September 22, 2023

Corner Office: Kon Leong of ZL Technologies, on Encouraging Creativity

Q. Tell me about some important leadership lessons you’ve learned.

A. One of my early jobs was selling computer hardware. What I learned about selling was probably more valuable than my M.B.A. I had seen selling as a process just about logic. Then I realized that has nothing to do with it.

Q. What was the insight?

A. You have to present your story in their context, not yours. They don’t really care if you’re standing on top of a robot and quoting equations. If they’re in the deep part of the forest, you’ve got to talk the language of the deep forest. Salesmanship is more like a language unto itself. There is no right or wrong. It’s what you make of it, and what’s black can be gray, and what’s gray can be white. It depends on your framework. The challenge is to share the same framework so that you’re seeing the same page in the same way.

Q. How do you hire? If you were interviewing me for a job, what would you ask me?

A. I would want to know your goals for the job. Is it money? Learning? Fulfillment? What is it? I would try to figure out if our environment suits your goals. I would not try to sell you to get you to take the job. I also will ask, “How curious are you?”

Q. I imagine that most people simply say, “Very.”

A. But then I’d ask, “Outside the headlines, what were some of the most interesting things you’ve noted in the last couple of weeks, and tell me why, and what did you do about it?” That would reflect what you think is interesting, and that tells me a fair bit. If you can cite many disparate topics, that’s a step in the right direction. The point is, we’re trying to find the right fit. In a fast-changing environment, you need to learn more and more and more. There’s so much to learn, and you can’t be taught all the permutations and combinations of the answers, so you have to learn on your own. And to learn on your own, you need curiosity.

Q. What other questions?

A. I’ll ask: How willingly do you accept stuff, and how willing are you to question things? How creative are you in finding your own answers? For example, everyone knows in school that you cannot divide by zero. Why? I try to find if they’ve actually questioned things like that at any time. The point is, we’re usually handicapped by our own borders, and we will not think beyond them. I think there’s one rule of thumb in creativity: when you’re brainstorming, you have to suspend disbelief. That’s a key ingredient. There’s time enough to challenge it and poke holes, but not at the time of generation.

I’ll also change the subject to one where they have some expertise. So I’ll ask what their passions are, and then I’ll ask questions. If it’s ornithology, I’ll start talking about the evolution of birds and ask questions like, “How do you think reptiles got feathers?”

Q. What else do you look for when hiring?

A. Brains and drive. Those are the basics. Without them, it’s probably going to be a long shot. After we work through that, then it’s curiosity and attitude.

Q. How do you get at the question of attitude?

A. Are you willing to learn from your mistakes? Do you do that automatically? Are you willing to set the bar higher? Are you able to deal with failure? Can you bounce back from it?

Q. What’s your take on the standard interview question about strengths and weaknesses?

A. I never really ask about weaknesses, because it’s meaningless. I ask more about strengths, but I ask it from a different angle. I’m more interested in the answers from a more personal perspective as opposed to a professional environment. I’ll typically ask: How would you describe yourself in three words outside the work environment? And then: What do you consider your natural strength? What do you do that comes without any effort, that your peers struggle with and can’t even match? What is natural for you? Other skills emanate from that natural core. Someone once answered that question by saying, “People tend to just come and talk to me.” That really intrigued me.

Q. What’s your natural strength?

A. I can zoom in, zoom out.

Q. What’s it like to work for you day to day?

A. Certain aspects of my management style are extremely frustrating. There are many, many questions posed to me, many decisions asked of me. I try not to make them. I respond with more questions, because I want them to find the answer. It can be very frustrating to my employees, but I’m trying to get others to scale up and learn. They understand and accept my approach, but many still feel frustrated because they just want the answer.

Q. What is your advice for students who are graduating from college?

A. I tell all of them two things, and that goes for both undergrads and M.B.A.’s. First, experiment. If you’re 22 years old as an undergrad or if you’re 27 just out of your M.B.A., in both cases you’ve got a clean slate. You can go in any direction. So experiment. That can also mean taking a lower salary in order to experiment.

