Agilents Unlikely Dynamic Duo

By Ed Frauenheim

Jan. 4, 2007

O n the surface, Roche, chief learning officer at Agilent Technologies, and Sullivan, the company’s chief executive, could scarcely be more different. Sullivan comes across as a tough-minded businessman. Roche peppers her sentences with terms like “heartfelt,” “love” and “transformative life event.”

    Yet the two are buddies, and together they are at the core of Agilent’s push to reshape itself through a focus on executive talent. During a Conference Board leadership seminar earlier this year, Sullivan, 57, and Roche, 50, shared the stage and described their efforts to evaluate and develop top managers at the measurement technology firm. At one point, Sullivan ribbed Roche about her emotion-laden language: “Engineers don’t hug; HR people do.”

    Roche rolled with the punch, but made it clear that she sees Sullivan sharing the same values.

    “If we were a tech company that didn’t have a heart, I wouldn’t be here,” she says.

    The two have been colleagues at Agilent for the past four years, and their teamwork intensified after Sullivan became CEO in March 2005. But this isn’t the first time they’ve joined forces both to motivate employees and hold them accountable.

    In 1981, Roche took a job at Hewlett-Packard as a human resources manager, and she was assigned to a manufacturing unit led by Sullivan. There, she says, the pair dismissed some employees who weren’t meeting standards—whereas previous managers had turned a blind eye to the problems.

    “We were a phenomenal team,” Roche recalls. “We confronted some performance issues that really were not acceptable.”

    The two followed different paths, with Roche leaving HP in the late 1980s to join another Bay Area firm and eventually going back to school to earn a doctorate in 2000. Sullivan stayed with HP and was part of the operations spun off into Agilent in 1999. In 2002, when Sullivan was COO of Agilent, he was one of the leaders who persuaded Roche to join the firm, in the area of employee development.

    Despite their chemistry, it wasn’t clear a quarter-century ago that the pair would bond as well as they have. Roche says Sullivan had been among the HP managers who interviewed her in 1981, and she wasn’t sure the two could be a good fit.

    “When HP hired me and told me I was going to work with Bill, I was scared,” she says. “I knew he was demanding, and I did not know if we could work together.”

    Years of collaboration have settled that question. And now they are credited with building a better Agilent. Louis Carter, president of research firm the Best Practice Institute, says Sullivan and Roche are striking the right balance between employee appreciation and accountability, all the while listening to smart ideas from outside the organization. “[Bill] and Teresa have enabled true growth and change,” he says.

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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