“Think Of Time As Though Someone Is Paying For It — Someone Is!” 5 Leadership Lessons with Dr. Alan McLenaghan, CEO, SageGlass

We don’t know how much time we will have on this planet. We must consider time like someone is paying for it. Someone is! Our self! At an organizational level, time is the one thing we can’t get more of. We can get more funding, hire more people or buy new equipment, but time is finite. I now spend a little of that available time looking back on my life — the things I’ve achieved (and not achieved) and that I’m proud of (and not proud of). Each and every action is a choice of how to spend our time.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alan McLenaghan. As CEO of SageGlass, manufacturer of the world’s smartest electrochromic glass, Alan is responsible for rapidly expanding the dynamic glass market by building a strong corporate culture, world-class manufacturing and a team to serve the global market. Alan has more than 20 years of experience in the manufacturing industry and three decades of insight to share.

What is your “backstory”?

I was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to working-class parents. When I was 8 years old, my father died and my mother took over full responsibility for taking care of the family, which included my little sister. At the time in Scotland, women did not typically work, but my mother picked herself up and became a school secretary. She made sure my sister and I always knew the value of hard work and the importance of education.

The values instilled in me at an early age gave me the determination to achieve something more than working in a nearby mine or steel mill. I went off to pursue my B.Sc in Applied Chemistry, and then a Ph.D. in Polymer Physics. After graduating, I worked in R&D for a chemical company called ICI. I quickly realized I really wanted to make things and moved into manufacturing management. After years with ICI and DuPont, I joined Saint-Gobain. After starting the company’s U.K. plant, I headed Saint-Gobain’s Glass Division World Class Manufacturing program. Because my wife and I were so busy with work and work-related travel, we did not spend much time together. Therefore, when the opportunity arose, I joined Saint-Gobain Containers (later known as Verallia North America) as Senior Vice President of Technology, allowing my wife and I to be together in Indiana. When Saint-Gobain acquired SageGlass in 2012, I decided to return to flat glass and help SageGlass’ founder, John Van Dine, acclimate to life at Saint-Gobain. John decided to step down as CEO and join the company’s Board of Directors, and I filled the role of CEO at SageGlass.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I was at a trade show in Atlanta and was running late for a media interview. I had spilled coffee on my tie and was headed to my hotel room to change when I was approached by a frantic little boy in the hallway. He grabbed me by the arm and leg and started dragging me to follow him as this was the only way he was able to communicate at the time. I wasn’t comfortable with the situation and tried to resist but was compelled by the little boy’s sense of urgency, so I followed him. I knew I would miss my interview but recognized that this little boy’s problem was more important.

When we arrived outside his hotel room, it was clear that the boy’s TV was broken. I called maintenance and waited until they arrived. Maintenance simply had to plug the TV back into the wall, and the little boy was able to resume watching his favorite cartoons.

While this interaction may not seem all that important — it allowed me to take a moment to focus on what’s important. Having an interview to encourage people to purchase our product was not nearly as important as helping the little boy. As a company, we believe people come first, and as CEO, I must epitomize this. We don’t walk by people in need, we help them.

So what exactly does your company do?

SageGlass manufactures dynamic glass, which is glass that can be darkened or lightened as needed. Our product is high-tech and supported by more than 500 patents. It helps to create a more comfortable environment for people inside of buildings. You would instantly notice if you were sitting in a room with SageGlass. Besides the fact that it looks really cool, the room will be an ideal temperature and free of harsh glare because the glass is blocking the sun but not blocking views. SageGlass allows building occupants to enjoy outdoor views and access to natural daylight, which has been proven to have a positive impact on health, well-being and productivity. SageGlass has been installed in buildings around the world from The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare to Ashford Castle in Ireland.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company culture is what makes us special. We strive to create a great place to work and treat our people with the highest respect, which carries to customer respect, dignity and importance. We’re committed to our parent company’s (Saint-Gobain) Principles of Conduct and Action, which guide our business decisions.

