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 Jana Eggers who is C.E.O. of Spreadshirt, a maker of personalized clothing, with offices in both Boston and Leipzig, Germany. In hiring, she says, she checks references herself and asks receptionists how a candidate treated them before the interview.
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Should I Hire You? I’ll Ask the Receptionist
Bryant: What are your favorite T-shirt sayings?
Eggers: One of the funniest — honestly, I don’t wear it quite as much anymore, because it generates too much conversation — is one that just says, “I know something you don’t know.” You can’t wear that shirt without starting a conversation.
In business, with your team, it’s a good reminder for people to listen to other people, because it’s not just me who knows something, it’s you, and it’s that person there, and it’s that person there.
It’s remembering to listen. Because the other side of that saying is, you know something I don’t know.
Bryant: Any others?
Eggers: On the business side, this is a big one: “Failure is impossible.” It’s funny. Over my career, I’ve done a lot in innovation. That’s been a big theme in my career, and I’ve had a lot of innovators that are actually offended by this one, because they say, “Oh, no, you have to fail all the time.”
And I say: “Yeah, but you’re not starting out to fail, right? You have an end goal. And you can have failures on your way there, but it’s about getting to that end goal.” It’s just getting people to think differently about failing. It isn’t something to accept, but you learn from it and keep moving.
I have another one that stirs up quite a bit of controversy, which is a Madeleine Albright saying — “Be confident, not certain.” And it’s funny to me how many people don’t like that: “Well, what do you mean? If you’re not certain about it, you’re supposed to be confident about it?” And again, it goes back to listening. When you’re certain something’s right, you get blinders on.
Bryant: What feedback do you get from people you work with about how you manage?
Eggers: The comment that I often get — and this is something I’ve learned I have to explain to people — is I work too much. You know, people don’t like that. They’ll come in and I’m there at 7:30 a.m., and they’ll say, “But you sent me an e-mail at 3 a.m.”
Bryant: You don’t need much sleep, I take it.
Eggers: Right. It’s a genetic thing. My husband’s an eight-hour-sleep person. It drives him insane. Sometimes I get two hours of sleep, and I feel awesome. One of the team members in Germany said that I was a robot, I wasn’t real.
I used to just say: “Hey, guys, I like work. That’s the way it is.” I learned that what I really have to say is, “And I don’t expect it of you.” For one, I don’t have kids, and the time that you are spending with your kids is time that I’ll spend working. I understand and respect that, and I don’t want to take away that time. I want you to be happy. This is what makes me happy.
It’s been a struggle for people who have managed me, including my boards. They’ll get frustrated sometimes. They’ll say, “Why are you working on this when you could be doing this?” I’ll say, “O.K., guys, that’s reasonable and I understand that question, but remember I’m working 85- to 100-hour weeks, and so some portion of that I get to work on just whatever I want.” It’ll be just a fun thing for me, and that’s what keeps me motivated. Sometimes I’m working on that because that’s my little piece of vacation. That’s my cake.
Bryant: How do you hire?
Eggers: I’m going to ask you a lot about what you did. Of course, I’m interested in why you want to come to Spreadshirt, and those are usually the kind of ice-breaker questions to get people comfortable, because that’s what they’ve been thinking about, and what they’ve prepared for.
But what I really want to know is what they’ve done, because that is the biggest indicator of what they’ll do. I don’t mean specific things like, “Oh, I implemented this e-mail program.” I’ll ask: “Well, how did you do that? Who was involved? What was the biggest challenge you faced in doing that?” I’m interested in seeing how they organized themselves, how they think about projects, how they think about other people around them. There are very few jobs in any company these days where one person goes in and does it alone. They always have to interact with other people.
Bryant: What else?
Eggers: I’m also going to see how they treat the receptionist. I always get feedback from them. I’ll want to know if someone comes in and if they weren’t polite, if they didn’t say, “Hello,” or ask them how they were. It’s really important to me.
I also check references myself. A lot of times people may leave that to their H.R. people or to someone who works for them. But, to me, it’s really important to talk to the person and build a rapport. I really want to know, what am I going to see? Everybody has challenges. One of the questions I usually ask on references is, “Where should I spend time coaching this person?”
Bryant: What qualities are you looking for in hires?
Eggers: I’m usually listening for passion. I want that passion, because that passion is what’s going to get you through your failures. It’s when the tough things happen that a person’s real personality comes out.
And I’m looking for whether someone’s aware that business is a team sport. You have to communicate. How do they describe the team, their role on the team? I always like to get their perspectives on the management, too.
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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.