Monday, June 15, 2009

Interviewing the Blunt CEO

Not long ago, I blogged on a terrific interview with the CEO of Amgen, one of a series of CEO interviews featured in "Corner Office," Adam Bryant’s weekly column in the Sunday New York Times.

Since then, I’ve read all of Bryant’s interviews, which capture the thoughts of such luminaries as Will Wright (Sims, Spore, StupidFunClub), Clarence Otis Jr. (Darden), Dany Levy (, Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Eduardo Castro-Wright (Wal-Mart), Anne Mulcahy (Xerox), Ken Sharer (Amgen), John Donahoe (eBay), Terry Lundgren (Macy’s), Nell Minow (Corporate Library), Richard Anderson (Delta Air Lines), Robert Iger (Disney), James Schiro (Zurich Financial Services), and Greg Brenneman (CCMP).

That’s a pretty heady line-up, and combined, the repository of some real leadership and organizational wisdom.

With that in mind, I’ve distilled the interviews into one, very blunt interview that tries to capture the flavor of what these CEOs are saying (kind of what Pandora does for music). Note that none of them actually said what I wrote below (mostly); it’s just my best guess at what, with a few beers and not being quoted in the Sunday New York Times, they were really saying. Think of it as an unvarnished interview with the “blunt CEO.”

Q: Tell me about meetings.

A: They take a lot of my time, and I don’t like them much, so here are my rules: Show up on time or I’ll kill you. End in about an hour or I’ll kill you. Send me the PowerPoint in advance and make sure everyone has read it before the meeting, cause if you take “the long and winding road” through every slide, I’ll kill you.

Q: Anything surprise you about the CEO job?

A: Everything I say is amplified. My thinking-out-loud can stop a discussion. A suggestion becomes a mandate. I have to be very careful, go slow, ask questions. People often take what I say, even my musings, at face value. (In fact, about that “killing stuff” in the first question--can we forget I said that?)

Q: What are your weaknesses?

A: I’m impatient. I’m anxious. I’m a little neurotic. I can have a bad temper. I run people over if I’m not careful. I can’t always stay focused on you when you’re answering a question because my mind is already on to the next point. I need to listen better. I know that, and I’m trying. Really.

Q: What annoys you most?

A: When people dump a problem on me and haven’t worked a solution. In fact, one way I assess talent is to look for the people who are creating big, far-ranging, creative solutions to our biggest problems. Don’t drop the Rubik’s Cube in my office unless you have a plan for twisting it into shape.

Q: Anything else?

A: Complicated stuff. Business isn’t easy but it should be simple. There are only three or four things that we can focus on as an organization at any one time. My job is to make sure everyone knows what they are. Your job is to stay focused on them, and keep your team focused.

Q: Anything else?

A: I should be able to tell you who we are and what we do and stand for in about ten seconds, without any buzz or double-talk. Likewise, when I ask you a question about your business, you should keep the answer very focused. Once you launch into a monologue I know you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Q: Anything else?

A: It’s hard sometimes for me to find the balance between optimism and realism. And it stinks when good people are working hard and being successful but the economy and environment keep me from rewarding them as they deserve.

Q: What do you look for in employees?

A: IQ. Emotional intelligence. Integrity. Passionate curiosity. Energy. The ability to connect the dots across disciplines and throughout the environment. Tech-savvy. Great communication skills; in fact, if you can’t write, I probably won’t hire you.

Q: How do you keep up with the business?

A: I stay in touch by staying in touch. I get into the field two days a week or more. That makes some of my employees uncomfortable, but being CEO can be a solitary job. I can’t function without unvarnished feedback from customers, and employees who deal with customers. And I’m used to incoming missiles, so don’t be afraid to launch them.

I also seek really candid feedback from HR and my board. I don’t like it any better than you do, and I ignore about a third of it (just like you do), but the rest is indispensible.

Q: How do you manage your time?

A: I get up early, I exercise, I reserve time to think and stay organized, and I keep my meetings efficient. I’m hooked on the Blackberry/iPhone. But if you use yours in a meeting, I’ll kill you.

Q: Anything else?

A: Yes, can we strike that last comment?