Leadership in Practice: Bob Reiter of Monsanto

Leadership in Practice

A Conversation with Bob Reiter, Ph.D., Vice President Breeding Technology, Monsanto Company

Q:  Can you give me a 2 minute synopsis of how you got where you are now.

A:  I was leading a small team for a number of years for a competitor before I joined Monsanto. I came over around the time of the seed acquisitions in 1998. I have always been somebody interested in trying to work outside the box that I am assigned to, and I felt like you could do that more effectively at Monsanto.

I was responsible for setting up a new group in Ankeny, IA providing genotyping for Monsanto’s newly acquired breeding programs. That role continued to grow over time and I was always interested in taking on additional responsibilities. I always focus on taking care of what you are responsible for, and then try to see where else you can provide value. Some people aggressively need to look for change and try to move on to another area. I have always tended to focus on how you develop the role you are in and make it more than the day you started.

Q:  How has your leadership style changed over the years?  What sort of things have you learned?

A: In my earlier days, I was much more hands on and directed in decision making. When I was a post-doc, I had a first opportunity to manage one individual. She had been around for a number of years, and I remember her telling me that I needed to give her more autonomy. Now, I focus on identifying the very best people to lead the various pieces of my organization and giving those people a tremendous amount of autonomy and decision making capability. I don’t try to second guess them; I try to provide a layer of support for them in their decision making, a sounding board before they make some key decisions. I always reinforce with them that they are the ones who need to decide. 

Also, regardless of whether you are leading a team of three or 300, you have to establish vision for people.  You don’t have to tell them how to do it, but you have to help them see where it fits in the grand scheme of things and get them excited about why we want to go there and why it is important. And then, you have to keep challenging them to see why that vision will have to change. Finally, you have to make sure that as an organization grows, that you communicate with people about their success and the team’s success.  That is an area that I still have to work at. I need to work on the pat on the back, the thank you.

Q:  Have there been critical experiences that have shaped your approach to leadership?

A: My managers have always given me freedom to operate, so that has influenced my desire to give people freedom to operate. I also had a manager who was indecisive, and I remember how frustrating that was for me.  So, I have always been very decisive.

Q: Do you have any people of whom you think as mentors?

A: I have never had a single individual to whom I have gone back repeatedly in my career and said, “I need some counsel.”  I have had role models. I try to be a copycat of the great behaviors that a lot of different people have. So, in some respects, I guess you could argue they are all mentors because they have provided guidance, even if they didn’t realize it.

Q: How would you describe the leadership culture of the Technology organization?

A: The Monsanto Technology leadership is second to none. The company has done a tremendous job, putting the right people in the right roles to lead the organization. There is a tremendous level of respect across the leadership. There is a real desire to ensure that the functions are interconnected to be successful as an overall function.  I think it is a leadership style that encourages the interconnectivity and the individual responsibility of the various groups.

Q: What impact has the culture of leadership had on your business?

A:  We are so well matrixed and we understand how to make that matrix work. We are connected all the way through the commercial organization and back into the technology organization. The connections don’t just extend within Technology: they extend outwardly as well.

Q:  What do you do to develop the next generation of leaders?

A:  You have to start with giving them the fundamentals. There is training like the People Leader Learning Series that you should make sure people are taking. Second, you need to encourage them to step out of their box, move away from the comfort zone.  You need to provide opportunities to do that, and create exposure to other layers of management. At the end of the day, the most important thing is strong development of that relationship network in the company.  That is something I work on every day and will have to continue through my career.

Q: What do you do to build your network?

A: You start by reaching out to people you know and asking them to identify places where you can contribute where you normally wouldn’t be contributing.  In the last few months, I reached out to our commercial organization and said I can make myself available if you need somebody from Technology to talk about the pipeline.  From there, I would get calls to give presentations to parts of the commercial organization, to our customer base, to our dealers, and to sales groups throughout the organization. Every time, you are connecting with new people in the organization, and that continues to build on the future networks. What I find doesn’t work well is when you create the list of the “get to knows” for somebody in a new role. I think the rubber meets the road when you are meeting new people in a way where you are making a contribution to the business.

Q: Did you have anything else that you wanted to add or say about leadership?

A: I think people need to be a little more patient.  Maybe that is a generational thing. It gets back to the development within role versus development by changing role.  People look around and see their peers moving into different roles and see that as development. They lose focus on the fact that you can do a lot of development just by staying in the same role and figuring out how to expand that role.  Sometimes people don’t spend enough time in a role, and they never had a chance to make contributions in an area. I think there is value in building some success in the current role and expanding that role as effectively as you can. The opportunities will come. Don’t rush it.