Issue Date: January 15, 2007
Earle B. Barnes Award for Leadership in Chemical Research Management
Sponsored by Dow Chemical
When asked to define his management style, Frank J. Williams, now retired from General Electric Global Research, in Schenectady, N.Y., says: "Hire great people, spend time mentoring and developing those hires, listen to people, and never be afraid to make changes when needed."
Mentoring was certainly significant for Williams, 62, during his own career. At the urging of a "great high school chemistry teacher," Williams applied for a National Science Foundation fellowship that took him to Bucknell University for six weeks after his junior year. "That was my introduction to Bucknell, organic chemistry, and a wonderful professor: Harold W. Heine," he says. After high school, Williams attended Bucknell and took organic chemistry during his freshman year from Heine. "I was hooked," he says.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1966, Williams went on to get a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1970 at Ohio State University. There, he worked with former ACS president Paul G. Gassman, to whom he was introduced by Heine.
Gassman led Williams to GE, where he was hired in 1971 by Joe Wirth to work at what was then GE's Corporate R&D Center. During his initial years at GE, Williams was a top technical contributor on a team that invented, developed, and helped commercialize GE's high-performance polymer Ultem polyetherimide. The time spent gaining a sound technical footing, Williams says, was important for his eventual role in management, because "that reputation helps establish credibility with your technical teams, which is critical to success."
In 1978, Williams began his first managerial assignment and continued in management until his retirement in February 2005 as a global technology leader. He attributes his career longevity to the "wonderful people and tremendous diversity of projects" he experienced at GE. As a manager, Williams says, he always tried to understand the positions of others, and he credits himself with an ability to anticipate and respond to change.
Williams' former colleagues agree. Scott C. Donnelly, president and chief executive officer of GE Aviation, says, "His unceasing curiosity, passion for innovation, ability to thrive on change, and courage in taking risks are qualities that I point to when I'm explaining to others how to lead an organization."
Ultimately, Williams says, he has seen people become successful with many different types of management styles. He says he was never afraid to be himself, and encourages others to do the same. "You have to be able to live with that person you see in the mirror every morning," he adds.
Williams' ability to adapt to change is serving him well in his retirement. Although it has taken some adjustment, he says, he is enjoying his time. He is working on making a dent in reading his book collection and improving his golf game. In fact, he received news of his award on his cell phone as he was walking off the golf course.
Williams is currently working with kids at a local Boys & Girls Club to inspire interest in math and science, and he is planning to use his prize to support recognition awards for science students at Schenectady High School.
The award address will be presented before the Division of Polymer Chemistry.
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