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 Annette Catino, president and C.E.O. of QualCare Inc., an alternative employer health insurance plan based in Piscataway, N.J. She says business ties are built on the golf course, and that cooking a meal with other managers helps build a team.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
Photo CreditLibrado Romero/The New York Times
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Mixing Golf and Ravioli With Business
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?
Catino: I was 16, and I was a pharmacy technician. It was pretty simple work back in the ’70s. You had to be able to read the doctor’s handwriting, pull the drugs off the shelf and count the pills. And I did that so well that they made me the manager of all of the evening and weekend technicians.
Bryant: Was that an easy transition for you?
Catino: I’ve always been comfortable telling people what to do. From an early age, it was kind of second nature to me to be able to say, “We need to accomplish this today, this tomorrow.”
Bryant: And where did that comfort level come from?
Catino: My father was the owner-operator of a gas station. He was a very good mechanic, but he was a terrible businessman. In the early days, I helped him do his books. He would come home with all this paperwork and he’d say, “Oh, would you count this money for me?” Or he’d say, “Would you add up this column for me?” I just had a knack for it. I was about 10 years old.
Bryant: And what about high school and college?
Catino: In college, I worked 40 hours a week while I was taking a full-time curriculum. I had tremendous discipline then because I knew I had to put myself through college.
I had the good fortune of having an economics professor who opened up this whole world of health care for me. She said a couple of things to me: one, that it’s an industry with no women in leadership, and 20 years from now it’s going to be 20 percent of the gross national product. And she said, “It’s going to open doors that a lot of other industries won’t open for women, so I think that’s where you should go.” Then, once I started working in a hospital, I just knew health care was where I needed to be.
Bryant: Why did you decide to go into business for yourself?
Catino: I worked my way up to a chief operating officer job at a hospital by the age of 30. I figured I could be the C.E.O., but the C.E.O. wasn’t going anywhere. So I started looking elsewhere for opportunities, and I kept getting interviewed for the C.E.O. job but never got hired. In that era, it was still a male-dominated industry. I saw an opportunity to create an alternative employer health insurance plan. And now, nearly 20 years later, we have almost 1,000 people who work for me.
Bryant: What do you consider the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Catino: Early on, it was clear to me that if I was going to build a successful business, it was going to be about building relationships. I figured out that relationships were built in business on the golf course, and that’s when golf started becoming such an important part of my culture, even though I had never golfed before. I had never been an athlete.
I never played anything, not even miniature golf. But I started with lessons at a local driving range with a golf pro. Then I started to play in these golf outings and saw the kind of relationship-building that it allowed me to do. I started to get competitive, and I took more lessons. I was introduced to an L.P.G.A. pro, and she started giving me lessons and I got better. The next thing I knew, I said: “You know what? I need to bring her in to teach my management team because I can’t be the only one out playing golf with people. First of all, I’ve got a lot to do, and I need other people to build that skill set.” So it became part of our culture that my management team took up golf.
Bryant: How good a golfer are you now?
Catino: I have a 13 handicap.
Bryant: And were the people on your management team golfers?
Catino: When the company was still relatively small, I had four or five key managers I needed to help me build relationships. But a few of them weren’t even golfers, didn’t even have clubs. So I said: “We’re going to give you lessons. I’ll help you get golf clubs. If I’ve got to buy you golf clubs, whatever I’ve got to do, you need to have the full package so that I can send you out with a customer.”
As I started adding people to the team, it became a part of my interview process. “Do you golf? Do you like to golf? Do you want to like to golf? Well, you’re going to have to like to golf because that’s part of what we do here.” Today, we participate in golf outings throughout the tristate area for charitable events probably every Monday from April 1 through the end of October.
I’m very competitive, and when I play golf with mostly men, I don’t play from the forward tees. I play from the white tees because I don’t want to miss the action. I don’t want to miss the dialogue. I don’t want to miss the competitiveness that’s going on at the tee. I don’t care if I’m a little shorter than they are. That’s O.K. I’ll make it up. I want to be there with them. I want them to see that I can keep up with them.
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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. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.