Franca Mercurio - RD&E Director EMEA at SC Johnson

15 May, 2023

Franca Mercurio is the RD&E Director EMEA at SC Johnson in Switzerland. Franca has spent many years at SC Johnson in cross-functional roles. Having lived in different countries, she brings a broad perspective to her work and is involved in several Diversity & Inclusion activities in Switzerland.

How would you explain your job to those who've never worked in your field before?

It's funny, because - if I look at my job from a very simplistic perspective - when my daughters ask me what I do at work, I explain to them that normally I'm just on the phone 24/7! I do a lot of talking and try to gain an understanding of what the situation is.

If I have to be a little bit more concrete, I lead a team that is implementing products into the manufacturing areas, which means that we are not doing fancy work. We’re not the designers or the inventors, but we are the people that actually make things happen. We translate innovation into reality.

How do you identify with the mission at SC Johnson?

I would say that SCJ is definitely proud of the values and the integrity that we have. Our mission is visible, first of all, if you look at our logos, but even from a lot of the talks that our Chairman does on trying to make a better world.

We’re also here to make sure that we continue to think about the next generation. If I can make a little bit of a transposition between what we do on a day-to-day basis and what the ultimate mission of SCJ is, it is really to be involved in the execution and implementation of projects that are making those values true. So, you might have seen a lot of activities from the Chairman on sustainability, recyclable plastics, and those kinds of things.

Sometimes, we ask ourselves what it is that we do, but - when you see a product on a shelf that is responding to the values of the company - you can really feel proud of that.

Do you have a memorable moment from your career?

I have two memories that are a little bit similar in the sense that I made the best steps in my career when I was pregnant.

The first one, I already delivered my baby, and she was two-months-old. I was asked, “Would you apply for a position in the Netherlands, which would be a promotion?” I was like, “Well, why not? She is small, so we can do it. I have a fabulous husband that is following me.” So, I discussed it with him, and we were like, “Okay, let's go.”

Having the opportunity of the company considering my profile, even when I was on maternity leave, was amazing.

Subsequently, I was pregnant with my third child, and there was an opportunity. They were like, “Would you apply?” and I was like, “Yeah, but guys, I'm actually going on maternity leave and then I will be back.” They were like, “No worries. If everything goes well and you're responding to what the needs are, we're going to wait for you” - and that's what they did.

I found it so respectful and amazing that those values of D&I are true, irrelevant of what stage of your career you are. That was really memorable, and I’m grateful to the company that has given me the opportunity.

Do you have any advice for people who are relocating as a family?

It very much depends on where you go. When I moved to the Netherlands, I found a place which was very easy to move; it wasn't necessary to learn the language immediately and there were a lot of part-time opportunities. There are a lot of places to put your child or your children into the care of somebody; that was extremely helpful, because it makes it easy to move. You need to be very conscious of the things you want to do yourself and the things that you can leave to others.

When I moved to Switzerland, on the other side, I thought that I would find the same kind of structure. But, in reality, it was a little bit more difficult to find a place. The moment I moved to Switzerland, I had three daughters, so our needs were different. We had an au pair for a while - she was part of the family actually - she's Dutch, so it was also nice to keep on using the Dutch language for the girls.

Then, I always chose to have my daughters in public school, but also in the public sector, where I could leave them after school. I was lucky that they were not very ill a lot, so I could send them every day, and I’d also have the flexibility that, if they were not okay, I could work from home. It's really important that you understand what your values are, what your need are, and then see where you can find the help.

I am super lucky; I had a lot of friends that helped me if there was any need. That helps with taking your mind off things, because you know that there is a support network around you that will actually step in if you need them.

Do you have any advice for leaders who are looking to engage new talent entering the workforce?

It's really funny, because my team is pretty young and the values that they are looking for are always different from the ones that I was thinking myself when I entered the workforce. Sometimes, it's like, isn't it not enough? What is it that you're looking for?

For me, the key ingredient is to be there, and be open and available to talk and to listen to them. That is because they don't always know how to explain themselves with what they are looking for. But you cannot just assume that, because it was like that in your time, it is still like that. I find it fascinating to understand more and to open more.

For two days per year, I go into a school of Marketing in Lausanne. They're all between 20/22/23-years-old. It is really fascinating to understand where they want to go next, or the things that they're looking for, how you engage them for eight hours consecutively, making sure that they're not just looking at their mobile phones. That is something that you need to be very conscious about - anything that was true for you does not necessarily apply to them. Actually, a lot of the skills that we are looking for today are different from the ones that I was growing with.

But, always assume that you can learn from them. Always be available - your door needs to be open, and you need to talk to them so they can explain to you. And, see that there is also a point of reference in a moment in which they can talk and it's going to be more on a parity role, rather than a manager or an employee. It should be like, “Okay, explain to me what it is that you're looking for and how I can help you.”

