Fireside Chat: Hershey CEO Michele Buck, BASF President Teressa Szelest Talks with DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson

DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson had a fireside chat with Hershey (No. 25) CEO Michele Buck and BASF (No. 12)  President Teressa Szelest about the representation of women in the C-Suite and overcoming challenges to get there.

Buck is Hershey’s 12th president and executive officer. She is both a mom and a top leader in her field, with more than 25 years of consumer packaged goods experience.

Szelest has been the President of Market and Business Development for North America at BASF Corporation since May 2015. She previously served as Senior Vice President of Global Business Unit Hygiene at BASF.

CAROLYNN: Teressa, Michele, I appreciate you both so much. Michele, we’re gonna start with you. Before we get into specifics on how you got to the CEO role, I want to set the landscape. You’ve been public about how becoming a CEO wasn’t your goal earlier in your career, but you had mentors who saw those capabilities in you and encouraged you to broaden your horizons. Once that became your reality, you were driven to pursue it. A lot of women, including me, have gone through this. How critical is that support from your mentors and sponsors? As well as their belief in your capabilities to ascend to the top of the corporate ladder?

MICHELE: Thanks for that. I would love to start off by saying I’m so thrilled to be here. Congratulations to you. And I truly believe inclusion and diversity is a key business imperative that does drive results. I’m thrilled with the progress we’ve made at the Hershey company to provide more opportunity for all people, and just a couple of examples I’d love to share. In 2017, we achieved 50/50 gender representation across our entire organization.

CAROLYNN: Congratulations.

MICHELE: We believe in equal pay for equal work. And with an improved focus on that, and on our processes, we were able to deliver a 99% ratio of female to male pay. Which we’ll continue to work for that last 1%. But good progress. We have five women on our board. And people who are diverse, across many of our most important roles. Our GC, our chief growth officer. Et cetera. So great progress there.

Relative to the role of advocates and mentors, I found that critical in my development, and in getting me to where I am today. You know, if I look back, I grew up in a very humble means. My mother grew up on a farm with no indoor plumbing. My father was the first in his family to graduate from high school. So I learned very early the value of hard work. I started working very early. I had a paper route. I waitressed.

I was a bank teller. I worked in retail. I sold Avon door to door. So I wasn’t afraid of a challenge. I liked to learn new things. But the one thing I was lacking was: I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. And that continued as I went through my career. And I didn’t see myself in the people ahead of me. In the corporate world. And so the role that people really played for me… I can’t say I had a formal mentor.

But the role of senior folks as advocates… And what they did was see something in me that I hadn’t yet seen in myself. They were people who were great people leaders. They really understood the people on their team. And one great example — I had a boss, Daryl Brewster. He gave me my first general management assignment. I had come up through marketing.

The role he asked me to take was one leading a business where I would have the plant reporting to me. It was a Teamsters Union plant. It was struggling. It was on the verge of being shut down. And my job was to turn it around. And I said: Well, how am I gonna do that? I’ve never had manufacturing experience. He said: You’re a great leader. You listen to people. You are resourceful. You’re not afraid to ask when you don’t know the answer. You’re going to figure that out.

And it turned out to be one of the critical linchpin turning points, I would say, in my career. Another example, my predecessor, after I had been in the C-Suite for a couple of years, sat me down and said: Do you think you might want to consider being the CEO? And I said… Well, let me think about it. I can’t say that many men had said they hadn’t thought about it. But of course, I went back and said yes, I’m interested. But the fact that he saw that in me and gave me those roles and assignments to ready me and prepare me. He believed in diversity. He was committed to making it happen. And that advocacy was critical.

CAROLYNN: Teressa, I’m going to turn to you. So you’ve been at BASF for 31 years.

TERESSA: A long time. A long, long time.

CAROLYNN: And you climbed up the ranks during a period in which the chemical industry was male-dominated. And we still don’t see the progress we want to see. Very different time, right?

TERESSA: We’re moving. We’re moving.

CAROLYNN: So how did you overcome those challenges and biases to get to the C-Suite?

TERESSA: Well, similar to what Michele’s story is, I grew up in the early ’60s with a rock and roll father. Yes, I was at Woodstock in the summer of ’69. And a stay-at-home mom who managed the house when dad was traveling. There wasn’t a briefcase in my house. My father never owned a suit. You knew what the weather was in Buffalo, New York, whether he had moccasins or cowboy boots on. I didn’t have a whole lot of role models to know what was possible. I was good in math, good in science, called my cousin, who was graduating from Notre Dame at the time, and I said: What can I do with math and science? He said… Go into chemical engineering? I said… What does that do? So I went to Rensselaer, studied chemical engineering, and ended up working at BASF. I didn’t know what they were. They weren’t that big. Now they’re the world’s largest chemical company. 153 years old.

So I started working, and I knew nothing. I felt out of my element. But I remembered what my dad always said. You’re smart. You’re dedicated. You have a work ethic. You can decide what you want to be out of life. You can stay there or you can leave. And I did that. I had great people in my life who were not formal mentors, but they said… You can do that job. And I would apologize. Oh, I don’t think so. So I spent that early decade just learning. And you know what? Delivering. Let’s not forget. I delivered results.

And so I could go up… You know, when you don’t have the results, it’s kind of hard to go forward, and say… I want that role! Well, what have you done? And when people come to me today and say: I want that role, I say: Tell me what you’ve done. So you’ve got to have all those pieces. I’m learning, I’m delivering, and then there was something that happened in me. So there were people who were getting ready, but I had to get ready. I think that… I hesitate using the word “personal power”. I got confidence. With a healthy dose of humility and vulnerability on the side.

I do not know everything. 31 years in the company, you pretty much forget everything you learned in school. And you learn it’s about people. All people. Helping. And as I made that, somewhere during that journey, I realized I wasn’t hesitating anymore, when I was being asked to take jobs. I started looking around me and saying: You know, there’s something about the people aspect here. And it clicked. And I can say it’s when I stopped caring. But it was almost when… You know what? I’m gonna take that risk. I’m only 80% certain. Quite honestly, sometimes only 60% certain.

But I was willing to go after it, knowing darn well that if I failed miserably… What’s the worst thing that they were going to do? They were gonna fire me. So I was gonna go out and get another job. And I think that once I got to that point, there’s that personal resilience, coupled with the right people. We heard from some great leaders already today. Men who are championing people who are diverse. But I had to be ready. And I think that’s where the sweet spot came in.

CAROLYNN: Wonderful, wonderful. And I think that’s really important. Especially going into the next question. Because we think people know our stories. And we think people have that resilience and that confidence. But it’s not until they hear our stories that they realize that they’re not alone. That there isn’t anything wrong with them for going through what they go through. So they need to hear these stories to know that they too can be the CEO of — pick a company that they want to be one day. So, Michele, the CEO position was not handed to you. You had to earn it. You were the most qualified. You were the best fit for that role. Can you talk about your journey and how you did it?

MICHELE: So as Teressa mentioned, and I talked about, certainly hard work is absolutely key. I think going for opportunities outside your comfort zone — also very key. Those are the opportunities from which you grow and you learn the very most. As scary as they are, to walk into those jobs and say: I’m not sure I have everything it takes. But I can figure it out. So I think that’s absolutely key. For me, I think some of the challenge was… Figuring out style.

I’ll be honest. I think in the workplace the bandwidth of acceptability for styles for women leaders is a little bit narrower than I think it is for men overall. I hear frequently: That woman is too aggressive. Or that woman is too quiet. There’s not much of a just-right. It was a challenge as I was, coming up through the ranks. There weren’t as many examples of leadership, and they all looked much more similar, within the women ranks. So for me, one of the pieces I had to learn was getting very comfortable with me, my style, and — I am who I am. And so part of me is: Yes, I’m feminine. And I can bring that to work. And yes, I’m nurturing, and I really enjoy interacting with people, and I care about people and I care about what’s going on with the whole person, their personal life, their work-life, and I think that’s something that built me to be an even stronger leader and helped me to get to where I am. But I also had to embrace and accept that it was okay to bring that to work. I’m very authentic. I’m very approachable. At our last Town Hall meeting, we hit an all-time high with our stock price and opened up the meeting with one of those. I wasn’t sure whether to do it or not. It’s kind of un-CEO-like. But people loved it. Learning how to evolve as a leader is critically important to lead.

CAROLYNN: I wanted to go into that a little bit more. When we were on the phone, prepping for our time on stage, one of the things we talked about was that: When we do it, it’s un-CEO-like. When were you just like… I don’t care. In order to do this job, I have to do it my way, as myself. When did you have that moment?

MICHELE: I would say it’s a journey in some of my C-Suite roles, prior to this. And I think it’s even a constant journey that honestly I’m still on today. When I thought about that meeting, I thought about doing it, I bounced it off my 12-year-old daughter and she said… Oh, mom, you’re not gonna do that.

CAROLYNN: You knew you had to!

