January 27, 2023

Corner Office | Karl Heiselman: Wolff Olins’ Chief Asks Applicants ‘What’s Your Story?’


Q. How has your leadership style evolved over the years?

A. I’m trained as a designer, and I never had any ambitions to lead a company or be a C.E.O. In fact, I was quite skeptical of upper management, and so that was never really an ambition of mine. But once I understood what my strength is — as a designer — and applied that to the job, I started to get some success.

There were a whole bunch of things that, for a while, I beat myself up for not being. But when I said to myself, “Let me approach this as a design problem,” then it became really fun. I started to say: “O.K., if I’m designing this business, what would it be like? What kind of people would we work with? How important is money? What kind of work do we want to do? What do we want the culture to be like?” Those are really fun questions to ask.

Q. Tell me more about the culture you’re trying to create at your company.

A. I stole this phrase from Netflix: “No room for brilliant jerks.” The thing that we’re looking for more than anything else is people who are ambitious and optimistic, and if you’re brilliant at what you do, but you’re a jerk, then this isn’t the right place. We’re a creative company, and when you make stuff, you have to be in the right state. If you’re panicked or stressed out or you don’t feel valuable, then you’ll produce bad work. If you feel confident and supported and pushed and motivated and the rest of it, then you’re going to do great work.

So I think getting people into the right state is half the battle. If you create those conditions, you can get great people. And I’m always amazed at what people will do if you give them the right context and the right environment.

Q. How do you hire? What qualities are you looking for?

A. Let’s assume the skills are there. The most important thing is whether I want to hang out and talk with the person. It’s not a likability contest as much as it’s about chemistry. The first thing I always ask is, “What’s your story?” The way somebody answers that is a pretty good indication of what they’re all about. If they’re just talking about the job, I find that really unattractive. If I feel like they’re being sincere and honest about what it is that they want to do with their life, even if it doesn’t line up exactly with what we want in our position, I find that far more attractive.

When you ask people, “What’s your story?” they can answer that a million ways, and where somebody goes with the answer is a pretty good indication of who they are. Again, it’s such an obvious thing, but you want to hire someone who you feel like you want to spend time with.

I’ve worked with people in the past who might be amazing at what they do, but when you’re not looking forward to talking to them, that’s not a good sign. I remember one person I interviewed for a very senior position whom I saw from a distance, and he just had this pretty aggressive look on his face. When they’re not being looked at, you can tell a lot by the expression on their face.

Q. What else is part of the hiring process?

A. One of the things we’ve been doing more recently that’s been helpful is giving somebody an assignment, and have them come back and present to a larger group. That way, you can see how they really think, as opposed to how well they interview. And they don’t have to have the right answer for the assignment. It’s not about the answer; it’s about how they approach the assignment. Somebody can be smart enough to have the job, with the right skills, but they might not be charismatic enough, meaning teams and clients won’t follow this person. It’s hard to teach that. Do you want to listen to the person? Do you want to follow the person? This is pretty basic stuff.

Q. Any people who were big influences on you?

A. There’s a woman named Sara Little Turnbull who’s one of the first women industrial designers — just an incredible woman. She was a visiting professor when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design. One of the things that she asked us to do was, “Write a day in your life five years from now: where you live, where you work, do you have kids, and just describe your day.” That had a profound effect on me.

In school, you always think of your career in terms of: “Do I want to be an architect? Do I want to be a graphic designer? Do I want to be a filmmaker?” But nobody helps you think through whether you could be an architect who’s designing hospitals, or residential architecture in California. She was probably the one voice during my school years who wasn’t saying what’s wrong with our work all the time, but was saying what’s possible and what you can do. I found that hugely empowering.

My father is a huge influence as well. I probably got my slight distrust of upper management from him, because he was a middle manager and a civil engineer, and he would always rather hang out with the guys than manage up. He was more interested in the real work than the politics. And he could talk to anybody. He could deal with upper management, and he was always curious about other folks.

I think that helped me to understand — even though it sounds obvious to say it — that everyone is so different. One designer I work with is a tortured artist. Everything he’s working on is torture, and it’s the biggest opportunity and scariest thing of his life every time. Another is super-confident about everything — he’s got it, no problem. Motivating those two individuals to do great work is really different.

That’s why things like “six steps to managing” aren’t useful, because you’re not managing an assembly line here. It’s about being able to understand where someone’s coming from, and understanding that when you’re communicating with somebody, you’re not trying to convince them you’re right — you’re trying to get the best work out of them. The way you do that is not the same for everybody.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/business/wolff-olins-chief-asks-applicants-whats-your-story.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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