Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Bob Brennan, president and C.E.O. of Iron Mountain, which provides information storage, protection and management services and is based in Boston. He suggests, “The biggest organizational challenge I’ve seen in companies is defensiveness.”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Defensive? It Leads to Destructive
Bryant: What’s your approach to leadership?
Brennan: I think businesses are going through this transformation where command-and-control leadership is dead. The problem is, a lot of managers haven’t been told this. They are very much in a command-and-control reflex. That’s what they’ve learned. That’s what they’ve seen in movies. That’s what they’ve seen in their careers. And maybe they’ve performed well when they’re asked for specific outcomes.
So it’s important for us to establish a framework that says, “Here’s how we want you to behave.” For instance, you need to seek constructive feedback on your performance from the people who report to you. We’re not talking about 360 reviews once a year. It should be a constant dialogue in one-on-ones about how can I improve my game? If I’m not seeking that feedback, I’m creating an unsafe environment for you.
Bryant: Unsafe? That’s a strong word.
Brennan: It is, in fact, unsafe, if I’m reviewing your work, but I’m not asking you to collaborate with me and review mine. That would presume that I’m fine with the way I’m performing, yet I’ve been sitting here offering constructive or destructive feedback on your performance. There’s no symmetry to the conversation. Does that feel safe to you? I don’t think that’s safe.
Bryant: Talk more about the kind of culture you try to create.
Brennan: We have a set of core values that are important to us, and they’re mostly around candor — really to generate speed, action orientation and a sense of security. We’ve got 21,000 people, so we have a lot of people who are managing others. What are the traits we want in leaders? How do we help them understand in very descriptive terms what we expect on a day-to-day basis? That’s different from driving clarity around outcomes, or how they link to broader strategy.
We want managers to display confidence and optimism, and to give constructive feedback, never destructive. And managers need to seek constructive feedback themselves.
Bryant: This is an important theme to you. How did it come about?
Brennan: I remember having my first 360 review early in my career. I was rated really high in holding people accountable, and really bad at setting clear expectations. You get that feedback and you step back and say, well, that sounds like a jerk — I’m going to be unclear with you as to what I expect, but I’m going to hold you accountable for it. And it’s not necessarily jerks who do that. They’re people who don’t have a sense for making sure that the outcomes they’re asking people to manage are specific and objective. And then how do I talk to you about performance against those things? But if they’re subjective and unclear, again, it’s unsafe. It’s whether or not I like you. You need to describe to people how, specifically, you want them to act.
We also have a thing called Open Door, which essentially means that anybody can escalate a given issue that they think is being handled unfairly at any time — to the presidents of the different divisions, or ultimately to my door.
Bryant: What are some other things you do to set the tone at your company?
Brennan: I ask this question a lot in different situations: What do you recommend we do? You can get a real sense for who’s invested in moving the company forward, and who’s watching the company go by, with that very simple question.
Brennan: People lay out problems all the time. If they’ve thought through what should be done from here, then you’ve got somebody who’s in the game, who wants to move, and you can unlock that potential. Bystander apathy or the power of observation, in and of itself, is not very valuable. There are amazingly eloquent diagnosticians throughout the business world. They can break down a problem and say, “Here’s your problem.” But it’s prescriptions that matter. So how do we move from here, and what specifically do you recommend?
The other reason I ask that question is to test for open-mindedness, because open-mindedness is what allows people to keep learning, to learn on the fly. I see people who have a very black-and-white view of things and are very closed-minded in their approach. There is a bright line of distinction for me with closed-minded or open-minded people.
Bryant: So how do you hire? What questions do you ask?
Brennan: I want to know how willing people are to really talk about themselves. So if I ask you, “What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?” you might bristle at that, or you might be very curious about it, or you’ll just literally open up to me. And obviously if you bristle at that, it’s too vulnerable an environment for you.
Are they willing to talk about things that they had been through, and how would they go through them now? What are their deepest regrets? Are they going to answer it in a very narrow way, or are they going to think about it more broadly and more thoughtfully? What are the relationships that they treasure the most, and the ones that they wish that they could go back and kind of fix?
The body language changes when you ask those questions, and people have to make a decision. Am I going to open up to this guy? Because it’s clear to them that I’m not going to go down a path of asking them why they chose Wharton. I don’t much care. I want to know what makes you go. And how willing are you to tell me that?
Bryant: So what if somebody says: “I’m just interviewing for a job. Why are you asking me this stuff?”
Brennan: Because we’re a services business. How do you best take care of your customers and how do you best take care of your people? And the best way to take care of people is to have a very open environment where they can collaborate.
The biggest organizational challenge I’ve seen in small, medium and large companies is this issue of defensiveness. I’m mowing your grass, and maybe I’m making you defensive through my line of inquiry, or because what I’m doing overlaps with what you do. It creates defensiveness in the system, and it’s a natural reptilian kind of response. That defensiveness is what over-amps corporate cultures. So you try to get defensiveness out of the system so that people are focused on achieving, learning and bonding.
And that doesn’t mean that we have to go out to dinner, or go bowling. The point is, can I really take an interest in you, and you in me, because it’s meant to drive out the defensiveness that’s part of so many conversations. People want to achieve. People want to learn. Generally, people are driven to do pretty constructive things. People really want to bond, but there can be so many defense mechanisms in a corporate environment. So I try to break that down as we’re bringing people into the corporation, so that they feel they’re in a safe environment.
And you’ll get a lot more from people on the question of “What do you recommend?” if they feel safe about describing what they think is possible, as opposed to what they think might be the answer you’re looking for. And they’re only going to do that if they see you and your team openly struggle with some issues, and not gloss over some mistakes, and describe the realities that we face with confidence, with constructiveness. So what if somebody says: “I’m just interviewing for a job. Why are you asking me this stuff?”
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the Sunday Business section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Katherine Bell for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.
Ken Hicks, the CEO of Foot Locker, formerly the president and chief merchandising officer of J.C. Penney’s, graduated from the United States Military Academy and spent six years in the army just after the Vietnam War. HBR talked to Ken about how his time as a young officer prepared him for a career as a retail executive.
Bell: Tell me about a couple of things you learned from your military experience that have made you a more effective CEO.
Hicks: When I took over my artillery battery, at age 25, I could shoot a cannon better than any of my section chiefs. And I had six guns. The only problem is, I could only shoot one gun at a time. I realized that what I had to do was train my section chiefs to be better cannoneers than I was. Because shooting 18% of the battery isn’t going to be effective. And my job really wasn’t to shoot a cannon, it was to develop an entire artillery battery.
So I learned that you’re very dependent on your people to be their best. You train and develop and motivate them. People think in the army that you tell somebody to do something and they do it, and that’s far from the truth. They actually have more options and pressures that can be very intense. Think about it — if somebody in Afghanistan screws up, they get sent back home. If they don’t, they stay in combat.
To be a successful leader, you have to understand what skills are required and be competent at them, and you also have to have confidence. Sometimes people mistake confidence for leadership, or competence for leadership, but it takes both of them together.
Bell: Do you see any connections between how the military and the retail industry operate?
Hicks: In retail and the military, you’re very dependent on the people at the front or the selling floor. You realize how important the sale associate is. It’s the same thing in the army; you’re very dependent on your privates and specialists, and so you talk with them and learn from them. Six or eight months after I’d left J.C. Penney’s, I was in a Penney’s store looking at some merchandise, and an associate recognized me and came running across the floor to say hello. She remembered me because I’d treated her with respect and listened to her. That’s what you have to do to inspire people. The people on the selling floor, just like the cannoneers, the gunners, and the infantry, are the ones who make everything happen.
Bell: How do you stay connected to frontline employees, besides going out and talking to them?
Hicks: Recognition. I send out a little note card every month to the employees who perform best, thanking them for doing a good job. If you think about the military, people are willing to give their life in defense of the country and their friends, and what do they get for it? They get a ribbon on their chest. Everybody thinks recognition needs to be a big bonus or a promotion. It really doesn’t. What you learn in the military is people do their work because they trust and respect you and they want you to be able to recognize them for that. I send out these cards and the next thing you know, they frame them and put them on the wall in their stores or their cubicles because it’s important to them.
Bell: What else has made you successful as a senior leader?
Hicks: Learning and studying each situation. When I was in the Army I had the opportunity to have lunch a couple of times with Omar Bradley. Here’s a guy from history who led troops across Europe and commanded the war in Korea, and people would always ask him, who is the greatest general you served with? And he would say the greatest field commander was Patton. That’s because Patton did his homework, he studied the map, and he knew where the enemy was going to be and where they needed to go. It’s the same in business. You have to study the numbers and constantly try to understand where the opportunities are and how you can go after them. I’ve got on my wall in my conference room the principles of war. And each of the principles of war apply in business.
For example, mass: don’t spread your troops out, don’t spread your resources too thin. Unity of command: know who’s in charge, who has responsibility and who doesn’t. Security: don’t be surprised, study the competition, know what’s happening. I worked with a retailer who said, “Retail is war without blood.” You study and spend a lot of time understanding the competition’s situation. You learn not to overreact.
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Katherine Bell is deputy editor at Harvard Business Digital, the online division of Harvard Business
Publishing. She has worked as online managing editor at America’s Test Kitchen, as web director for British celebrity chef and cookbook author Delia Smith, and as director of content at PlanetOut.com in San Francisco. Her short stories have appeared in Ploughshares and Best American Short Stories 2006 and she is the author of the book Quilting for Peace. She’s also taught at the University of Iowa and in Lesley University’s MFA program.