This week, I was training on inverted classroom. They were talking about the standard way of viewing a class; there is a teacher, they talk to you, and then you go home and do your homework. But, now, they're looking into giving you the material first, so that you have an idea of what we're going to talk about, and then when we're in class, we are enhancing that opportunity there.

I was thinking about what I can do at work, instead of me just telling you, “Okay, this is your task,” giving you some hints and then brainstorming with you - constantly working on these additional things that you can find to engage them and to show them that, actually you don't know everything, but it's mutual growing.

What is the most exciting project you've had outside of work?

Teaching in a school is one of them, but the other big piece is related to D&I. I'm part of the LEAD Network in Switzerland. I'm part of the board there for the chapter. It is incredible, because – between 13/15 people - we're looking to do webinars, mentoring sessions, face-to-face or virtual events where we can give tips to the women around us. Actually, this morning we were discussing what our next event is going to be.

First of all, the amount of people that you meet, and the amount of things that you learn from just listening to their stories and by exchanging experiences is really impressive. I hope, just by doing a little bit of this, I can give a small contribution for my daughters when they're entering the world of working. It’s super important that we look into it.  

I know there were a lot of studies showing that we went backwards with the pandemic on the women's side, so we need to catch up and make sure we go back to where we were before pandemic – but, also, that we accelerate going forward.

When you're hiring new people, what would you say is trainable and what do you think must already be there?

If I think about this question, I've changed my perspective along my career. When I was younger, I would say, if you wanted to be in a technical role, you need to be a grown technical first, and then we’re going to add some of the soft skills around that.

However, going forward, you can always learn the technical piece. Of course, if you are a formulator, you need to have some real formulation experience and studies behind - it's not applicable to everything. But 80% of the things are trainable; you go for a course, an MBA [Master of Business Administration], a post-doc, or whatever you're going to get.

The thing that you need to have is the ability to shape the person. So, you need to have the adaptability of the person, or you can just grow those soft skills that are going to be even more important than the real hard skills. By that, I mean they need to be open, they need to be receptive to feedback, and they need to be curious.

You cannot teach those things. Yes, as you grow, as you become more mature, you can understand that certain things are necessary and you can try to adapt, but you need to have all of those at the beginning. I'm really looking more at how the person is responding, rather than the answer they're giving on a certain problem.

I will always remember, once I was doing an interview - we were looking for a lady that was more on the data type of work. We did a business case with her, trying to see how she would think about it and how her reasoning was developing. I thought we gave her a very easy task, but - after half an hour - she came back and said, “I don't know what it is that you're asking me, I don't understand it. So, I'm not sure that I'm able to do it.”

First of all, I appreciate the fact she came back saying she didn’t know how to do it. But then, we gave her two or three things that she could start reasoning about, and after that, she was like, “Oh, okay, now I know,” and she did it.

For me, first having the humility to say, “I'm not able to do it,” but then the rework happens, and they came back with a good performance - those are the things I'm most looking for.

How does SC Johnson engage and develop top talent?

We do great onboarding; people are very happy when they come, because they can see a lot of things in a month that sometimes you don't see even after a year.

The other piece that SCJ does in an amazing way is to keep you engaged. So, if you want to be going beyond what you're normally doing, you can always raise your hand at any level. It’s giving you the freedom of just doing your work or going beyond, if you wish. This is the most attractive way to keep you engaged.

What advice would you give to new graduates who are looking to step into R&D or Supply Chain for the first time?

First of all, don't be scared. It could be technical on the R&D side, but even the Supply Chain side could be technical. But don’t be scared to start working from the basics.

Sometimes, when we start working, we think that it's going to be all these nice things and very flowery, but, actually, you need to also do the very basics, and you need to start understanding what you're talking about from the lowest level. This might mean doing the practical side of things.  

The most important piece is to understand what it is that you're doing and to give back. Don't be scared. Nobody is born knowing all these skills. Nobody is going to be asking you to make super-duper things if you don't have the capabilities. We're going to be asking you to just be yourself, to come in and to be humble enough to say, “I don't know,” and be willing to learn how to do it.

The other piece is, don't be scared to ask if, after a couple of years, you question what you can do next, where you can expand. Find a sponsor, find a mentor, find somebody that you like as an example, and go and explore what it is that you can do next.

At the same time, don't be too arrogant and say, “I know everything,” Instead, it’s, “Okay, where can I go next? Where can I do different things?” and the opportunities will come.

So, start, go, don’t be scared about the type of work, deliver what you need to deliver, and then the opportunities will just come.

Thank you to Franca for speaking to our Procurement & Supply Chain recruitment team in Switzerland, led by Neil Cope.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment