Jill Gregorie goes behind the scenes of glass production in the ‘crystal city’, where global behemoth Corning produces products used in the manufacturing of everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to the humble smartphone
Corning is such a small city in the Southern Tier region of New York State that the last US census pegged its population at just over 11,000 residents. Yet this municipality, nicknamed ‘Crystal City’, is home to Corning Incorporated, a Fortune 500 company that produces glass for more than 1.5 billion smartphones and tablets, and produces optical, wireless technologies and connectivity solutions for highspeed communications networks; trusted products that accelerate drug discovery; and emission control products for vehicles. It has also manufactured materials for US Space Shuttle windows, and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Christine ‘Christy’ Pambianchi, Corning’s senior vice president of HR, has been with the company for 14 years, and has experienced many of the highs and lows that come with managing the staff of a firm subject to volatile and sometimes unpredictable market fluctuations.
She explains that Corning was originally founded more than 160 years ago by the Houghton family, and innovation has been central to the company’s success since then. Some of its notable accomplishments include the production of Thomas Edison’s lightbulb encasements, the invention of the first low-loss, viable optical fibre, and development of ceramic substrates used in catalytic converters that removed smog from the US atmosphere in the 1970s.
“Our business model is one where we’re making big investments in material science programs. We actually invent materials, so we’re hiring mostly engineers and scientists who are experts in their fields,” Pambianchi says. “As a company, we take a very long view of how we use those assets and how we use talent in the company. We talk to people about their careers being marathons, not sprints.”
Of the 34,000 workers that Corning employs worldwide, about 23,000 are located outside of the US. Given the nature of Corning’s production processes, it’s imperative that they have units and staff around the world, close to their purchasers.
“We tend to locate our operations based on where our customers are. We typically manufacture a material that then goes into somebody else’s system,” Pambianchi explains. “For example, the ceramic substrate we make goes into a catalytic converter that is used in an automotive company’s car.”
Although Corning invented a system of liquid crystal display glass prior to the turn of the century, it wasn’t until about 2004 that “it really began to take off, and you saw the mass institution of LCD television screens”. As a result of this upsurge in demand, Corning had to develop a number of facilities in the Asia region to support the panel makers and television manufacturers.
Entering a new region can present an extensive set of challenges, but Pambianchi says keeping her company’s values at the forefront of every initiative helped maintain a cohesive workforce and provided new employees with direction and guidance.
“First you have to begin to build awareness of who your company even is in the country,” Pambianchi says. “We did some branding efforts, particularly in Taiwan back in the 2004–5 timeframe when we were building out there. The way we’ve tried to approach the market is to have the right branding, the right presence with universities, and we sell our story: we’re a values-driven company with a 160-year-old history and commitment to technology and innovation, and we want people to work for us for their whole careers.”
She refers to such endeavours as the China Leadership Development Program, the Regional Emerging Leaders Program, as well as involvement of senior leadership in the region – Pambianchi herself spends about eight weeks a year travelling to 45 factories worldwide – as having a large effect on workers’ professional mindsets.
“What we find, particularly in Asia, is that it’s very, very appealing to folks. And that’s contrary to what you read and hear in a lot of articles. “Given the high growth, most MNCs in Taiwan or China have 14–25% turnover. We have 7%.”
DEVELOPING TALENT, GROWING LEADERS
One of the successes from Corning’s European operations, on which Pambianchi modelled many of her directives in Asia, was the development of leaders to run businesses in their home countries.
“As we were building our business in Asia, we sent in a number of expatriates to build out the organisation and lead the businesses that we had there, but we wanted to accelerate the readiness of having local talent available to run the operations, whether it be plant managers, commercial leaders, and eventually general managers in the region.”
This led Pambianchi’s team to create the China Leadership Development Program and the display business’s Regional Emerging Leaders Program, which consist of a one-year initiative aiming to target high-potential individuals and groom them for eventual leadership positions within the company.
“Typically the cohort has anywhere between 20 and 25 candidates in it, and we do a combination of three things: first, there’s in-depth, 360-degree feedback for the individual, so they come into the program with a high level of self-awareness,” says Pambianchi.
“Plus, the 360 comes with a specific, individual coach that’s going to work with the candidate throughout the year of the program.”
After this precursory self-discovery period, employees are assigned a case study or project that reflects an existing problem in the business world. “It’s not a fictitious, made-up case study; it’s a real business problem, or two, depending on the size of the class, that they’re actually working on solving,” Pambianchi explains.