Is There An Innovation Deficit For The Independent Worker? – A Question Prompted by Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From
Where do ideas come from? – cities, and the conference table, reading books; and, oh yes, the long walk. This is the inescapable message of the terrific book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. I think it may be the best book I’ve read this year. (I may change my mind as I look back over the entire year). Last night, I found this blog post by Seth Godin: Where do ideas come from? He doesn’t reference the book by Johnson, but there is a lot of agreement between the two.
Here’s a great quote from the book:
The ground zero of innovation is not the microscope. It was the conference table… The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.
As I read the book, I realized that the normal interaction between people, with as wide and diverse a circle as possible, with constant conversation and interaction, really does lead to the kinds of “slow hunches” that lead to great new ideas.
And therein lies the problem.
First, a personal comment. Though I once worked selling clothing at a J. C. Penney store (in my college days), I have never worked in a large company. I have taught at a few colleges, mainly in the Dallas Community College District. But always as an adjunct, which means I arrive just in time to teach, and leave pretty quickly after that. Which means that I have never had the opportunity to interact in the ways described in this book, within a big company.
Thus, I work, basically alone. I have a home office, I read and think and write alone, and then go speak. That’s about it. The conference table is practically a foreign experience for me. (I did spend more than a few years attending the equivalent of church board meetings – but they frequently felt like mild levels of inquisitions, not idea generating laboratories).
I suspect that I am not the only one. The number of independent workers is growing. And though we can network with gusto, attending networking events is not the same as the daily cross-pollination that is described in this book as so very valuable.
There is much being written about the USA slipping down the innovation rankings on the world stage. “The United States is losing its distinction as an innovation leader,” was the conclusion in The Innovation Imperative in Manufacturing: How the United States Can Restore Its Edge. (read the report here).
And there is much being written about the increasing number of “independent workers.” Here is an excerpt from Why Is Washington Ignoring the Freelance Economy?, from The Atlantic. Here’s a key excerpt:
The data speak for itself: between 1995 and 2005 (i.e. before the recession), the number of independent workers in this country grew by 27 percent. In New York City alone, from 1975 to 2007 (again, pre-recession), 2/3 of job growth was due to self-employment. And let’s look at Nebraska: the state boasts among the lowest unemployment rates in the country (4.8%!) by retaining a diverse employment pool with significant numbers of independent workers.
Thus, more and more people are working alone. And though there are many associated problems (health care; benefits…), there may be a “hidden” problem that is as great as any other. Does the independent worker face an innovation deficit?
More people working alone. Fewer conference tables. A decline in innovation. I wonder — is there a connection?
Here is an article written by Joanne Cleaver for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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In most doctoral programs in engineering and the physical sciences, you can count the number of women on one hand. With one finger, even.
While the National Science Foundation and its cohorts labor mightily on big-picture solutions, one breakout project has just delivered a set of tools useful for all women in male-dominated fields.
CareerWise aims to equip women with context and practical strategies for dealing with everyday annoyances, says Bianca Bernstein, the Principal Investigator for the Careerwise Research Program. (She’s also a psychologist, for for purposes of this project, gets a CSI-like title.)
It will take a long, long, long time for programs to change the embedded cultures that not only channel more men into these categories but perpetuate the cultures that many women find inhospitable. Officially, everybody wants more women in these programs. But then they run into situations like that faced by one working mom: she walked into an evening classroom only to be asked by the professor, in front of the group, if she shouldn’t be home feeding dinner to her kids.
“My interest as a psychologist is that, while the big picture changes, things still happen to individual women that create obstacles on a moment by moment basis,” Bernstein told me in an interview yesterday. “We wanted to see if we could develop something that would provide a resource to women so they can learn how to react better in the moment and also to prepare them for the future, given that the assumption that whatever is unpleasant will likely follow them into the future. ”
Here’s what she figured out that is useful for most workplaces: the stories of women’s experiences help women currently facing career challenges and their bosses.
Women’s stories, told through first-person videos, are a central component of CareerWise. The intention is that women entering the sciences, or wondering if it is worthwhile to hang in there in an uncomfortable, tiresome environment, will glean useful strategies and also absorb the message that they are not alone – present circumstances notwithstanding.
But Bernstein has found that professors, program leaders and department heads find these videos an eye-opener, too. They often don’t know what they don’t know. When they hear the first-hand stories of women in programs like theirs, and recognize the culture and characteristics of their own departments in those stories, they suddenly get it.
This is a new twist on the very tired concept of diversity training, which is so hackneyed it has become a self-parody. Why not let women speak for themselves? Their experiences are powerful in the first person.
Narrative documentary is more powerful than a lecture. Personal testimony is always more compelling than yet another set of rules.
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Since 1981, Joanne Cleaver has been reporting on all aspects of business for national and regional newspapers, magazines and websites. Numerous magazine and industry “best employers for women” lists use the equity index she developed to rank companies according to the presence (or not) of women in their executive ranks. She also leads the research firm Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., where her team measures and supports the advancement of women in accounting, cable, finance and other industries. Yes, she has an opinion: that when women fully engage in all business operations, companies will make more money in more ways.