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 Geoff Vuleta, C.E.O. of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consulting firm in Manhattan. He keeps his employees focused by having them contribute to its set of 100-day goals — and asking them to meet them. “Never give people a void,”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Can You Handle the 100-Day To-Do List?
Bryant: Tell me about your approach to managing people.
Vuleta: I try to uncover what people are really good at doing and then give them a hell of a lot of that to do. I really, truly believe in that. I am the sort of person who’s never really believed in obsessing over trying to get people to do things that they are no good at anyway.
Bryant: What are you doing more of, or less of, as a leader?
Vuleta: There are always stages where you have to learn to get out of your own way. But there have been times, particularly in the last 18 months, where I realized I had become a creature of habit, and I needed to reinvent myself. I believe that you have to ensure that you are restless yourself as an individual, because you’re certainly demanding it of other people. So reinventing yourself is important.
Bryant: So what changed in the last 18 months?
Vuleta: I went through a big life lesson. Companies around us were growing faster than we were. And I began to realize that I simply wasn’t at enough tables to pitch new business. And then it became a question of, what am I doing that I’ve got to stop doing in order to ensure that I’m at more tables? Nothing like a good crisis to sort that out. So I stopped doing a good number of things at the firm that I’d been doing before.
Bryant: Were they hard to give up?
Vuleta: You think you’re important. There are four or five places in the food chain of any given job that I touched and that I believed it was important for me to be involved with. But you’ve just got to let it go, and that’s the hard thing. When you get to a point where you know you can trust yourself not to pull out the carrots to see if they’re growing all the time, that’s when you know you’ve made a change.
Bryant: What’s your philosophy of leadership?
Vuleta: One of the traits of a good leader is being able to build loyalty beyond reason, and getting people totally believing that something’s possible. And I’ve always believed — and this is fundamental to leading a group of people — that everybody wants to be led.
They want to know two things. They want to know what they should be doing, and they want to know that what they’re doing is important. And you must, therefore, set up an environment in which they totally trust that.
So your consistency of behavior is the most important thing in running a group of people. I have been let down often in my life by people in leadership roles who were just inconsistent — telling you to do something and doing something totally different themselves.
Bryant: So how do you create that consistency at your firm?
Vuleta: We get together every 100 days as a group, and we draw up a list of all the things that we want to get done in the next 100 days. And you go away as an individual and come back with commitments to how you’re going to contribute to that list. Then you sit down with me and our president and we discuss your plan. It’s just our job to make sure that the sum of everybody’s plan nails the firm’s list.
Bryant: Talk more about that list.
Vuleta: It’s made up of really simple things. What were the things that went wrong in the last 100 days? Let’s get rid of those. You want to nail your pain points and go, “O.K., what needs to be done to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” So that’s part of it.
And what do you want to do about your brand? How are you going to advance “thought leadership?” Not all projects are born equal — there are some that are grander than others. What are you going to do to invest in those? Who’s going to take responsibility for them?
And then there’s all the personal growth stuff, which everybody includes on their list. You want to advance. You want to grow as a person. There are things you want to get better at. But the thing that’s material about the list is that the company has agreed that those things are important.
Bryant: That’s not an easy list to write.
Vuleta: It’s a bit goofy to do it the first couple of times because people obsess over how they’re going to do something or what they’re going to do. It isn’t about any of those things. It’s only about an outcome. It’s only about what will have been achieved within the 100 days or at some point during the 100 days.
Bryant: What’s the thinking behind that list?
Vuleta: As I said earlier, people want to be led, they want to know what they have to do, and they want to know that what they do is important. You need a mechanism for that to be there and to totally trust it, so that it’s not just words.
There’s nothing that I’m doing that anybody wouldn’t understand or appreciate, because everything’s exposed to everybody else. Everybody can see what everybody else is doing. If stuff happens that prevents you from being able to do it, you lean in quickly and either take it off your list or replace it with something else.
One of the truisms about life is that if you’re working in a void for any period of time, human nature says you’ll view it negatively. You get scared; you begin to believe that what isn’t there is probably bad. Never give people a void. Just don’t, because instinctively they’ll think something is awry. So at no point does anybody in the company not know what everybody is doing in the company, what they’ve committed to, and what the company thinks is important.
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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.