Justin Menkes, Second Interview: by Bob Morris

Justin Menkes

Justin Menkes, Ph.D., is a leading expert in the field of evaluating C-suite executives and preparing individuals for the CEO position. His research led him to the discovery of Executive Intelligence and the creation of a methodology to measure it. Justin is an active member of Spencer Stuart’s Board Services Practice and Executive Assessment Services, and has been advising boards about their chief executives since 2002. He applies his deep understanding of leadership performance to his succession work with clients such as Blackstone, Chevron, Mass Mutual and State Street. Meknes has received international recognition for his expertise, authoring The Wall Street Journal best seller Executive Intelligence (2005), as well as articles for  Chief Executive magazine, Directorship magazine and Harvard Business Review.

His latest book about the chief executive position in the 21st century, Better Under Pressure, was published in May of 2011 by Harvard Business Review Press. He has chaired master tutorials to train others in best practice assessment techniques, and was inducted into the Sigma Xi Psychological Honors Society in recognition of his research contributions to the field of psychology. 

During his doctoral work at Claremont Graduate University, he studied under the late Peter Drucker. Previously, he graduated with honors from Haverford College and received his M.A. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Menkes holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Claremont Graduate University.

Morris: Before discussing your most recent book, Better Under Pressure, a few general questions.  First, for those who are unfamiliar with the concept of Executive Intelligence (ExI), what differentiates it from the multiple intelligences that Howard Gardner has written about in his various books and article?

Menkes: Executive Intelligence is about the specific skills one must have in order to succeed in senior leadership positions, i.e. the ability to evaluate underlying assumptions, recognize the likely emotional reactions of individuals, or sense a misstep and make appropriate adjustments.

Morris: It has been six years since Executive Intelligence was published. To what extent (if any) have you revised the concept of Executive Intelligence (ExI)?

Menkes: The concept has been broadened to involve some other qualities that are the foundation of my latest work.

Morris: In your opinion, is the need for today’s leaders to develop ExI greater or about the same as it was (let’s say) five years ago? Please explain.

Menkes: ExI, and its evaluation are very must about one’s ability to think under pressure.  Given the evolution of global business, this is more important today, and it’s going to stay that way.

Morris: You have frequently acknowledged the importance to you of Peter Drucker’s influence that began when you were one of his students at Claremont Graduate University. Of all that you learned from him in or out of class, what has proven to be most valuable?

Menkes: Defining great leadership as the ability to get ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That concept is eternal.

Morris: Who else have also had a significant influence on your personal growth and professional development?

Menkes: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  His work with creativity and flow had a profound influence on me.

Morris: What specifically are your areas of involvement at Spencer Stuart?

Menkes: I work exclusively in the board and CEO practice.

Morris: In your opinion, what must happen so that women occupy more board and C-level positions in Fortune 500 companies?

Menkes: I think it’s an evolution.  In the past there was not much social acceptance of men taking a primary care taking role at home.  That has changed, and along with it, the opportunities for mothers to take on more demanding executive roles.

Morris: Based on what you have observed, to what extent (if any) is there a gap between what business schools now teach and what their students need to learn to become effective leaders and managers?

Menkes: They need to help students learn how to thrive under pressure. To understand themselves and their psychological vulnerability that might inhibit their ability to be effective in roles that involve ongoing complexity and duress.  Preparation is essential.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Better Under Pressure. When and why did you decide to write the book that it turned out to be?

Menkes: I was working with an extraordinarily successful company that was doing a CEO succession, and the board was discussing the threats to the business.  They were enormous, despite the company’s strong market position.  I then realized that there were no longer just turn-around periods for companies in trouble, that now variables that could drastically effect any business’s profitability were not going to go away.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book published by Harvard Business Review Press differ from the one you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Menkes: It’s exactly what I envisioned.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations during the process by which you created the final manuscript?

Menkes: I was struck by how positive master CEO’s are about people and human nature. They really do believe that people are capable of extraordinary growth if given the right context in which to do it.

Morris: Its subtitle caught my eye: “How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others.” How specifically can ExI assist both development processes (i.e. one’s self and others)?

Menkes: The principles that make someone a master in the chief executive role deal with whether or not they can thrive in an environment of ongoing duress, and teach others how to do so.  The book describes the practices that masters of this use.

Morris: Today’s business world frequently reminds me of a Cuisinart machine. The challenges that CEOs face now seem greater (certainly more perilous) than ever before. In your opinion, what will be the significant differences between those who succeed and those who fail?

