September 17, 2019

Corner Office: Paul Venables: Paul Venables, on Asking for the Toughest Jobs

Q. Were you in leadership roles early on?

A. My first job managing people was when I was 16, and I was given the keys to Carvel Store No. 1587 in Stratford, Conn. I was managing people who would come back on college break to work at the ice cream shop. They were older than me, and that was tricky. I learned a lot.

But I’ve always been a guy with a lot of opinions. And with opinions often comes conviction, and you see a better way to do things. So you become vocal and you get comfortable standing up in front of people or talking to people or swaying a room to move in a certain direction.

I should point out that I’m one of seven children, and it was a zoo at my house and therefore you had to work to be heard. Not only did you have to be crafty, smart and loud, but you also had to be on your toes to convince other people to do what you wanted, especially since I was on the younger end. Learning to navigate in that household, I developed some communication skills.

Q. I’ve been struck by the number of C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed who come from large families.

A. I’m sixth out of seven, so I had five other teachers in the house. I learned certain things from my parents, but each kid had different interests, different styles, and I would learn and almost pick and choose from them — “That looks effective,” or “That’s smart.”

Q. How did you break into the industry?

A. I went to Madison Avenue to get a job, any job, in advertising. So I pounded the pavement, and at the time, you had to take typing tests at all the big agencies. I failed them all. Then I took a job at a small agency. They didn’t require typing tests, and the job I took was as the receptionist. Talk about learning people skills. You interact with absolutely everybody in the building — all the clients, all the people, all the vendors. I picked people’s brains about what they did and how they thought, and it was just a really helpful starting point.

The weird thing is right from that first job, I knew that someday I wanted my own agency. Every job I had after that, I gleaned the information I wanted, thinking: “I’m going to do that. I’m not going to do that.”

Q. Give me an example.

A. A big part of the job is motivating creative people with varied backgrounds and interests. What generally doesn’t work, or only works for a short time, is the fear-based motivation, the overt competition. Competition is healthy at some level, but when it’s presented as “Two parties are going to dance and we’re going to pick who wins,” I believe creativity is suffocated. You may get results once or twice because you lit a fire and people performed. But as an ongoing way to cultivate creativity, I think you have to make people feel like you believe in them. It’s as simple as that.

Q. What else about your culture?

A. We give out a lot of awards. We give a spousal award to the spouse or significant other who we think has put up with us monopolizing an employee’s time or sending them on a lot of travel. We’ll give them something like a weekend away and massages up in the wine country.

We also have an award where we literally give a golden commode — we call it the golden toilet award — to somebody in the trenches who is making things happen and is calm under pressure and takes care of things with dignity.

We also have an old-timers award. We’re coming up on 12 years now, but when we were six years old, we realized we had some people who had been here for five years. That’s pretty good, especially in advertising, where time is a bit like dog years. So we came up with the idea to give people this big glass beer stein boot with the five-year old-timer award emblazoned on it. It comes with a thousand-dollar bar tab at a pub around the corner, and they can spend it however they want. We suspected this would happen, but they often invite the newbies out and so you get this mixing of generations. There’s a great cross-pollination of people and values and ideas. I think we’re up to 38 old-timers by now.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

A. I was so focused on starting a company that I was maniacal about every little thing we did. In the last five years, I really focused on the fact that the secret to this thing is the culture. If I get the culture right, it will attract the right people, and they’re going to do the right kind of work.

The culture is not all foosball and Pizza Fridays. We have both and we enjoy both. But culture is about people knowing you’re there to support them, not looking over their shoulder waiting for them to fail, and that you’re there to help when they hit tough times. They can be very honest, come into your office and sit down and say, “I screwed up — help me out,” as opposed to trying to hide it.

I also want to make sure that managers know that their job is to get the people who work for them to be asking to work for them. So they can’t do that old trick of managing up to me and the partners, and being a complete jackal to the people below. They know I’m asking people constantly: “Hey, are they giving you timely feedback? Are they helpful? Are they courteous? Do they have basic human decency?” These things are important.

