March 5, 2021

Corner Office: Alan Trefler: Your Opinions Are Respected (and Required)

Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. If we go way back, it was when I was working with my dad in his business. When he came over from Europe at the end of World War II, he established the family business, Trefler Sons Antique Restoring.

Sometimes he would give me interesting assignments that would involve trying to coordinate people, all of whom were older and more experienced than I was. So I didn’t really have the authority, and I really didn’t have the right level of experience, but I had a lot of enthusiasm. I found that with the right level of enthusiasm, you could actually get other folks to follow your lead or, better yet, do some things themselves that they knew how to do better than you, even without having to push them.

Q. What about after your first formal management role?

A. I had just graduated from college and was in a situation where I walked into a job as a project manager, despite being grossly underqualified for the role.

I was a pretty good software engineer, and I managed to trade on that to actually get a leadership job running a small team. It was a project for Citibank. I spent my first day reading the documentation about the project, and two days later, my boss was called off to another job and I was on my own. And the project, the day I started it, was already six months late.

I did survive it and actually learned a tremendous amount by not having blown myself up in the course of doing that. But it was a pretty traumatic experience. I’ve tried to make sure that when we bring people on at our company, we never subject them to anything remotely like that.

Q. So what do you do?

A. We invest a lot in trying to put people through a learning curve. So we have very extensive training in just about all the jobs in the company, to get people feeling like they have their feet under them before they’re thrown in, particularly before they’re thrown in with customers. The most dangerous thing about that first experience for me was that if I had made a bad impression with the client, you could almost never undo that. You really need to make sure that the initial impression is one that shows you’re capable.

Q. And in terms of leading that first team, what was your approach?

A. One of the things I’ve always believed is that content matters a lot. So what I did was immerse myself in what we were trying to achieve. I spent a couple of days sitting with the customer and watching and understanding their business at a pretty deep level.

And then I dived into the technical realm. And I think I was able to convince my teammates that I wasn’t just going to be the next guy who was going to get blown up leading them. Coming into something that’s already in a little bit of trouble, people are wondering what your survival rate will be.

It was, frankly, a bitter experience to be so excited about starting a new job and working with a Wall Street bank, and then to discover that you’re sort of up there on the high wire, really exposed and without the right skill set.

Q. Can you elaborate on how “content matters” and how it plays into your philosophy of leadership and management?

A. When people ask what the company is like, I say the culture we try to encourage is a “thought leadership” culture. You hear people throw around that phrase a lot, but to us, thought leadership means some very specific things. We focus on each of the words. So, you have a thought when you have an opinion about something. You actually need to have an opinion that is hopefully a unique or complementary opinion to the opinion of others. As William Wrigley Jr. said, “When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”

I think having an opinion is important, but it’s not enough to have an opinion — it has to be an informed opinion. So content really matters, and you need to understand the context of what you’re trying to have an opinion about.

And then the second part of the phrase “thought leadership” involves the concept of, what does it mean to be a leader? And ultimately, you’re only a leader if somebody’s willing to follow you. And the characteristic about leadership that we focus on in that context is persuasiveness.

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