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 Marjorie Kaplan, president of the Animal Planet and Science networks, who says true creativity comes from the ability to tolerate some confusion and to “be able, in the right moment, to land the decision and then move forward.”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Chaos and Order: How to Strike the Best Balance
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?
Kaplan: I was working at Ogilvy & Mather. I had several people working for me, some who were spectacular, and one was a lovely, lovely human being who wasn’t going to make it in the business. So it was hard.
Bryant: And so what did you do?
Kaplan: I convinced him that he wasn’t going to make it in the business.
Bryant: How old were you?
Kaplan: I was probably in my early 30s.
Bryant: How did you handle that difficult situation with that one employee?
Kaplan: I found it incredibly hard. It’s easy to be somebody’s friend. It’s harder to be their manager. And that was kind of the baptism-by-fire experience. You have somebody whom you like enormously, whom you had a real relationship with, and then you have to find the ways to say, O.K., let’s first try to make it better, to try to clear a path for that person, and then to help them make the decision not to stay. That was really hard.
Bryant: Other lessons early on?
Kaplan: Management is also lateral. In the agency business, so much of the job is about engaging with people who don’t report to you, but you have to manage them anyway. As an account manager, you were kind of the monkey-in-the-middle who had to manage everybody without having authority. So you were trained to handle those kinds of situations.
I think that, on some level, managing without authority is a life skill. People do it in other parts of their lives. The point is that you have to be true to yourself. I think the ability to manage really comes from being true to yourself, and treating people respectfully.
Bryant: What else, looking back, helped you learn how to lead?
Kaplan: I’m really, really interested in people. I like to think about what motivates them, what they care about. Look, I love work — the intensity and the competitiveness of work. But what I really like is the human interaction. So if I’m having a conversation with someone, I’m thinking: “What motivates him? What interests that person?” It’s much more interesting to me. And I’m not about demanding. I’m about challenging.
I’ve learned a lot about managing creativity from my husband, because he’s an artist. And he’s very challenging.
Bryant: As all husbands are….
Kaplan: And as artists are. He does not like to be told what to do. He barely likes to be asked to do something. But he once explained to me that the most motivating thing for him was problem-solving. And that really stuck with me. And so I view my job as presenting the most interesting problems, finding the biggest challenges.
Bryant: Talk about the culture you’re trying to create.
Kaplan: I like having a flat organization. It gives everybody access to each other and to me. And helps build relationships, but also an awareness that we’re all in there to move the business forward.
One of our stated goals — and it’s a goal that’s been in every business plan we’ve ever submitted — is to make Animal Planet the place that people within the company and outside the company want to work for and with. I want us to be the place where, when you come to work, you feel like you have the opportunity to bring your best self and you’re also challenged to bring your best self. And I’m explicit about that. We have those conversations regularly. For a team off site, I sent out a note to people to say that we need to be as fresh as we were when we were new, and as brave as we were when we had nothing to lose. And that was the focus of the day.
Bryant: What about the art of running meetings?
Kaplan: There are a couple of different things. I think I’m an energetic person. So I think sometimes a meeting just needs a certain kind of energy. You know it needs a free flow of ideas. And so some of it is that you have to be willing to invest your own energy in the room. You know, ask people to talk, challenge people to say things and just bring the body language of energy to a meeting because meetings can be pretty stultifying. So I think that’s one thing.
The other thing — which is a learned skill, because I have a tendency to think that I have great ideas and I should just say them — is I’ve learned to be quiet. So I often will not speak, particularly in creative meetings, until everybody has spoken.
Not that everybody gets to weigh in. The goal isn’t: What do you think? What do you think? What do you think? It’s to make sure there’s enough conversation, and to really listen, and then try to say, O.K., out of all these things I’ve heard, what do I think is the most important piece of information here? What insight can I glean that I can pull forward that I think can help clarify a situation?
Bryant: What else about the culture?
Kaplan: We want to make sure we’re a learning organization. We have a lot of junior people, and I noticed in some meetings that these people were smart, but that they really needed some presentation skills. I think it’s great that we’re in an organization that allows all these junior people to stand up and speak. But let’s make it interesting, and let’s let them learn.
