the most frightening things in life are done by idiots with initiative.) Fortunately, the people at the helm of our labs were – and are – extraordinarily bright and talented. Yet even that wouldn’t have been enough without a consistency of purpose and the ability to take a risk again, and again, and again, and learn from mistakes without ever getting discouraged by them. This is why they say that if you take a risk, you will sometimes fail, but if you don’t take them, you will always fail.