Karl Heiselman (Wolff Olins) in “The Corner Office”

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 Karl Heiselman, the chief executive of Wolff Olins, an international brand consulting firm. He says he can tell a lot about job candidates by asking an open-ended question.

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

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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Bryant: How has your leadership style evolved over the years?

Heiselman: I’m trained as a designer, and I never had any ambitions to lead a company or be a C.E.O. In fact, I was quite skeptical of upper management, and so that was never really an ambition of mine. But once I understood what my strength is — as a designer — and applied that to the job, I started to get some success.

There were a whole bunch of things that, for a while, I beat myself up for not being. But when I said to myself, “Let me approach this as a design problem,” then it became really fun. I started to say: “O.K., if I’m designing this business, what would it be like? What kind of people would we work with? How important is money? What kind of work do we want to do? What do we want the culture to be like?” Those are really fun questions to ask.

Bryant: Tell me more about the culture you’re trying to create at your company.

Heiselman: I stole this phrase from Netflix: “No room for brilliant jerks.” The thing that we’re looking for more than anything else is people who are ambitious and optimistic, and if you’re brilliant at what you do, but you’re a jerk, then this isn’t the right place. We’re a creative company, and when you make stuff, you have to be in the right state. If you’re panicked or stressed out or you don’t feel valuable, then you’ll produce bad work. If you feel confident and supported and pushed and motivated and the rest of it, then you’re going to do great work.

So I think getting people into the right state is half the battle. If you create those conditions, you can get great people. And I’m always amazed at what people will do if you give them the right context and the right environment.

Bryant: How do you hire? What qualities are you looking for?

Heiselman: Let’s assume the skills are there. The most important thing is whether I want to hang out and talk with the person. It’s not a likability contest as much as it’s about chemistry. The first thing I always ask is, “What’s your story?” The way somebody answers that is a pretty good indication of what they’re all about. If they’re just talking about the job, I find that really unattractive. If I feel like they’re being sincere and honest about what it is that they want to do with their life, even if it doesn’t line up exactly with what we want in our position, I find that far more attractive.

When you ask people, “What’s your story?” they can answer that a million ways, and where somebody goes with the answer is a pretty good indication of who they are. Again, it’s such an obvious thing, but you want to hire someone who you feel like you want to spend time with.

I’ve worked with people in the past who might be amazing at what they do, but when you’re not looking forward to talking to them, that’s not a good sign. I remember one person I interviewed for a very senior position whom I saw from a distance, and he just had this pretty aggressive look on his face. When they’re not being looked at, you can tell a lot by the expression on their face.

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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. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.


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