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What the Charles River Labs CEO keeps front-of-mind about leadership

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The dinner was one of those black tie, cigar, and brandy kind of affairs, when Jim Foster was pulled outside by his soon-to-be CEO.

It was 1984, and Charles River Laboratories — an early-stage drug research company started by Foster’s father nearly 40 years earlier — had just been acquired by Bausch & Lomb.

“[The CEO] says, ‘I hear you’re the heir apparent. I want you to know you mean nothing to me. I'm going to hold your feet to the fire and see what you're made of,’” Foster, SM ’85, said in conversation with MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein at a Sept. 18 iLead speaker series event on campus. “So for five or six years, he beat the you-know-what out of me any chance he got. "

In the 43 years Foster has been in the family business, he’s learned some valuable lessons along the way — not least of which is to have tough skin against critics.

But he’s also learned to be kind to the people in his corner.

I learned a lot on how to not treat people, and conversely, the importance of listening and respecting and appreciating your team,” said Foster, who bought the company back from Bausch & Lomb in 1997 and has been its CEO for nearly 30 years. The company went public in 2000.

Here are three things Foster keeps in mind as leader of Charles River Laboratories. 

Not playing politics

Some companies have politicized workplaces, and it’s every man or woman for themselves.

Foster said you don’t have to be constantly politicking for yourself, especially at Charles River Laboratories. While it’s gotten more difficult to stamp out that type of behavior as the company’s grown, it’s something he’s always thinking about.“Charles River is a meritocracy,” Foster said. “If you want to succeed at Charles River you work hard, you do good work, you don’t make others look bad, you make others look terrific — and [yourself].”

Integrity and reputation

A company will have good quarters and bad quarters, it might have failed acquisitions, it could have no acquisitions. At the end of the day, Foster said, in both life and business, the only thing you always have is your integrity and your reputation.

That’s why he’s extremely transparent with shareholders, he said. They might not always like the numbers, but “we would never spin the results to obfuscate the realities.”

“You don't hide, and you don't cheat them, you don't sweep things under the rug,” Foster said. “I don't think there are any shades of [the truth]: You're either honest or you’re dishonest.”

Soft skills are critical

Charles River Laboratories has around 100 sites, and Foster visits roughly a third of them each year. While it used to be more of an all-hands meeting, site tour, and business review, Foster said he now adds in meetings with hourly employees, where he closes the door and invites them to talk freely and anonymously about their work.

“What's really going on? How does it feel? How's the culture? Do you have enough staff? How do you feel about your company? Do you understand what we do? Do you understand your role in what we do?” Foster asked by way of examples. “And that's been really transformational.”

Foster said in a leadership role like his, soft skills are more important than learning accounting or finance or, for example, how to run cash flow analyses.

“The only thing that’s actually important in your jobs,” Foster said, “is the quality of the people that you have, how they work together, whether you challenge them and stimulate them, whether they stay, and how you structure things.”  

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