First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

Irwin D. Simon (Hain Celestial Group) in “The Corner Office”

Irwin D. Simon

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 Irwin D. Simon, chairman, president and C.E.O. of the Hain Celestial Group, the natural and organic food and personal care products company. He says, “I’m a big believer in making people comfortable in meetings, so they ask questions,” he says.

To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

*     *     *

All are welcome at his meetings. (That means interns, too.)

Bryant: Who were some big influences early on for you?

Simon: I learned two big things from my father. He was a great person, and he cared about people, and he was very genuine and very nice to people. But my father, who had a little retail store, was not a great businessman. So I had to be a great person like him, but I had to not be a businessperson like he was. So from a leadership standpoint, I never forget where I came from.

And how do I treat people? I am somebody who has learned throughout my career about empowering people, about how I don’t have to be in control. It’s about not having an ego out there. We all have egos, but don’t let your egos get in the way. I don’t have to show people I’m the boss or I’m the leader. Just by treating people right, I find that they want to be part of your team.

Bryant: What were some other important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

Simon: There were a couple of inflection points. No. 1, I worked in some corporate environments that were very political. If you got behind the right people, you would do well. And if you didn’t support certain people, you were off the team — your competency or loyalty didn’t matter. You just didn’t make it. So I’m a big believer in the idea that we’re all on the team together, and you have to treat everybody equally. It’s not the select few — here’s the boys club, here’s the girls club. I’m a big believer of bringing everybody in.

The other really big one in my career happened when I was working for a certain gentleman, and I used to ask a lot of questions. One day he pulled me aside and said: “You’re asking too many questions, and you are perceived as smarter than me, and I’m the chairman. And you shouldn’t be perceived as smarter than me.”

I love to be around smart, fun people. And if you’re confident, let your people ask questions, and do things, and speak up.

Bryant: How do you draw people out?

Simon: I have a philosophy at Hain that there are no closed doors. Anybody can go into any meeting they want. If you’re not invited, you still can go in. I’m a big believer in getting people comfortable in meetings, making them comfortable to ask questions. And there’s no such thing as a dumb question.

I’ll bring interns into my board meetings. It gives them exposure. This is where they’re going to learn; this is where the grass is going to grow. There were times when board members were saying, why do we bring these people in here? And I said, they are good employees of this company and they’re here to learn. I bring them into important discussions. If we’re talking about acquisitions, I want to know their opinions, their thoughts. It’s not just about sitting through a presentation where you’re going to learn about market data and market share.

Bryant: How do you get everyone talking in meetings?

Simon: I’m consistent. It’s not, Monday I mean it, Tuesday I don’t. It’s just been the way from the beginning here. I will say, “What are your thoughts on that?” It comes back to, you hire good people who are smart. You’re not going to embarrass them. The point is to make them feel good. There were some situations in my career where some nasty things were said to me. There’s scar tissue from that stuff. I think it’s important, with people who work with me, to spoon-feed them.

Bryant: What do you mean by spoon-feed them”?

Simon: Spoon-feeding them means playing to their strengths, to help them build confidence. It’s not just my senior executives. It’s everybody. You should know what people want because I know what I want. I know how I like to be treated. And you just take that and say, how do I treat people in the same way?

Bryant: What’s your approach to building a culture?

Simon: I look at my days of playing sports and you apply that to business today — where’s your strong offense, where’s your strong defense, building a team. I was always a part of a team. We huddled, we won, but we also got beaten up sometimes. A lot of times when I’m with my people, I talk about sports and I talk about offense and defense and talk about how we played short-handed.

As C.E.O., I look at myself not as chief executive officer, but as chief energy officer, chief cheerleader. I’m a big communicator by telephone and by person. I’m not big on writing the whole staff my holiday observations and where we’re going and what’s the strategy. You’re never going to see me do that. I’m just big into communicating face-to-face, eye-to-eye and not through e-mail. Part of what’s happened today is we lose a sense of communication because everything is done electronically.

Bryant: People may say that sounds great, but there’s just no time to do it face-to-face.

Simon: Everybody in every place? No. But I live by this philosophy: I juggle 13 balls, and there are certain balls I never drop.

Bryant: What else did you see in your previous corporate jobs that you’re making sure to avoid in your company?

Simon: Within corporate America, I learned that people are put in a box — you are an accountant or you are a marketing person, and basically, you were labeled for life. So I love to take a marketing person and put them in finance, or I’ll take a finance person and put them in marketing. I believe in taking people out of their box, taking them out of their comfort zone and putting them into other areas.

Bryant: What do you do if people say, “That’s not my comfort zone”? How does that conversation go?

Simon: How do you grow in life? Look at the exciting opportunity for you. I love people to move to other parts of the world, just to see how the world works. I try to push people to do other things and see other things.

Bryant: How do you decide if somebody is right for a new box?

Simon: Sometimes it’s just my gut. I have a hole to fill, and this person seems to be right to try it. At the end of the day, what’s the worst situation? They’re not going to take us down; they’re not going to destroy the company. Let’s go do it. And that’s what it comes down to. There is no science. There is no major interviewing process. It’s just I think they have it, and I sell the idea. And that’s kind of what’s fun about what I do. I’m a big believer in the idea that you’ve got to push people. They can get in this comfort zone, and if you don’t push them, they get very comfortable.

I don’t believe in organization charts, and we don’t have organization charts. You should know what you have to do. You should know what’s necessary. I can’t tell you the last time I looked at an organization chart within my company.

*     *     *

To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

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 that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011 - Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Saw it in today’s NYT — Very refreshing to read about such an intuitive leader.

    Comment by Dani Ticktin Koplik | Sunday, March 20, 2011

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