May 24, 2024

Corner Office: Attention, Team: Park Your Egos at the Door

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

A. I was 22, and I was recruited out of college to work as a production supervisor for Polaroid on a manufacturing floor.  And the interesting thing was that I didn’t know anything about the production process. I was in charge of about 20 men, and most of them were about 10 to 15 years older than me.

Q. So how did you do it?

A. I decided they were going to become my new best friends.  I needed to, first of all, defer to them on almost everything.  It was out of respect and it was real.  And, second, I tried to figure out what we had in common. I found out that one guy’s family was from South Carolina, and my family is originally from South Carolina, so we really bonded over that.  The other guy was a former marine who had spent time in Vietnam. We kind of bonded over the fact that I’d gone to military school. And so I relied on those guys to teach me the business.  I didn’t come in saying, “I’m the college guy, I know what I’m doing and you’ll listen to me.”

  Q. How did you know to do that at such a young age?

A. When I was 15 or 16, my dad made me go to work for a construction company. And I was the guy at the bottom.  I mixed the mortar.  I moved the bricks.  I brought in the Sheetrock.  All the guys were considerably older, and they knew I was only there for the summer, and they tried to work me to death.  And I was going to win their respect by showing them that I could really work.  And the more I showed them that, they realized that maybe this kid’s O.K., maybe we’ll bring him in, because he didn’t come in saying, “I know everything.” I just came in just to do the work.

Q. What about other early influences?

A. As a kid, I spent time working in my dad’s law firm — he was a criminal lawyer — as a gofer. Oftentimes, when clients would come in and if I didn’t have anything to do, I would sit in the lobby and talk with them.  I was curious. I’d ask them: What did you do?  Why are you here?  I became very comfortable over the years with older people.  I always thought I could learn something from them.  Tell me, teach me — how does this work? 

I have the same philosophy today. I have no idea, for example, what irritates my administrative assistant.  I’ll say: “You have to tell me, specifically, what makes this work for you and what doesn’t make it work for you.  I’m not going to try and figure it out.  I know what I need, but you’ve got to share with me what you need as well.”

Q. How do you hire?

A. Here’s what I’m trying to figure out:  I’m trying to get to know them as people.  I ask them to tell me about themselves.  I ask them to tell me what’s important to them, and the answers are absolutely fascinating. 

Q. Just simple, open-ended questions like that?

A. Open-ended questions: What’s important to you? And tell me something about yourself? Tell me something that I can’t read on your résumé. I’m more interested in understanding what’s important to them, because we’re trying to build a company where the priority is the family.  If we keep our families as our priority, I think we can balance everything else out. And, so, if someone won’t give me an answer, I’ll say, “You want to know what’s important to me?  My family.”  I’ll add: “Think about it this way. If one of my kids got sick right now, I’m leaving.  And guess what, I expect you to do the same thing.” 

The other thing to understand is that if your child plays soccer at 3 in the afternoon, I think I’m hiring a responsible person, and you should be at the game. And they’ll say, “You’re not serious.” I’ll say, “I’m very serious.”  This comes out of my experience when I started a company in the go-go ’80s. I worked seven days a week and I worked 16 to 18 hours a day.  My son and daughter were probably 1 and 2 at the time.   And the best thing that ever happened to me was that the company went under.  It taught me a lot of things, but the most important thing it taught me was that, at the end of the day, they were still there. My wife and I divorced, but I would pick up my kids every weekend and we would go and do things. 

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