March 4, 2021

Corner Office: Andy Lansing: A Boss Who Believes ‘Nice’ Isn’t a Bad Word

Q. You rose to the C.E.O. position from the legal side. How did that come about?

A. I started, just because it was my nature, poking my nose into other areas. I would say to people, why do we do it that way in purchasing, or why do we do it that way in human resources? And Larry Levy, our founder, would say to me, “Just go fix it if you want. Go work with it.” So I found myself collaborating with other people who didn’t report to me. 

Q. How did you do that without people getting their backs up?

A. Part of it is the nature of our company, which is sort of this entrepreneurial family where people really didn’t live in silos. Even though there’s a head of human resources and a head of purchasing, there’s more of a sense of openness. We all did everything, we all worked hard, and I would approach people in a nonthreatening way. 

I sort of did my best Columbo act, where I’d come in and say, “I don’t know, I don’t quite get it.” Maybe things made perfect sense to everyone else, but not growing up in the business gave me an advantage because I could say, “I don’t understand; will you explain it to me?” 

I also learned early on about a trait of good leaders, which is that I may have the idea, but I’m going to make you think that you came up with the idea and give you credit for it at the end of the day. So it’s sort of getting people to do things without letting them know what hit them, and giving them credit for it. 

Q. And how did you learn to do that? 

A. I don’t know. What I can tell you is that early on I wasn’t crazy about the concept of telling people what to do and being a boss. The power of being a boss is an awesome responsibility, and I feared it a bit when I first became a boss. 

I figured out that I didn’t want people to fear me and do things because of who I was. People have personal power or they have positional power. Positional power means I have power over you because I’m your boss — “I’m very important, I’m the C.E.O.” You should fear me because of who I am. And then there’s personal power, which is what’s inside of you. I always say there are people in our company who are dishwashers who have more personal power than someone who’s a manager because they have that quality.

So what I figured out early on is that being a manager doesn’t equal being a leader. You can have the title of manager and that’ll give you the right to walk around and spin keys on your finger or talk in a walkie-talkie or look and act important, but that’s not what gives you power. 

What I figured out is that what gives you power is how you treat people and how you lead. I remember when the first secretary I had at a law firm would introduce me to someone and say, “I want you to meet my boss.” To this day it makes my skin crawl. I’d say, “I’m not her boss; we work together.” 

Q. Can you elaborate on the quality you’re describing?

A. Leaders are the people you want with you when all hell is breaking loose. They have the knowledge about how to treat people with respect and dignity and how to just be a natural leader. There are those great debates — are leaders born or are they made? — and I think there are people who are just born with that natural ability that makes people want to follow them. I think some people are born with something that makes people gravitate towards them and want to work with them. I’m not saying it can’t be honed, but I don’t think you can teach someone that. I think it’s in their DNA.   

Q. Let’s shift to hiring. How do you do it? What do you look for? 

A. I have a pretty nontraditional approach to hiring. I hire for two traits — I hire for nice and I hire for passion.   

If you sit down with me, no matter how senior you are in the company or the position you’re applying for, my first question to you is going to be, are you nice? And the reactions are priceless. There’s usually a long pause, like they’re waiting for me to smile or they’re waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come out and say, “You’re being punked.” Because who asks that question? And then I say, “No, seriously, are you nice?”

Q. What do people say?

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