Learning to Lead

“We called ourselves followers before the change; afterward, we were real leaders.” -Carlos Linares

Carlos Linares of Sun Products Corp. explains what it takes to get ahead in consumer goods

In 2005, Carlos Linares was almost two decades into a career in chemical engineering when a new opportunity presented itself. “I’d been working in product development, and eventually worked my way into leadership roles, but I’d never transformed an organization, and was given the chance to do so,” says Linares of a job at Alberto Culver Company, which manufactures beauty products.

The move would ultimately lead Linares where he is today, serving as chief technology officer for Sun Products Corp., a $2 billion Connecticut-based provider of household products, including laundry detergent, fabric softener, and dish-care products, among others.

Mentor for a Minute

“You have to take the time to teach others what you know.”
—Carlos Linares

Linares’s story began in 1969, when he came from Cuba to the United States at age five. Growing up in West New York, New Jersey, home to the largest Cuban community outside of Florida, taught him the values that would stay with him. “Looking back at how I’ve approached my life, a lot of what drives me comes from my community,” he says. “After coming to this country, my parents took on whatever jobs they could to better the lives of my brother and me, and that’s at the core of who I am. I drive for success for myself, but I also drive for success for them. It’s a duty.”

That internal drive led Linares to Cornell University, where he studied chemical engineering. “I had a general sense that I wanted to be in the sciences through programs I’d been exposed to in high school, then within the sciences I gravitated toward chemical engineering both from [an] interest perspective and also with a sense that it would quickly get me into the workforce after graduation,” he says.

Linares’s first job was as a process engineer for Proctor & Gamble. He began working with fabric softeners such as Bounce and Downy (the same products that are his current company’s main competitors), then moved into skin-care categories, ultimately gaining exhaustive knowledge of the entire product-development process. Then, nine years into his career, Linares moved to Johnson & Johnson, initially doing product-development work, but gradually working his way into leadership positions. Then, after 10 years at Johnson & Johnson, the Alberto Culver opportunity arose.

Looking back, Linares says the Culver position was the most challenging of his career, as it gave him the opportunity to essentially create a new organization. “It wasn’t about running projects anymore, but about leading an organization—creating a vision, developing a strategy for getting there, then driving that change,” he says. “I had to recruit people to fill the right roles, build a great team, and develop the culture. And we were successful. We called ourselves followers before the change; afterward, we were real leaders.”

That learning experience—which taught Linares to lead through change—gave him the skill set to take on his current position as Sun Products. Early on, he says, individual projects—namely, taking two key products out of the theoretical laboratory and into the marketplace—taught him to grow as an individual contributor. It would have been easy to do that again and again, but Linares didn’t. “Sometimes you get into roles that are more of the same; Alberto Culver was so much more,” he says. “I was doing things I’d never had the opportunity to do before, and that gave me the knowledge and the confidence to do it again … It’s only once or twice in a lifetime you get a chance to make a change like that.”

Today, as chief technology officer for Sun Products, Linares leads the company’s research and development organization, which includes product and process development, engineering, quality assurance, and regulatory compliance. “The job at Sun Products presented me with the opportunity to grow even more as a leader by allowing me to broaden my scope and drive change—more innovation, more growth,” he says. “It’s a terrific opportunity to work with a talented executive team and take on an exciting organizational challenge. How do you come in, assess an organization, and change it so you take it in an entirely new direction?”

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