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 Kenneth Feld, chairman and C.E.O. of Feld Entertainment, which produces Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice and other shows. To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Bryant: Running a circus must be pretty complicated.
Feld: It is the most complex entity on the planet. Each show may have people from 14 different cultures. We’re their employer but we’re also the landlord. We know the best and worst about everyone because they’re living on our milelong train. I think that understanding people allows you to understand everything, because you can always learn process. The only way you learn about people is to spend time with them and you have to show everyone respect.
Here’s an example: Every year when we do a new show, we bring down to Florida 130 performers who never, for the most part, knew each other beforehand. About 10 days into our rehearsal period, we have Act Night, where everybody performs their act uncut, untouched by us, for every other performer.
That is the true test of respect. No matter what anyone thought of a person, if they’re doing an act that is so unbelievable and death-defying, the respect level goes way up. You have earned the respect strictly by what you have done — it’s very pure. It is an absolute lesson in earning respect. Respect does not come from a title. It comes from what you do, and how you do it, and how you work with people, and I think that’s a difficult thing for people to understand.
I may say, “You’re hired in such and such a position and you have this title,” but that means nothing. You can be the smartest person in the world and it means nothing if you don’t earn the respect of the people you have to interact with. I’ve tried to teach that to people — that if you come in and act like you know everything, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, people aren’t going to hear your good ideas.
Bryant: How do you hire for a position at the corporate office, a direct report?
Feld: I’ll give you the example of when I hired Mike Shannon, who’s president and chief operating officer. I had been looking for probably 10 months and I walked into the search firm’s office and the guy was sitting there. He was in transition from one position and they said, “Oh, why don’t you talk to this guy?”
So I sat down and talked to him. He said to me, “I don’t know anything about putting on a circus.” I said, “I wouldn’t expect that you would.”
He said: “I don’t know anything about the entertainment business. I’ve never been in the entertainment business before. What I can tell you is, I love people. I love to mentor people. I love to get the most out of people and I’ll never lie to you. You’ll get the good, the bad, and the ugly.” And about a week later, I hired him and that was it.
There’s a trust I have with him that is the same kind of trust that I had with my father and that I have with my daughters, and I think that’s the hardest thing to find — people you can absolutely trust. I don’t need people to give me good news. I mean they’re waiting in line to give you good news. I want people who can deliver the unvarnished truth to me so that I can make proper decisions. There’s no good way to deliver bad news, that’s for sure, so you just want somebody that’s straight out — “Here’s what this situation is.”
Bryant: What about other people where it’s more of a traditional interview?
Feld: For executives, as opposed to directors and creative people, I’ll read their résumé, and then I’ll say to them: “You’re really smart, but do you know how to make money? Tell me some things about how you made money.” And then they have to really think because the party line doesn’t work. It gets beyond just the typical corporate stuff. That’s really a key thing because you want people to really think like that. It’s hard to find today.
Bryant: Do some people have trouble answering?
Feld: Let me tell you, nothing kills an interview like that. So they have to stop and think. “What do you mean?” And I’ll say: “Like when you were a kid growing up, did you have a lemonade stand? What have you done?” And then I try to take them through their career, because I need them to understand that if they’re going to come to work for our company, it’s great that you have all this knowledge, but how can you translate that into something that is absolutely going to make money for us? Can they think unconventionally? Can they think outside the box?
Bryant: What quality are you testing for with this question of, “Tell me how you’ve made money.”?
Feld: It’s a drive I’m looking for. I don’t need to hire college professors in my business. We’re grinding it out and I need to know that the people that we have involved in the business are focused on sales, on the bottom line.
How do you make money? How do you take this crazy idea that somebody has and how can you monetize it? And if you’ve done that before in a couple of situations, then there’s a good chance you’re going to be very successful in our company because we’re demanding. We’re out there day in and day out.
Bryant: If you could ask somebody only two or three questions to know whether you might hire them, what would they be?
Feld: It depends, obviously, on the position. But one is: “What is your style of working with people who report to you? How do you work with them? What do you do on a daily basis?” That’s important because you can put the wrong person in a job, and you can take a great department and just decimate it in no time with the wrong person.