MICHELE: Exactly. But it’s a constant journey of letting more and more of yourself out. Some things were easy. I love to listen. I listen before I decide. Many people would say that’s not a powerful way to be a leader, and it may not be much of a male leadership style. It might be more female to listen and kind of think through things first. But I got very comfortable with: That’s how I make my best decisions. It probably has been in the past four to five years, maybe even three years, where it’s really clicked most. I’ve always thought the fit was really important as well. And we talked about that a little bit as well.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I give to people to have the greatest chance of success is: Know yourself. Know what you’re all about. And know the companies that you could work in, and where is that fit the greatest? Where what you offer is what they value? And I think that’s another good determiner of success that really helped me along the way. I had one instance where I got in a situation that was a bad fit, and I knew to get out. And I think if I would have stayed, honestly, I would have gotten fired. And I’m not sure what my path would have been after that. But knowing that, and making those decisions, having that courage, is important.

CAROLYNN: Wonderful. Wonderful. Thank you. Teressa. Your commitment to inclusion is evident with your work at BASF and you being here with us tonight. You have oversight of a lot of the company’s manufacturing and operations. And you’ve personally invested in ensuring women are represented in manufacturing, including spearheading efforts to increase the representation of women. You’re doing some non-traditional things at a traditional company.

TERESSA: I would say non-traditional, unexpected, but necessary.

CAROLYNN: Can you talk about your commitment to inclusion and how you’re using it to increase representation at BASF, and the example that you’re setting for your teenage daughters and other women?

TERESSA: Let’s break that down. First of all, when we talk about diversity, amazing, amazing things. All the talk we hear. Everything that this group of people have experienced in life… And everything that they’ve delivered to another human being… I mean, the impact is amazing.

You gave some statistics earlier. My concern and that of BASF is that diversity without inclusion is not sustainable. So if we work on diversity, and we get people of different backgrounds, but we don’t create the environment for them to bring their whole selves and their differences in… We’re wasting our time. We’re gonna have people leaving and people coming in, and all we’re gonna have at the end of the day is a big old training bill. And it’s not gonna be something that’s sustainable. That said, in manufacturing, we have some great HR people working in our team. And one of the comments that have come up recently is: Going back to what Michele said — some women feel that there are only two roles for them.

The nurturing mom or the angry female. And I use that word “angry female”, to be politically correct. You can imagine. Now, sometimes I’m the angry mom. So I can navigate both roles. But there’s a whole lot of in-between there. So how we are, how I am, how we all want to be at work… Whether we’re male or female… Or whatever we represent… I think is an important element. So I think that’s what we’re trying to do in manufacturing.

Right now, women represent 50% of the workforce. And only 30% of the jobs in manufacturing. It doesn’t work. For all the reasons we heard tonight. So are we going to make the manufacturing workplace inclusive? So if we’re going out and we’re trying to hire women, do we hire ten great engineers and put them in ten different plants, or do we put them in one plant to build that community, so they can support one another? Those are the things we’re learning. So that’s my first realization, with some really great support from the team. Diversity without inclusion is not sustainable. The second truth that I’ve learned is that good intentions fail. Intentional actions work.

So a lot of companies [or people] are filled with: We have good intentions, but we can’t get the traction we need. We went through that.

So everyone says: It’s important to us. It’s important to us. But it’s not changing. So what are we doing? And we got really intentional. Really intentional in our programs. Making sure that we have 50% diverse slates. For every position. Okay? Making sure that we’re looking and we have the programs in place. And mentorships. And I think those are the legacies that I want to leave for my daughters. One is 24 and one is 16.

One is graduating from college. We’re going college hunting on Friday. And you know what’s interesting? I’ve been to a number of Eastern and Western European — and I happen to be Catholic. 31 years ago, I met my husband, two weeks after I started with BASF. So I always make sure he knows which one is longer. BASF got two weeks on him. My husband is Indian Persian Muslim.

And this was before September 11. And a lot of people didn’t even know what the different religions were. So I have children who are multinational. I’ve traveled globally. We’ve lived globally. And they’re growing up. And I think: What a great group of people. For me to go home tonight, and in addition to what I’m doing for the company, share the stories that all of you have shared with me. I am so proud of the daughters that I have. And I hope they’re sitting here one day in the future. Thank you. And maybe they’ll be CEO one day! I don’t know.

CAROLYNN: The sky is the limit!

TERESSA: So I think those are my two learnings on what we’re doing within the company. Being intentional. Good intentions? Great. Intentional actions are better.

CAROLYNN: Wonderful. And those are amazing words to end on. And so the leadership accountability that we’ve seen on this stage tonight is what got the diversity and Top 50 list that we’re about to unveil next.


Follow us

Join Our Newsletter

Get the top DEI news delivered straight to your inbox