We put together a presentation-skills class, but we did it with storytelling. So we brought in people who specialize in storytelling. And they did a skills-training, focusing on how to tell stories and how to use those stories in presentations. That’s for a couple of reasons. One is that we are a storytelling business, so I want us to be thinking about stories. A second is that I think storytelling gets you closer to yourself. I think the best presenters are people who are themselves. It gave them some skills. And so when these people are now in meetings, they’re different in meetings. Their voices are stronger. They’re braver.
I think part of management is bringing people along. I want people to feel brave about their ideas. It’s really about saying, “Bring your best self.” Bring your best self every day to work. Bring your best self to the conversation. Bring your best self to the presentation. And we will give you something back. We’re investing in you. You’re investing in us, we’re investing in you.
Bryant: So how do you hire? What questions do you ask? And what are you looking for?
Kaplan: What I have done very successfully is given people assignments before I hire them. For example, I have two senior development executives who work for me. I hired them both. I told them, look at Animal Planet. Tell me three prime-time shows you like and three shows you don’t. And tell me how you’d make them all better. And then in the second round, I asked the people I was really interested in to actually assess some shows that had come in for development and to do write-ups on them.
I’m looking for bold ideas. I want people who are looking for a challenge. I want to have a conversation with somebody where we can have a good debate about something. I want to feel like they’re going to be additive. I want people in the room who are going to tell me things I haven’t thought about before.
Bryant: And what kind of more general questions do you ask?
Kaplan: What’s the worst experience you’ve ever had and why? What’s the most frightening thing you’ve ever had to do and why? What have you done in your current job that you’re most proud of, and why? It’s about hiring people who are going to go the extra mile, who always want to do a little bit more, who ask you interesting questions about the job, who want to know what it’s going to take to grow. For me, it’s mostly energy. I also tend to hire people who lean forward rather than people who sit back.
Bryant: If you could ask job candidates only a handful of questions to decide whether you wanted to hire them, what would they be?
Kaplan: The obvious questions are: “What was your biggest accomplishment and why are you most proud of it?” And, “what was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?” And since we’re in the television business, you probably have to make sure you ask, “What’s your favorite show on television?”
I might say, “What’s the biggest, boldest, greatest idea you have for us that we’re not doing that you think would help transform our business?” Or, “What do you think we’re doing that we’re not doing well enough, and that you think you could make better?” And then I’d probably ask one about management. I’d probably ask a question like, “What’s the one thing you’re doing in your job now that you hope to never have to do again?”
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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 SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.
In this series, Bob Morris poses a key question and then responds to it with material from one or more of the business books he has reviewed for Amazon and Borders.
First of all, you probably can’t eliminate gossip in the workplace. Whatever the size and nature of an organization may be, its people have almost unlimited opportunities to interact informally face-to-face, voice-to-voice, and electronically. Gossip is inevitable.
However, there are different types of gossip such as harmless rumors suggesting that good news is imminent as well as recycled “they say” observations. What must be eliminated are the back-stabbing allegations and subversive innuendos. Someone once asked David Ogilvy how his advertising agency (Ogilvy & Mather) handled “politicians” in the New York City office. “First we laugh at them, then we ridicule them, and then we get rid of them.” Character assassins have a toxic impact within any organization. They simply cannot be tolerated.
A friend of mine (let’s call him Mike) once headed the Houston office of Ogilvy & Mather and had a very effective strategy. Whenever he encountered a rumor-mongerer (let’s call him Iago), here’s how he handled it.
Iago: “I heard that American Foods is not happy with Pruscilla’s work on the new print campaign.”
Mike: “Oh really? I didn’t know that. I better call Pruscilla right now and find out if there’s anything I can do to be of help.”
Of course, Iago immediately back-tracks…and Mike then leaves no doubt that if it ever happens again, Iago will seek career opportunities elsewhere. Because Mike knew how to manage the Ogilvy grapevine, it didn’t take long for the word to get out about such an incident.
Whenever two people approached Mike separately, complaining about the other, he brought them both together immediately. Either the issue was resolved and the air cleared or both of them received a brief and stern explanation of professional behavior.
Comments, questions, requests, or suggestions? Please share them. They will be most welcome and I thank you for them. Best regards, Bob