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 Robert A. Eckert, the chairman and C.E.O. of Mattel, who observes, “I’m looking for fit, personality, values” when describing how he conducts job interviews. He adds: “I don’t really care how many places you worked at or what grades you got.”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
* * *
Bryant: Tell me about some early influences for you. What about your parents?
Eckert: My father was a single-practitioner dentist in suburban Chicago, and a World War II veteran. My mother started out working for him, and then she looked after the kids full-time.
Bryant: How did they influence the way you lead today?
Eckert: My parents were both very positive people, and never complained about anything. My father died a couple years ago at age 91. When we knew the end was near, I’d go see him all the time. And he’d want to know: “Bobby, how’s it going? Enough about me. Tell me about you.” He was interested in other people. And my wife has always said about him and me that we are “other directed.” Being other directed has always worked for me.
Bryant: What were some other early lessons?
Eckert: Kraft Foods was my first company out of school. I was a 21-year-old trained M.B.A. type, and I’m going to work for this fellow who’s in his 50s and worked his way up the ladder a lot differently than I was going to work my way up the ladder. And I showed him a lot of respect. I never walked in with an attitude of, “I’m an M.B.A., I’m Bob, let me tell you what to do.” And he taught me so much about the company. He’d worked there for decades, and he was open and willing to share a lot with me, and I would take that in.
I also met the old-timers for breakfast every morning in the cafeteria. I’d listen to their stories and engage with them, and they allowed me to be a part of their little club. I learned a lot about the company and how it worked and how they worked.
Bryant: What can you tell me about your approach to leadership now?
Eckert: Trust is an important thing. The way we run the company is, I have a lot of confidence in you, I have a lot of trust in you, we’re transparent — we share where we are and where we’re going and what’s going on. And that openness has always worked well for me. I come with a positive attitude that you come to work and you want to do the best job you can. That’s why you’re here. You could work some other place, you could do some other thing, but you work here. I want to help you succeed.
I’ve worked for one or two people in my career or seen one or two where it’s the opposite. They think you’re here to mess up, and it’s their job to prevent you from messing up. That’s not very motivating to good people.
Bryant: What kind of feedback have you received over the years about the way you manage?
Eckert: I’m not a quick trigger. If my bias is, if you’re here to do a good job and you’re a good person, then I’m here to help you. I spend an awful lot of energy, if you’re underperforming, trying to help you figure out how to perform better, when others might more quickly say we’ve got to move on. And being slow with the trigger hasn’t been productive for me. I recognize it. It’s still a flaw. Sometimes people really do turn it around and perform better, but it doesn’t always work out that way. And with the benefit of hindsight after letting someone go, you say, I should have done that last year.
Bryant: Let’s talk about hiring. If you were interviewing me, how would that conversation go?
Eckert: There are two things I look for. First, I’ll find out from you, if you’ve reached a certain level in business, whether you and I have a common acquaintance. It may take me a while to find out who it is, but I’m going to know a couple of people who you know. So before you’re hired, I’m going to call those people, and I’m going to hear them talk to me about you. That works well for me.
The second thing I do is look for values. I’ll take you back to when I was hired at Kraft in 1977. I met with Keith Ridgway, who was the C.E.O., and we’re having a chat. We’re chatting about how he was a World War II pilot, and that my father was in World War II, too, and we’re chatting about things that I found terribly irrelevant. I wasn’t convinced he had read my résumé. I worked hard and got good grades, but he didn’t seem that interested in that. I walked out of that interview and I didn’t feel good about it. It was just weird.
Then fast-forward 15 years, the kids are sitting on the couch, and I’m asking them about their families, and how they grew up, and who’s important in their life and how did they decide to do this and that. I’m looking for fit, personality, values. Is this the kind of person we want around here? Will they work well? And I don’t really care how many places you worked at or what grades you got or who your favorite teacher was or what your favorite class was. It’s about what kind of people they are.
Bryant: And what are you listening for?
Eckert: Stories. You’re interviewing me now, but we could just as soon be having a job interview. You’re going to walk away from our session right now with a perspective about me. And it’s not focused on my career accomplishments, like what I did in 1987 when I was the vice president of marketing in the grocery division. It’s a conversation about a person.
* * *
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 SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.
Here is an article written by Penelope Trunk 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.
* * *
It’s amazing that people admit to being perfectionists. To me, it’s a disorder, not unlike obsessive-compulsive disorder. And like obsessive-compulsive disorder, perfectionism messes you up.
It also messes up the people around you, because perfectionists lose perspective as they get more and more mired in details.
We can never achieve perfection — any of us. Yet so many people keep trying to reach this elusive goal and they drive themselves crazy in the process. So cut it out. Accept that it’s okay to do a mediocre job on a certain percentage of your work. If you need convincing, consider this: Perfectionism is a risk factor for depression. No kidding. Sydney Blatt, psychologist at Yale University, finds that perfectionists are more likely to kill themselves
than regular, mediocre-performing people.
Here are three steps to take to avoid the perfectionism trap:
1. Allow yourself to be wrong in front of others.
Try having an opinion that is wrong. Tell a story that is stupid. Wear clothes that don’t match. Turn in a project that you can’t fully explain. People will not think you’re stupid. People will think you spent your time and energy doing something else — something that meant more to you.
We all have many competing demands. We do not presume to know other people’s demands. But we are all sure of one thing: Our work is often not the most important thing on our plate.
Also, you’ll notice that people are not particularly vested in you being right. They don’t care if you’re right or wrong in what you do or say. They just want you to get stuff done well enough that they can do what they need to do. And this is usually a far cry from perfection.
The other huge problem with perfectionism is that people stop learning when they’re constantly afraid of being wrong. We learn by making mistakes. The only way we understand ourselves is to test our limits. If we don’t want anyone to know we make mistakes, which is how perfectionists tend to behave, we are actually hiding our true selves.
2. Being hard working is not the same as being a perfectionist.
You can be a hard-working person and cut corners. In fact, it’s often a requirement: Smart people cut corners. The art of being a star performer is knowing which corners to cut.
Focus on your goals, and be honest with yourself about whether your goals require perfectionism along the way. A lot of times perfectionism is a way to avoid focusing on goals. Real goals, after all, almost always require a little bit of luck and assistance along the way — factors the perfectionists tend to dismiss.
3. Spend your energy making yourself likable.
And, Casciaro found that if someone does not like you, he or she will decide you’re incompetent whether you are or not. Sad, yes, but the converse is true as well. You can do a poor job and no one will notice if they like you. And, newsflash: In many instances, this is good for business — teams do better work when everyone on the team likes everyone else. So don’t worry about doing a perfect job. Do a decent job, but leave yourself enough time to manage your relationships at work. Take lunch. Participate in office politics, because office politics is really about being nice
— which, frankly, is more healthy and certainly more achievable than being perfect.
* * *
I highly recommend Tal Ben-Shahar‘s book, The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life, in which he explains that many people fail to lead a full and fulfilling life because they do not allow themselves “to experience the full range of human emotions” and thus limit their capacity for happiness. “They need to give themselves the permission to be human…to ground [their] dreams in reality and appreciate [their] accomplishments.” Throughout the book, Ben-Shahar refers to negative perfectionism simply as perfectionism and to positive perfectionism as optimalism. “The key difference between the Perfectionist an the Optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it…as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success.”
Penelope Trunk is the founder of three startups, most recently Brazen Careerist, a professional social network for young people. Previously she worked in marketing at Fortune 500 companies including Mattel and Hyundai. Her blog about career advice, blog.penelopetrunk.com, receives half a million visits a month and is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. She frequently appears as a workplace commentator on CNN, 20/20 and FOX News. She’s also the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, a bestselling career advice book for Generation Y.
As I began to read this book, I was reminded of Thomas Edison’s observation, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Also of a statement by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “I don’t care a fig about simplicity on this side of complexity but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Now consider what Govindarajan and Trimble observe in their Introduction: “There is a Rainier-like summit in the innovation journey. It is the moment a company says yes! That’s a great idea! Let’s take it to the market! Let’s make it happen!…Getting to the summit can seem like the fulfillment of a dream, but it is not enough. After the summit comes the other side of innovation – the challenges beyond the idea. Execution. Like Rainier, it is the other side of the adventure that is actually more difficult. It is the other side that holds hidden dangers. But because the summit itself has such strong appeal, the other side is usually an afterthought. It is humdrum. It is behind the scenes. It is dirty work.”
The “journey” metaphor is appropriate because Govindarajan and Trimble embarked (like Odysseus) on a ten-year journey during which they completed research on a number of well-known and well-respected companies (e.g. Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, The New York Times, and Unilever) and interviewed dozens of senior-level executives at dozens of other companies that include Aetna, Allstate, Ben & Jerry’s, BMW, Citigroup, GE, Harley-Davidson, Mattel, Procter & Gamble, Sony, and Timberland. What they learned about what works, what doesn’t, and why during efforts to reach “the other side of innovation” is shared in abundance in this book.
The challenge for leaders of innovation initiatives (whatever the scope and nature of those initiatives may be) must help their organization to achieve and then sustain an appropriate balance between “foundational” operations that are on-going and repeatable, and, experimental operations that non-routine and often disruptive. To help prepare leaders to meet this challenge, Govindarajan and Trimble explain how to
• Build a dedicated team
• Define a partnership of the team with the “Performance Engine”
• Obtain support from senior-level executives
• Anticipate and prepare for resistance and conflict
• Achieve buy-in
• Devise and conduct a “disciplined” experiment
• o Focus on learning when evaluating results
• Achieve transparency through effective communication
• Create a framework for accountability
These are worthy objectives, to be sure, but by no means easy to achieve. It is important to keep in mind that all organizations are works in progress and the same is true of those who are involved with them. Credit Govindarajan and Trimble with providing a wealth of valuable information, accompanied by rock-solid advice that isanchored in real-world situations. It is not necessary but, in my opinion, highly desirable to read their earlier book, Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution, first before reading this one.