Q. What career advice would you give to new college grads?

A. The advertising-specific one is ask for the headaches. Find something your boss is doing that he hates doing — it’s difficult, painful, time-consuming — and say, “I’ll take that,” and make it great. Too many people ask for the choice assignments. Do the dishes really well and you’ll be a very valuable person.

The broader advice is that the only things you can control in your life are your attitude and your effort. You can’t control all the craziness of the people around you, the circumstances, the situations, the failures and successes. Give it your all and have a positive attitude. It goes a long way in the world. That’s underappreciated, I think.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Books of The Times: ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson

“He loved doing things right,” Mr. Jobs said. “He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.”

Mr. Jobs, the brilliant and protean creator whose inventions so utterly transformed the allure of technology, turned those childhood lessons into an all-purpose theory of intelligent design. He gave Mr. Isaacson a chance to play by the same rules. His story calls for a book that is clear, elegant and concise enough to qualify as an iBio. Mr. Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” does its solid best to hit that target.

As a biographer of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Isaacson knows how to explicate and celebrate genius: revered, long-dead genius. But he wrote “Steve Jobs” as its subject was mortally ill, and that is a more painful and delicate challenge. (He had access to members of the Jobs family at a difficult time.) Mr. Jobs promised not to look over Mr. Isaacson’s shoulder, and not to meddle with anything but the book’s cover. (Boy, does it look great.) And he expressed approval that the book would not be entirely flattering. But his legacy was at stake. And there were awkward questions to be asked. At the end of the volume, Mr. Jobs answers the question “What drove me?” by discussing himself in the past tense.

Mr. Isaacson treats “Steve Jobs” as the biography of record, which means that it is a strange book to read so soon after its subject’s death. Some of it is an essential Silicon Valley chronicle, compiling stories well known to tech aficionados but interesting to a broad audience. Some of it is already quaint. Mr. Jobs’s first job was at Atari, and it involved the game Pong. (“If you’re under 30, ask your parents,” Mr. Isaacson writes.) Some, like an account of the release of the iPad 2, is so recent that it is hard to appreciate yet, even if Mr. Isaacson says the device comes to life “like the face of a tickled baby.” 

And some is definitely intended for future generations. “Indeed,” Mr. Isaacson writes, “its success came not just from the beauty of the hardware but from the applications, known as apps, that allowed you to indulge in all sorts of delightful activities.” One that he mentions, which will be as quaint as Pong some day, features the use of a slingshot to shoot down angry birds.

So “Steve Jobs,” an account of its subject’s 56 years (he died on Oct. 5), must reach across time in more ways than one. And it does, in a well-ordered, if not streamlined, fashion. It begins with a portrait of the young Mr. Jobs, rebellious toward the parents who raised him and scornful of the ones who gave him up for adoption. (“They were my sperm and egg bank,” he says.)

Although Mr. Isaacson is not analytical about his subject’s volatile personality (the word “obnoxious” figures in the book frequently), he raises the question of whether feelings of abandonment in childhood made him fanatically controlling and manipulative as an adult. Fortunately, that glib question stays unanswered.

Mr. Jobs, who founded Apple with Stephen Wozniak and Ronald Wayne in 1976, began his career as a seemingly contradictory blend of hippie truth seeker and tech-savvy hothead.

“His Zen awareness was not accompanied by an excess of calm, peace of mind or interpersonal mellowness,” Mr. Isaacson says. “He could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed,” he also writes. But Mr. Jobs valued simplicity, utility and beauty in ways that would shape his creative imagination. And the book maintains that those goals would not have been achievable in the great parade of Apple creations without that mean streak.

Mr. Isaacson takes his readers back to the time when laptops, desktops and windows were metaphors, not everyday realities. His book ticks off how each of the Apple innovations that we now take for granted first occurred to Mr. Jobs or his creative team. “Steve Jobs” means to be the authoritative book about those achievements, and it also follows Mr. Jobs into the wilderness (and to NeXT and Pixar) after his first stint at Apple, which ended in 1985.

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