Menkes: They must master three essential attributes, realistic optimism, subservience to purpose, and finding order in chaos.  One’s capacity in each determines their ability to cope with today’s business environment.

Morris: What are “the three catalysts for realizing potential”? Can all three capabilities be learned? Must all three be involved in the development process? Please explain.

Menkes: Its not that all three can be learned, it’s that they can only be learned.  None of us are born with them.

Morris: What must be done to create a workplace environment in which can realize most (if not all) of their potential?

Menkes: There are certain principles, all of which center around building systems and practices that teach workforces how to internalize and master these three attributes.  Its important to note than one never fully masters them, the pursuit lasts a lifetime, but it is a very gratifying pursuit.

Morris: In your opinion, can almost anyone’s potential be increased in such an environment?

Menkes: All but the most intensely dysfunctional.

Morris: Why is creating a context so essential to effective communication?

Menkes: These contexts depend on a central principle of human nature.  That all of us are a veritable committee of selves, that any one of us is capable of being hardworking or lazy, depending on the context.  The central premise of great leadership is recognizes that fundamental fact, that not of us are fixed entities, and taking responsibility for making sure that we bring out our people’s best selves.

Morris: You interviewed several dozen prominent CEOs. However different they may be in most other respects, what do they all share in common?

Menkes: All three attributes have, individually, recognized their central importance.

Morris: Where and how can almost anyone learn how to realize potential?

Menkes: I provide some basic starting exercises, but again, this is a lifelong pursuit.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up two-part question. What seem to be the most common barriers and pitfalls to that process? How best to avoid or over come them?

Menkes: Knowing the contexts that bring out the best and worst in ourselves.  We always need help to do that, whether it’s a wise mentor, or spouse.  And focusing on creating environments around us that facilitate our success.

Morris: Why do you include three self-assessment exercises (on Pages 52-53, 100-101, and 144-145), each with a time limit?

Menkes: The essential thrust of the book is mastering the ability to enjoy the speed and complexity of work today.  People must learn how to be at their best in that.  A time limit helps to replicate it.

Morris: Let’s return for a moment to the three “catalysts for realizing potential”: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose, and finding order in chaos. Of the three capabilities, which seems to be the most difficult for aspiring leaders to master? Why?

Menkes: The toughest would be realistic optimism.  It requires one to recognize that our experience of life is largely up to us, that our situations, good or bad, are largely due to our ability on a moment-to-moment basis to capitalize on opportunity.  Those that approach life as if it is largely outside of their own control, or that others are largely to blame for their circumstances, generally find growth elusive.

Morris: Although I agree about the importance of all three to being an effective C-level executive, I also think all three are important to line managers at all levels and in all areas of an organization, whatever its size and nature may be. Do you agree?

Menkes: Its hard to argue with that.  Even parents focused on raising children are striving in a world of pressure.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of Chapter 8’s title, “Setting the Virtuous Flywheel in Motion.”

Menkes: Once an individual is given a taste of the gratification that comes from triumph, and the tools to bring it about, they will spend a lifetime in its ongoing pursuit.

Morris: I agree about the importance of the aforementioned “catalysts” and presume to suggest another, what Roger Martin characterizes as “integrative thinking” in his book, The Opposable Mind. That is, “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in one’s head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” be able to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” The CEOs you discuss seem to have a highly developed capacity for integrative thinking. Is that a fair assessment?

Menkes: It is.  I’m more concerned with the psychology that allows one to engage in integrative thinking, and more importantly how to teach others to do so themselves.

Morris: There are several films that dramatize very effectively the power of the leadership skills that you discuss in Executive Intelligence and then in Better Under Pressure. For example, A Man for All Seasons, 12 Angry Men, Fort Apache, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Twelve o’clock High. What are your own thoughts about these and/or other films you consider relevant to your work?

Menkes: I like Jersey Shore – I think it’s genius.

Morris: Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas have much of value to say about what they characterize as “crucibles” in their book, Geeks & Geezers. They believe that at least some people who undergo traumatic experiences are strengthened by them. Here’s my question for you: In your opinion, does severe pressure develop and/or reveal a CEO’s potential for great leadership?

Menkes: It depends very much on whether or not they are prepared for it.  Often people freeze under severe pressure, but that says nothing about their ultimate capability- only their level of preparation.

Morris: Here’s a related question. Does that development and/or revelation require severe pressure?

Menkes: It requires slow escalations of experiences that involve pressure, each time given the tools to succeed.  Successful experience breeds confidence, as well as an eventual restlessness to try more.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Menkes: I think you asked them all.  Great stuff.

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Justin Menkes invites you to check out the resources at this website:



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1 Comment

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