In our industry the supply chain is often convoluted. The everyday person inside a building is the end user of our product, but we work directly with building owners, architects, electricians and glass installers. Things go wrong sometimes, but we never say “that’s not our problem.” We work with all parties to ensure the installation process goes smoothly and the building occupant ultimately has an amazingly comfortable experience.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you where you are?

A lot of people have helped me during critical moments in my life. My mother is the one who really changed my life by becoming the breadwinner of our family after my father died. She ensured my sister and I never thought of ourselves as poor and always worked hard. I also had a high school science teacher who believed a working-class kid could be more than I could have ever imagined and a Ph.D. supervisor who had more belief in me than I had in myself.

In industry, a plant manager at ICI thought I would be better suited for manufacturing and encouraged me to shift my focus from R&D. Since then, I have been managing plants, building plants and leading businesses focused on making something. For the past 25 years, my wife has “shaped” me as a person and as a leader. She has transformed me from a geeky scientist and developed my emotional intelligence and ability to interact.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Alan: We all have a finite amount of time available. I confess that I dedicate so much of my time to work that there is little time for anything else. I haven’t raised millions of dollars for a big charity, but I do try to bring goodness to the world through small, everyday acts, like not walking past the little boy in the hallway. My wife and I have raised two children with good values. They care about other people and have enough confidence to believe they can achieve great things. I married a great woman whom I love, and we have a relationship based on honesty and trust. I’ve helped to create thriving businesses that benefit the families of the team members. And through the Saint-Gobain Corporation Foundation, SageGlass team members are able to donate to charities that are personally significant to them.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.

1. Always know who your customer is. No matter what your job is, there is always a customer.

There are many times throughout life where you are a customer yet feel like you weren’t treated like one. When I bought a car and it had issues, I was displeased with how the dealership handled it, and 15 years later, I still talk about it! There’s a recipient of everything, whether it’s the outcome of a meeting, a product being delivered or coffee brewed for your visiting mother — there is a customer for everything.

2. Believe that you can create change, even when there is overwhelming evidence that things never seem to get better.

Every day we encounter problems that can seem enormous. There are people who tell us there is no point in approaching the problem since it’s been looked at before and can’t be resolved. As humans, we need to approach life with the perspective that we can make things better even if the obstacle feels impossible to overcome. When I first started at SageGlass, we had some major challenges with the new plant. However, our team believed in the power to change and used this belief to improve and create actionable tasks that resulted in the manufacturing facility we have today.

3. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

In my early 20s, I learned that if you are honest with the customer about the product you deliver, people will buy it. Integrity is long-lasting. If you deliver what you say you will deliver, this will later come back to benefit you. People realize after their first disappointment that they want to work with an honest company and with honest people.

4. Focus on the most important things to do, not the easiest.

We all have hundreds of tasks before us — some can be completed in a few seconds that you quickly remove from the to-do list. It’s important to know what you should be focusing your time and energy on instead of just working through a list of items. You may work long hours, but it’s important to challenge yourself to focus on the big problems. As I’ve picked up experience, I’ve realized that crossing stuff off a list may not be a good use of time.

5. Think of time as though someone is paying for it — someone is!

We don’t know how much time we will have on this planet. We must consider time like someone is paying for it. Someone is! Our self! At an organizational level, time is the one thing we can’t get more of. We can get more funding, hire more people or buy new equipment, but time is finite. I now spend a little of that available time looking back on my life — the things I’ve achieved (and not achieved) and that I’m proud of (and not proud of). Each and every action is a choice of how to spend our time.

Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I’d like to have a private meal with my wife. We spend a lot of time apart. I work away from home during the week and return home most weekends. I seek my wife’s counsel and value her opinions. I feel comfortable in her company, and she knows me better than anyone else on the planet (and still likes me). Being in her company would make for a comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable breakfast, which would be the best way to start the day.

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