Chris Cunningham (Appssavvy) in “The Corner Office”

Chris Cunningham (Photo: Fred R. Conrad/NYT)

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 Chris Cunningham, co-founder and C.E.O. of Appssavvy, a social media-focused marketing firm. He says that job candidates must show they can solve concrete problems


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

[Disclosure: The New York Times has an ownership stake in Appssavvy of less than 5 percent.]

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You’ve Passed the Interview. Now Give Us a Presentation.

Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

Cunningham: t was when I started a magazine in North Carolina called the Vagabond. And the vision was to enable business travelers and families to discover restaurants, hotels and golf courses in 50 top cities. It is the same theory that I believe in today with Appssavvy, which is to be really clear about the vision and how you’re going to get there, and tell people how their involvement will be meaningful. The more you can make people feel that they have a hand at the wheel, that they’re driving something, the more that they’ll participate and own it like you own it.

From my experience, if you have an army of people who believe as passionately about the goal and the vision, you’re going to find a lot more success than by using the theory of command and demand.

Bryant: And what were some early leadership lessons?

Cunningham: I was born in Finland. My grandfather started a paper company in Finland, and I had experience in high school as an intern selling paper products internationally from a desk outside of Helsinki. And I didn’t really know what I was doing other than having a phone and a piece of paper and some sort of concept of the products. But learning how to sell internationally gave me confidence to do things at an early age.

You also learn through sports — and I was a sports junkie, from hockey to football to lacrosse — what you have in your gut, in your heart, and you learn about your ability to get people to listen. Most of the time, people will listen to you not just because of the direction you set, but also because of the follow-through and the execution.

Bryant: How do you hire?

Cunningham: We look for people who really want the job. And that sounds really simple to say, but some of the most important people in the organization who shine and are really transformative people were the ones who were almost jumping out of the chair, saying: “I have to be here. I’ve been studying this company. This is all I’ve ever wanted. And if I’m not here, I’m not going to be happy.” Those individuals took that extra step as well to follow through after the interview. We watch how quickly the person follows through, and how much thought they put into how they want to contribute. But how badly do they want the job — I can’t stress that piece enough.

Their résumé, I believe, is one of the least-valuable components of an interview. For me, primarily it sits on the desk as a reference point, and to potentially make that person feel comfortable that I’m a professional C.E.O. But the truth is, I’m not interested in the résumé. I’m more interested in understanding the time that the person took in understanding our business, product and the industry landscape.

I spend a lot of time asking about the challenges people have faced in prior work environments, and how they would behave or react in an unfamiliar situation where they might not be too comfortable. The people who are able to respond quite quickly and have very short, concise answers to how they would overcome a problematic situation typically are the ones who seem to possess leadership skills. You have to ensure that you’re not just hiring a person because you have an opening, but you want people who possess leadership qualities so that they could replace the person who’s hiring them.

Bryant: Can you elaborate on this quality of facing down challenges?

Cunningham: I ask them to recall real examples. It can potentially expose something that we believe is very important, which is problem-solving. Great leaders can take the initiative and solve problems on their own. So we ask: Were you in a challenging predicament, and faced with a scenario that you were not used to? What did you do? Who do you reach out to? How did you go about handling this? How would you follow through on it?

Some of the biggest misses, I think, come from people not following through. A great idea or solution is only as strong as the follow-through. Nothing will potentially frustrate me more than if there’s no action item. If you follow through, that is a tremendous asset that a lot of individuals don’t necessarily possess.

Bryant: What else is unusual about your hiring process?

Cunningham: Every job candidate must present to five to seven people as the final step before we hire them. We will give them a real-life example from our company and ask them to make a presentation. That is literally where you can just make or break it, and find out if they’re an all-star or whether you just avoided making a bad hire. If someone can come up with a great idea for the proposal and present it without becoming nervous or uncomfortable, and hold their own in the Q.& A., you have a slam dunk.

Those presentations are an extra layer of protection. The process gives us the confidence that this person actually understands the market, and it also makes us feel confident that the training wheels won’t be on for that long. Because in a small start-up company, there isn’t a lot of time for training. There isn’t a handbook sitting on the coffee table. There isn’t somebody who’s going to be your mentor.

Bryant: What else is important in the culture you’re creating?

Cunningham: I think another important component is treating people well, making them feel that they’re cared for, they’re looked after — good days and bad days — and that the door’s always open. There’s so much more, I think, that most companies probably don’t get out of their people because they just go to work for a paycheck, and they look at the clock, 9 to 5. People want to feel like they’re part of building something. So you treat people well, and make sure that they fundamentally understand that you do care about them as people. And you do what you say. I often hear stories from people in interviews where they’ll say, “Well, I was promised this, but I didn’t get it.”

So if you do everything you say you were going to do, then you’ve just cemented additional trust, which means you’re going to find another 25 percent or so of work ethic and commitment that most organizations don’t have. You can’t extract that 25 percent through command or demand or force or threats or anything else. The only way you can extract that 100 percent threshold or even 110 percent — with somebody wanting to work on a weekend or wanting to get in early, whatever the case may be — it’s because of those commitments and promises, and the follow-through that they’ve experienced, and that their peers experienced. If you don’t have that, then you’re only going to get 75 percent of that employee. That follow-through and that commitment is absolutely critical. If you don’t do it, there could be a potential domino effect.

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



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