Finally, this hands-on training is complemented by approximately three weeks of classroom training, featuring outside lecturers, business experts, and discussion with senior executives.
“And after they graduate the program, we obviously track their careers very closely and monitor the movement of their jobs so that we can be planning and putting them in the roles that are going to make sure they achieve the level of leadership we want them to obtain in the region.”
In addition to these region-specific initiatives, employees at Corning have access to a digital tool called ‘My Development’, which allows them to see their role profiles, view suggested career paths, and outline a plan to reach each goal.
MANAGING A CRISIS
A trying time for Pambianchi, and Corning as a whole, was the market crash that followed the internet and telecom bubble of 1999–2000. This collapse had a marked effect on Corning, which had to deal with the repercussions of a sudden decline in the demand for fibre optic cables. According to USA Today, stocks dropped from $113 a share in 2000 to a mere $1.10 in October 2002.
Pambianchi describes this period, when Corning had to lay off approximately 22,000 employees – half its workforce – as “the most difficult thing I ever had to manage in my 24-year career in HR”.
Very few companies could have survived the blows Corning endured, but Pambianchi and other leaders made it clear they were going to persevere by way of transparency and open communication.
“Every time there was an industry issue, we would get in front of the workforce and tell them, ‘This company just cancelled all their orders and went out of business; this number of telecommunication companies just went bankrupt, etc.; and as a result we’re going to have to take this much capacity offline or take these very difficult actions’.”
The HR team, in addition to providing as much advance notice of tough decisions as possible, also made sure to provide both departing and remaining employees with as many services as they could.
In addition to aligning severance pay and separation benefits with market forces and the communities in which it operated, Corning also offered extensive career support services, including counselling, résumé workshops, and training.
Moreover, they created a physical job placement centre to help transition departing staff into new positions.
“We took our entire talent acquisition staff and turned them into the outplacement team, and they worked there for two years with all the employees, many of whom they had helped hire. They then worked to help place them with other companies,”Pambianchi says.
While these actions helped mitigate tension between supervisors and those who were leaving, they also proved beneficial to employees who remained at the company but may have struggled with that fortune. Pambianchi calls this feeling “survivor guilt”.
She describes the feeling: “I’m the employee who didn’t get let go, but I just lost three of my closest colleagues, and I know what’s happening to their families – I know they have to sell their house and move, or take their kids out of school. So for the employees who are left, they’re pretty distraught, and sometimes they get overlooked.”
PREDICTING TALENT GAPS IN AN UNPREDICTABLE MARKET
Even though many technical-based firms need to innovate to survive, Corning faces a unique challenge as glass products can be easily commoditised and replicated. This requires Pambianchi to think several steps ahead to identify what talent will be needed to make products and materials that may not exist or are yet to be invented.
She has several strategies for remaining ahead of her competitors.
“Internally, we have forums to manage that – like our Growth Execution Council – and I participate as a leader on that council. I’m always aware of what programs are coming down the pipe,” Pambianchi says.
She also notes that it’s important to have field HR leaders in each technical community to monitor developments in every part of the company, to ensure they know what’s happening with each product.
Pambianchi says that most of the time, if the committee does identify a skills gap, Corning will train and educate workers to compensate for the missing talent. Sometimes, though, there isn’t enough time. She points to the recently deployed ONE Wireless Platform as an example.
“We realised RF technology was going to need to be a key element of that, and we didn’t have any radio frequency expertise in-house. That’s a niche area; there was no way we could try to build or grow a capability in that overnight, so we acquired a company named Mobile Access to basically buy their technical expertise in RF technology. We then embedded them in our optical communications and solutions business, and that’s been a great success.”
THE COURAGEOUS LEADER
In her talks and interviews on HR leadership, Pambianchi frequently espouses the virtue of courage. She says bravery helps HR managers balance what should be their three main objectives: helping allocate talent; navigating processes and systems; and monitoring the company’s mood and sentiment. In addition to these responsibilities, however, she also recognises that, in the post-Enron era, HR leaders need to make sure their organisation is ethically and culturally sound.
“If there’s a bad management situation, or a compromise to values, or any other issue going on, one of the roles in the company that I expect to be flagging that is the HR community.”
As she reminds others in her field: “It takes one rogue employee to bring down an enterprise.”
This feature is from the August issue of HRD Magazine. Download the issue to read more!