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 Bob Brennan, president and C.E.O. of Iron Mountain, which provides information storage, protection and management services and is based in Boston. He suggests, “The biggest organizational challenge I’ve seen in companies is defensiveness.”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Defensive? It Leads to Destructive
Bryant: What’s your approach to leadership?
Brennan: I think businesses are going through this transformation where command-and-control leadership is dead. The problem is, a lot of managers haven’t been told this. They are very much in a command-and-control reflex. That’s what they’ve learned. That’s what they’ve seen in movies. That’s what they’ve seen in their careers. And maybe they’ve performed well when they’re asked for specific outcomes.
So it’s important for us to establish a framework that says, “Here’s how we want you to behave.” For instance, you need to seek constructive feedback on your performance from the people who report to you. We’re not talking about 360 reviews once a year. It should be a constant dialogue in one-on-ones about how can I improve my game? If I’m not seeking that feedback, I’m creating an unsafe environment for you.
Bryant: Unsafe? That’s a strong word.
Brennan: It is, in fact, unsafe, if I’m reviewing your work, but I’m not asking you to collaborate with me and review mine. That would presume that I’m fine with the way I’m performing, yet I’ve been sitting here offering constructive or destructive feedback on your performance. There’s no symmetry to the conversation. Does that feel safe to you? I don’t think that’s safe.
Bryant: Talk more about the kind of culture you try to create.
Brennan: We have a set of core values that are important to us, and they’re mostly around candor — really to generate speed, action orientation and a sense of security. We’ve got 21,000 people, so we have a lot of people who are managing others. What are the traits we want in leaders? How do we help them understand in very descriptive terms what we expect on a day-to-day basis? That’s different from driving clarity around outcomes, or how they link to broader strategy.
We want managers to display confidence and optimism, and to give constructive feedback, never destructive. And managers need to seek constructive feedback themselves.
Bryant: This is an important theme to you. How did it come about?
Brennan: I remember having my first 360 review early in my career. I was rated really high in holding people accountable, and really bad at setting clear expectations. You get that feedback and you step back and say, well, that sounds like a jerk — I’m going to be unclear with you as to what I expect, but I’m going to hold you accountable for it. And it’s not necessarily jerks who do that. They’re people who don’t have a sense for making sure that the outcomes they’re asking people to manage are specific and objective. And then how do I talk to you about performance against those things? But if they’re subjective and unclear, again, it’s unsafe. It’s whether or not I like you. You need to describe to people how, specifically, you want them to act.
We also have a thing called Open Door, which essentially means that anybody can escalate a given issue that they think is being handled unfairly at any time — to the presidents of the different divisions, or ultimately to my door.
Bryant: What are some other things you do to set the tone at your company?
Brennan: I ask this question a lot in different situations: What do you recommend we do? You can get a real sense for who’s invested in moving the company forward, and who’s watching the company go by, with that very simple question.
Brennan: People lay out problems all the time. If they’ve thought through what should be done from here, then you’ve got somebody who’s in the game, who wants to move, and you can unlock that potential. Bystander apathy or the power of observation, in and of itself, is not very valuable. There are amazingly eloquent diagnosticians throughout the business world. They can break down a problem and say, “Here’s your problem.” But it’s prescriptions that matter. So how do we move from here, and what specifically do you recommend?
The other reason I ask that question is to test for open-mindedness, because open-mindedness is what allows people to keep learning, to learn on the fly. I see people who have a very black-and-white view of things and are very closed-minded in their approach. There is a bright line of distinction for me with closed-minded or open-minded people.
Bryant: So how do you hire? What questions do you ask?
Brennan: I want to know how willing people are to really talk about themselves. So if I ask you, “What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?” you might bristle at that, or you might be very curious about it, or you’ll just literally open up to me. And obviously if you bristle at that, it’s too vulnerable an environment for you.
Are they willing to talk about things that they had been through, and how would they go through them now? What are their deepest regrets? Are they going to answer it in a very narrow way, or are they going to think about it more broadly and more thoughtfully? What are the relationships that they treasure the most, and the ones that they wish that they could go back and kind of fix?
The body language changes when you ask those questions, and people have to make a decision. Am I going to open up to this guy? Because it’s clear to them that I’m not going to go down a path of asking them why they chose Wharton. I don’t much care. I want to know what makes you go. And how willing are you to tell me that?
Bryant: So what if somebody says: “I’m just interviewing for a job. Why are you asking me this stuff?”
Brennan: Because we’re a services business. How do you best take care of your customers and how do you best take care of your people? And the best way to take care of people is to have a very open environment where they can collaborate.
The biggest organizational challenge I’ve seen in small, medium and large companies is this issue of defensiveness. I’m mowing your grass, and maybe I’m making you defensive through my line of inquiry, or because what I’m doing overlaps with what you do. It creates defensiveness in the system, and it’s a natural reptilian kind of response. That defensiveness is what over-amps corporate cultures. So you try to get defensiveness out of the system so that people are focused on achieving, learning and bonding.
And that doesn’t mean that we have to go out to dinner, or go bowling. The point is, can I really take an interest in you, and you in me, because it’s meant to drive out the defensiveness that’s part of so many conversations. People want to achieve. People want to learn. Generally, people are driven to do pretty constructive things. People really want to bond, but there can be so many defense mechanisms in a corporate environment. So I try to break that down as we’re bringing people into the corporation, so that they feel they’re in a safe environment.
And you’ll get a lot more from people on the question of “What do you recommend?” if they feel safe about describing what they think is possible, as opposed to what they think might be the answer you’re looking for. And they’re only going to do that if they see you and your team openly struggle with some issues, and not gloss over some mistakes, and describe the realities that we face with confidence, with constructiveness. So what if somebody says: “I’m just interviewing for a job. Why are you asking me this stuff?”
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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 Sunday Business section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.