December 3, 2023

Corner Office: Dominic Orr: Yes, Everyone Can Be Stupid for a Minute

Q. What were some early lessons for you as a manager?

A. The biggest feedback I had from my people is that I didn’t give them feedback.  I was running along.  I had a pretty high standard for myself, and I assumed that everybody who joined my team was operating at the same level. Good work was assumed, so I let them know only when something didn’t go well.  People started telling me it would be nice if I gave them a pat on the back rather than only telling them when things were not good.

  Another thing I distinctly remember is that I had trouble having a difficult discussion with employees because, as a young manager, sometimes you don’t really know how to tell somebody to their face that they’re not doing a good job.  I also struggled at first with this whole process of running a staff meeting. I remember bringing my H.R. person in to have her run meetings so that I wouldn’t take over, express my opinions and then everybody would sit there silently.

Q. What are some other important leadership lessons?

A. I have had a very good mentor — Wim Roelandts, who worked for H.P. for about three decades.  He rose to become the No. 2 executive of H.P. under Lew Platt. He is someone who embraced the old H.P. way. 

Q. What were some lessons you learned from him?

A. I would say empowering people. Basically, he would push you and give you as much as you could handle until you started failing. He would encourage you to not be afraid of failing — because when you start failing, that’s when you know where your limit is, and then you can improve around that.  So he actually sometimes would reward failure because that means that you have pushed yourself.

That is an unusual approach, so people under him tended to be able to really find their limits. And once they do that, they figure out a way to overcome it, because they don’t feel that inhibition. I think that is a very big thing. The whole H.P. way of management kind of molded my approach to managing people in business.

Q. And boil that down for me. What is the H.P. way?

A. Fundamentally, the H.P. way started with the basic assumption that each employee wants to do well, and they are capable of doing well, so as a manager you have to give them that environment to flourish. When someone does not perform, the first reaction is not to get angry at them or assume that they are incompetent, but to question whether they have they been matched to the right assignment.  From the background, from the skill set, have you created a productive environment for them?  So the first question as a manager is, have you done something wrong? 

Q. Tell me about the culture of the company you run today.

A. I use a simple principle of management based on intellectual honesty.  You try to be intellectually honest with yourself, meaning that you have to forget about all the face-saving issues and so on. I tell people that if you work for me, you have to have a thick skin because there’s no time to posture. 

I also tell people that everybody can be and will be momentarily stupid.  I think that in many large companies, a lot of politics arise because somebody makes a statement in a meeting, and then it’s weeks of wasted time and effort because they have to dig in to defend that position, and then politics come into play because they now want to lobby for their position. 

So when I interview key executives of my staff, I tell them that they need to accept that they can be, and will be, momentarily stupid. If they can accept that and be able to say, “Oh, I was momentarily stupid; let’s move on,” then you don’t waste time dealing with that.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved over time?

A.  The big thing that has changed from 25 years ago is how much I think about the power of the team.  I used to, for example, look for two things in people: one is whether I clicked with somebody, and then I would look for best-in-class competence and star performance in a certain discipline, regardless of how they work with others. Now, whenever I’m interviewing for a new executive in any discipline, I look at how they might enhance the capability of the team.  Can the dynamics work? And can this person rotate to do some other things?  So I would say as I mature, I focus more and more on the performance of the team versus the performance of the individuals. 

Q. What else are you looking for when you’re interviewing?

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