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 Steve Hannah, chief executive of The Onion. To read Bryant’s complete interview and the interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Bryant: When you’re introduced at a party as Steve Hannah from The Onion, do people expect you to be funny?
Hannah: All the time. People say, “This guy is going to be a laugh a minute.” Sadly, it’s a very disappointing evening for them. I am the hired help. At The Onion, the creatives are absolutely the center of gravity.
Bryant: How do you interview job candidates?
Hannah: I have two basic questions in mind: “Can you do the job, and would I enjoy spending time with you?” I want to know where you came from. I want to know how many children are in your family. I want to know where you fit in and what your role was. I want to know what your mother and your dad did, what influence they had on you. I find that, without overstepping my boundaries, most people like to talk about themselves.
Bryant: What is it you want to know?
Hannah: I want to know whether you were a kid who was entitled, whether you worked hard, whether you excelled at school, whether you held summer jobs, how hard you had to work, whether you got the jobs yourself, whether you got promoted. I want to know if you’ll work hard. I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I want people who really want to work hard. And I absolutely loathe a sense of entitlement.
Bryant: What else turns you off?
Hannah: They talk about how they were held back. They talk about how they worked for a terrible boss, and the boss did this or the boss did that.
I have no idea what makes people think this, but this happens often. People think that by telling their prospective employer that their previous employer was a complete slug, that somehow this is going to make me feel, what, sorry for them? I generally figure: Well, you didn’t work hard enough, and apparently you weren’t smart enough to figure out the system. That’s probably why you didn’t advance at your last job.
Bryant: What were the biggest influences on your leadership style?
Hannah: My dad was a World War II and D-Day veteran. He was just a tough guy, and everything I ever learned about leadership from my dad was, you know, manage tough, manage angry. Life is tough, an endless struggle. You’re entitled to nothing. My parents used to say to me, “When you’re 18 you’re on your own.” And they meant it — I was on my own. He thought: “We’ve done our best with you. Now, we’ll find out what kind of character you have.”
At the same time, my mother said, “The sun, the moon, the stars and the tides were in alignment when you were born.” You know: “You can do anything you want. You’re terrific.” And if your mother tells you this often enough, you start to believe it. I think that if you’re going to run something, you have to have self-confidence. She gave it to me.
It doesn’t mean you think you’re going to get everything right. It doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than everybody else. It means that essentially you believe that you can get the job done. So my mother kind of told me, “You can get the job done.”
Meanwhile, I got my father’s view of the world that life is tough and you have to work hard to get what you want, to take care of your family, make sure your kids are provided for and be good to your friends. It’s not that complicated.
Bryant: Any other big influences on you lead people?
Hannah: About 10 years ago, I met a remarkable man, Lt. Gen. Harold Moore. Hal Moore co-wrote a book called, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young. It was a book about the very first battle between the United States Army Rangers and North Vietnamese regulars, in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in November 1965. It’s a spectacular book.
He had a favorite phrase: “I’ll always be the first person on the battlefield, my boots will be the first boots on it, and I’ll be the last person off. I’ll never leave a body.” And he never did. It was incredibly humbling just to be in his presence.
They made a movie out of the book, and Mel Gibson played Hal. The movie was called We Were Soldiers.
We met through a friend, and Hal said, “I want to write a book about leadership.” So we began this book project. Over the next year, I interviewed Hal with a tape recorder for hours and hours. Midway through the project, Hal got an offer to write a sequel to his book and I was offered The Onion job. But during our time together, he taught me a lot about how you manage people and what you owe the people you manage.
Bryant: What are the top three or five lessons?
Hannah: In no particular order? He taught me that you never, ever do anything to deprive a human being of their dignity in work, in life. Always praise in public and criticize in private. You might be tempted, for example, when you’re letting someone go, to say something that would diminish the value of their work. Don’t ever do that.
And he taught me that when you’re faced with something that’s really difficult and you think you’re at the end of your tether, there’s always one more thing you can do to influence the outcome of this situation. And then after that there’s one more thing. The number or possible options is only limited by your imagination. Hal often said, “Imagination is enormously important, enormously important.”
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To read several of Bryant’s more recent interviews of other executives, please click here.