This is all in hindsight, of course, because I didn’t do it. I went to Wall Street after getting my M.B.A. If you experiment in different jobs and functions in those two or three years out of school, you will have a much better shot at finding your sweet spot. And the sweet spot is the intersection between what you’re really good at and what you love to do. If you can find that intersection, you are set. A lot of people would kill for that because, at 65, they’re retiring and never found it.

So don’t put so much emphasis on initial compensation. Don’t listen to all the harping from the family. Try to find your sweet spot and, once you find it, invest in that. You don’t want to get degrees just to do work you don’t really like. If you’re miserable, even if you make a lot of money, that’s still 40 years of your life.

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McDonald’s Trims Its Happy Meal

The company announced Tuesday that it would more than halve the amount of French fries and add fruit to its popular children’s meal in an effort to reduce the overall calorie count by 20 percent.

But McDonald’s appeasement only went so far. A toy will still come with each Happy Meal despite criticism that the trinkets, often with tie-ins to movies like “Toy Story,” foster a powerful connection between children and the often calorie-laden meals.

While Happy Meals account for less than 10 percent of all McDonald’s sales, the signature box and its contents — first introduced in 1979 — have become a favorite target in recent years. Lawmakers and consumers have rallied around breaking that childhood link between toys and fast food, with the efforts increasing as Michelle Obama and national public health officials point to the estimated 17 percent rate of obesity among the nation’s youths.

San Francisco, for example, has banned the inclusion of toys in children’s meals unless certain nutritional requirements are met. A New York City councilman is proposing a similar law.

Other restaurant chains have gone further than McDonald’s in acceding to calls for improving the fare on children’s menus and eliminating marketing appeals. In June, Jack in the Box announced the end of toys in its children’s meals, and this month, Burger King, IHOP and more than a dozen other restaurant chains backed an effort led by the National Restaurant Association to serve and promote healthier options for youngsters.

“McDonald’s is not giving the whole loaf, but it is giving a half or two thirds of a loaf,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is representing a woman in California who is suing McDonald’s for including toys in its Happy Meals. “This is an important step in the right direction.”

McDonald’s made it clear that it was changing the composition of Happy Meals in response to parental and consumer pressure. It also pledged to reduce the sodium content in all of its foods by 15 percent, with the exceptions of soda and desserts. It set a deadline of 2015 for limiting salt, and said it would spend the rest of this decade cutting back on sugars, saturated fats and calories and making adjustments to portion sizes.

The new Happy Meals will be introduced in September and rolled out across the company’s 14,000 restaurants by April 2012. They will all include apple slices, but in a smaller amount of three to five slices than the current eight to 10 offered as an alternative. (The Apple Dippers also will be renamed after the company phases out the caramel dipping sauce, according to Tuesday’s announcement.)

“It’s a trade-off between everybody getting a small portion and 10 percent of kids getting a larger portion, which is better than nothing and maybe will accustom kids to eating fresh fruits and vegetables when they go out to eat,” Mr. Jacobson said.

Parents will have the option of requesting more fruit or, possibly at a later date, vegetables instead of fries. McDonald’s will also offer a fat-free chocolate milk option, along with the option of low-fat milk or the traditional soda. The price is not expected to change.

Today’s Happy Meal with chicken nuggets has 520 calories and 26 grams of fat, and the reconstituted version, with 1 percent milk, will total 410 calories and 19 grams of fat, according to the company.

The company said it had experimented with eliminating French fries altogether from the boxes, but that generated a lot of customer complaints. Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for the company, said that McDonald’s tests also found that parents wanted soda among the drinks available, too. “That’s what we’ve really felt all along, that ultimately, it’s a parent decision to make about their child’s well-being,” she said.

McDonald’s has long offered parents the option of asking for fruit rather than fries, although a study by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that only 11 percent took advantage of that option.

