The One Person Every CEO Needs

I love reading “The Corner Office” column by Adam Bryant in the New York Times on Fridays and Sundays. Adam talks with CEOs and other leaders about management and often asks about the lessons they learned on the road to success.

It’s refreshing how honest many of these leaders are. Yesterday, the column was about Penny Herscher, who is CEO of FirstRain, a business analytics firm. She admitted that she has a strong personality and started out too autocratic, sure she was right all the time. People told her they didn’t want to work for her, or they just left the company.

She mentions a mentor who made a big difference in her life. “He was one of the only people who would hold up a mirror to me and say, ‘O.K., that wasn’t good.’ I needed somebody who would tell me the truth. Many leaders with strong personalities never hear the truth because their people are afraid to tell them. The people who will tell you the truth are the most valuable people in your life.”

Bingo! In my career as a turnaround authority, I’ve seen so many companies in dire situations, on the brink of failure or bankruptcy. Sometimes the root of problems isn’t that hard to determine. Many of the employees knew it. Many in senior management knew it. But no one wanted to tell the CEO the truth.

Usually it’s because they fear losing their jobs, they might be punished, or ostracized, or they have tried several times in the past and their suggestions were ignored.

Every CEO or business leader has to have someone who will deliver the truth, no matter how unpleasant. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.

I read an article online about a company that says it only works with “enlightened leaders.” The title of the article is “Destructive Leadership Practices: Is Your CEO in Denial?”

The author, Jeannie Walters, writes about a time she worked with a growing technology company that had a successful product and received a lot of press. But the high rate of employee turnover was hurting it and great talent didn’t stay.

Turns out, the CEO was “inflexible and demanding. They were too fearful to tell the truth about feeling overworked and under appreciated. Every new employee learned the secret code of ‘don’t ever offend the CEO,’ which also meant never critiquing his original work. This included the design of the logo (it was awful) and the user experience of the very product they were selling.”

She presented her findings about the company to the CEO, which were confirmed by the marketing director during the meeting. He didn’t want to hear it and declared all the information was wrong. Fast-forward a few months: the marketing director is gone and the company eventually shut down.

You’re most likely not going to like hearing about which areas are not working in your company, whether it’s that your management team isn’t functioning, your relationships with your vendors are not good or your business is not as well off financially as you thought it was.

Every CEO needs at least one truth teller in his or her life. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to make yourself open to hearing it, believing it and acting on it. It helps to remember that while you may go through short-term pain, it’s all for long-term gain. Don’t be a CEO in denial.


Tips on Hiring From the Corner Office

“Here’s a calculator, a pencil and a sandwich. We’ll be back in two hours.” That’s how one $2 billion hedge fund interviews for analysts positions.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned reading “The Corner Office,” a column by Adam Bryant that appears in the New York Times on Fridays and Sundays. He interviews CEOs with questions about leadership and management.

Because I deal with CEOs as well as function as an interim CEO in my business as The Turnaround Authority, I enjoy reading insights into other CEOs. When I’m running a company I do a lot of hiring and firing so I especially enjoy reading their thoughts on how they hire new people for executive positions.

Meridee A. Moore is founder of Watershed Asset Management based in San Francisco where they give the calculator, pencil and sandwich test. They simulate a real office experience and see how an analyst reacts to a tough assignment, looking for people who enthusiastically embrace the challenge.

She said they consider it a bonus if a person has had a rough patch in his or her past, because, “If you’ve ever had a setback and come back from it, I think it helps you make better decisions. There’s nothing better for sharpening your ability to predict outcomes than living through some period when things went wrong.”

Bill Marriott, executive chairman and former CEO of Marriott International, says as a young man he learned a lesson from President Eisenhower, who was visiting his family’s farm at Christmas. They were going to shoot quail but it was extremely cold, so his dad asked the president if he still wanted to go. President Eisenhower turned to young Bill and said, “What do you think we should do?”

From that Bill learned that the four most important words are, “What do you think?” Like me, he likes to hire people smarter than he is, but sometimes those people come with huge egos that preclude them from considering other people’s point of view. So when he interviews candidates he always looks for good listeners.

The CEO of YouSendIt, Brad Garlinghouse,  says he looks for people with passion. Some of the questions he asks include, “How would your friends describe you in college?” and “When you started working, how would your first group of colleagues describe you?” He also looks for humility so he asks if they have ever fired someone and what it was like. He is looking for a sense of empathy from their response.

Wendy Lea, chief executive of the customer experience platform Get Satisfaction, also looks for people who are self aware by asking her favorite question, “Let’s assume we’ve worked together now for six months. There’s something that I’m going to observe of you that I have no idea about right now. What would that be?” She finds that is a way to dig a little deeper into a person.

The CEO of International Medical Corps, Nancy Aossey, says one of her favorite interview questions is to ask candidates about colleagues who are not on their reference list, people they didn’t get along with. She wants to know what those people would say about the candidate.

You may be surprised what Karl Heiselman, the chief executive of Wolff Olins, is looking for when he asks candidates, “What’s your story?” He doesn’t just want to hear about the job they are interviewing for. He is trying to find out what they want to do with life and determine if they are being sincere.

If you are interviewing with a CEO it’s usually a given that you’ve already got the skills and experience for the position. So what they are looking for goes deeper than that. They are looking for people who are self-aware, display passion for the profession and are good listeners.

What do you think?