May 16, 2021

Corner Office | Katherine Hays: Katherine Hays of GenArts, on Employee-Owned Ideas

Q. When was the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. The first time I had a real leadership position was at Massive, a video-game advertising company that I co-founded. We started that from an idea, and built it into a company with international offices before selling it to Microsoft. You wear every hat at the beginning, and then you gradually hire a team and you begin handing off some of those specific hats.

Q. Was that a natural transition for you into a leadership position?

A. I would say some things were natural, and others were not. One of the core things that is important to leadership is passion for the vision. I’m not sure I could sell anything I didn’t believe in. And honesty and fairness are also key. Someone was doing a reference check on me at some point a few years back, and people said that I’m extremely honest and fair, and that was one of the greatest compliments somebody could give me, because those are really core to being a great leader.

Q. What else have you learned about leadership?

A. It’s important to keep things in context, whether it’s good news or bad news. Either can be very distracting to the team. I’m pretty good at keeping those in context and focusing on the task at hand. Some of the boards I’ve worked with are really good at that as well. They just don’t overreact, no matter what the news is.

Those things came naturally to me. That being said, I think being a great leader is like being a great athlete. You can start with some natural abilities, but what a shame if you’re not continuing to build on them very deliberately, and continuing to kind of push yourself out of your comfort zone, trying to understand what you’re missing, and what you can learn from other people.

Q. Any other lessons?

A. Being very good at hiring people is key. And I would say I made two mistakes in hiring. Both times they had all the right answers to the questions, amazing backgrounds, really strong résumés, but my gut just said, hmm, this doesn’t feel right. And I didn’t listen to myself, and I hired them, and it was a mistake. I couldn’t articulate what it was that didn’t feel right, which is why I think I convinced myself to hire them. But something felt less than genuine about them.

So the lesson there was, at the end of the day, even if everything seems to check out, you listen to your gut. And I’ve given that guidance to a lot of my team. If they come in and they say, “You know, something doesn’t feel right,” I say, “Don’t hire them.” Far better to pass on someone than to bring the wrong person into the team.

Q. What about lessons when you were younger?

A. I learned as an athlete — I rowed for four years in college — that you have to be present in the moment, and you can’t be distracted by something you just did that was really good, or by the fact that you’re a little bit behind in a race. You can’t focus on what’s just happened because you can’t change it. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pause and congratulate ourselves, but you have to balance that with maintaining focus on what the next steps are. You learn as an athlete to say: “Great, we won that race, but what are the things we could have done better? Because we have a race next week.”

Q. What about your parents? What kind of influence did they have?

A. Both my parents started their own businesses and built them from scratch. My father runs a pest control company, and my mom bought apartments, restored them and sold them. So a lot of our discussions around the dinner table were about solving business problems. It was just something that seemed very natural to me. It wasn’t just a job for them — they were building something that they were excited about.

Q. What are some specific business lessons you learned from your parents?

A. Probably the biggest thing I learned from my father was to focus on the customer. Talk to the customer, and if you ask them in the right way and you really listen, you will find out what you need to be successful in your business. They can give you a huge amount of guidance in pointing you to the right answer, and helping you realize something that you might have been missing. In his business, he realized that it wasn’t just about controlling the bugs. It was really about happy residents. You’re going into their apartment or home, and they wanted a technician who had a tucked-in monogrammed shirt, and a reminder the day before that they were going to be there. All of those elements were actually more important, or certainly as important, as the pest control itself. And that allowed him to build a business that has sent all of his kids to Ivy League colleges.

Q. Other mentors?

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=906c0e076c0cfcc1de661ff7ce92b190

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