While some critics of fast-food and public health officials praised the moves (Mrs. Obama called them “positive steps”), others complained that McDonald’s did not go far enough. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and an outspoken critic of the food industry, called the changes a “sham,” in part because McDonald’s is not doing more to limit soda with the Happy Meal.

“They’re going to get huge publicity for this — an ounce less of French fries,” Dr. Nestle said. “I’m not impressed.”

In fact, when apples are added to the Happy Meal with a soda, the amount of sugar in the new package increases.

As part of an effort to provide better access to nutritional information about its foods, the company has developed its first mobile application for the public. McDonald’s executives also plan to tour the country to hear directly from consumers about their concerns.

“We are doing what we can,” Ms. Proud said. “We have to evolve with the times, and the times require us and our customers are asking us to offer more options.”

Ms. Proud said that even with the changes, the Happy Meal would not meet San Francisco’s requirements, which demand both a fruit and vegetable serving, among other things, before a company can include a toy with a child’s meal.

Public health experts expect the company to mount a legal challenge to that ordinance before it goes into effect in December, but Ms. Proud said McDonald’s was still evaluating its options.

William Neuman contributed reporting.

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BP Offers Plan to Salvage Deal with Rosneft

BP said it would agree to hand over a potentially lucrative exploration deal in the Arctic to its Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, in exchange for completing the share-swap, a move that would comply with a arbitration panel ruling released Friday. Any changes, however, must be approved by Rosneft, which did not return calls seeking comment.

BP hopes the concession ends a three-month dispute with the Russian billionaires who are its partners in TNK-BP and who had opposed the Rosneft deal.

“This is a step in the right direction,” a spokesman for BP in London, Robert Wine, said. “It shows that there is an element of agreement.” BP’s shares rose 2.5 percent on Friday in London.

The partners had blocked BP’s $7.8 billion agreement with Rosneft, which included access to exploration blocks in Russia’s Arctic that may hold billions of barrels of oil. The partners argued that the deal breached their shareholder agreement with BP and demanded to be part of any new business in Russia.

BP’s deal with Rosneft initially lifted its shares because it promised to strengthen the British oil company’s position in the world’s biggest oil producing country. It also guaranteed access to potential new oil reserves at a time of heightened competition and growing demand for oil. Handing the exploration deal to its joint venture, would make it less profitable for BP. The arrangement would cede some operational control over the venture in the Arctic Ocean to BP’s litigious Russian partners, even as BP would contribute the technology to make it possible. The share swap would still strengthen BP’s presence in Russia and could ease its participation in future oil deals.

It also highlights the significance of access to a site off Russia’s northern coast, given the lawsuits and environmental reviews stalling drilling on the other side of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and Canada.

BP’s chief executive, Robert W. Dudley, came under pressure from some investors over the last month to find a solution to the standoff with the TNK-BP partners. The dispute had angered some investors, who had accused Mr. Dudley of misreading Russian politics and of failing to steer BP clear of difficulties so shortly after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company now has to seek approval from Rosneft to make the changes, which would include putting any shares that are part of the share swap in a trust. That would mean neither company would have any direct voting rights in the other. BP and Rosneft would also have no seats on each others’ boards.

Stan Polovets, a spokesman for the group of TNK-BP shareholders, said they welcomed Friday’s development. “We see the Arctic transaction with Rosneft as a great opportunity for TNK-BP and for Russia which we would like to succeed.”

He added that the “agreement provides a good way forward for achieving these priorities and opens the way to bring BP’s valuable expertise and technology to offshore exploration in Russia.”

BP’s Russian partners previously rejected cash offers from the company and said that its agreement with BP gave TNK-BP exclusive rights to pursue opportunities in Russia.

Despite the disagreements with its partners, TNK-BP remains a financial success for BP. After contributing about $6 billion in cash and assets to the founding of the TNK-BP venture in 2003, BP has since then made $14.3 billion in dividends from it — it still retains 50 percent of the assets. The venture accounts for a quarter of BP’s production.

Andrew Kramer contributed reporting from Yekaterinburg, Russia.

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