Kathleen L. Flanagan (Abt Associates) in “The Corner Office”

Kathleen L. Flanagan (Photo Credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

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 Kathleen L. Flanagan, president and C.E.O. of the consulting firm Abt Associates, who says another executive once taught her to “always want to have butterflies in your stomach,” but to also have the confidence to “go with your gut.”

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

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Want to Lead? Learn to Nurture Your Butterflies

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

Flanagan: The first time I was really a big boss was in 1989. I was 29, and I had been at Abt for about seven years. The new executive vice president called me and said: “Can you fly up to Boston tomorrow? I need you to take over this business unit. Take the challenge.”

It wasn’t until after I agreed that he looked up my age in the personnel files and said, “Whoa.” But the advice he gave me for my new job was: “You’ll always want to have butterflies in your stomach. Plan for success. Create your goals and your strategy, and go with your gut. Have confidence in yourself. You’re good at what you do.”

So I went in front of 35 people who were now my direct reports to talk to them about my vision, and most of them were older than me. I remember wondering whether they were going to take orders from this young whippersnapper. And a couple of them had pretty much determined that there was no way I was going to be able to pull this job off, and they said that to me.

So, the first year, I constantly had butterflies in my stomach, but I realized that you have to go with your gut. You’ve got to respect people. You’ve got to listen. You have to be willing to get input from everybody.

At the end of the first year, one person actually said: “O.K. You’ve proved me wrong.” I felt pretty good about that, but I realized quickly that there’s no blueprint for this. There’s no recipe for it. You have to make a plan and be goal-oriented. Be flexible along the way, but listen to people. I give them the opportunity to give me feedback, tell me what worries them, what they are thinking about, what part of the strategy they think is risky.

It’s not about being smarter than anybody else. It’s about being able to connect the dots and being the glue for a business. I’m constantly saying to my colleagues: “Let’s put the puzzle together. Let’s use people with varied experiences who are wired differently to get the job done.” I believe in asking people at every level of the organization for their input. It’s amazing, this new generation, what makes them tick and how they think about things, and I always learn something very interesting when I ask for their input.

Bryant: Can you elaborate on that point?

Flanagan: I think the younger generation obviously wants to move a lot more quickly in positions than maybe the more senior folks like me. They’re constantly curious about what they can do next. They’re almost impatient about sitting in a job for any length of time, and they always wonder about the next opportunity.

When I became the C.E.O. a couple years ago, they said, “You’ve got to have a blog, Kathleen.” And so I had 5 or 10 fairly junior employees giving me advice on how to blog, and now I use Twitter. And that younger group is likely to go on my blog and write back to me to ask: “What about this? What about that?”

Bryant: And what are your thoughts about people being impatient in their careers?

Flanagan: There’s obviously tension there. You want somebody to commit for 6 or 12 months to something, but my objective is to build a culture that allows people to move when it’s right, or at least to have those discussions. So the coaching has to be there. The managerial talent has to be there so that they can have that discussion with somebody and say, “Here are the pros and cons of this,” and then allow them to move quickly, as opposed to just saying, “You should stay in that job for three to five years.”

This generation isn’t going to do that. They’ll go somewhere else. So keeping talent at our company is a real priority right now. It’s very competitive so we’ve got to think about ways to keep that next generation growing, learning, excited.

Bryant: When you first got that big management job, were you told why you were getting the job?

Flanagan: I think it was my ability to work in teams, my ability to collaborate. I was actually in a different business unit altogether, so I demonstrated an understanding of how to connect business units, leverage all the capabilities of the company, not be turf-conscious, and listen to people.

Bryant: As your company has grown, have you noticed a change in culture?

Flanagan: We’ve grown from $180 million in annual revenue a few years ago to $425 million today. As the company grew, more business units were created, and so we had more silos in the organization. My objective two years ago in coming into this job was to take down the silos. So I reorganized the company. It used to be organized around lines of business — international, U.S.-based, data collection — and there used to be senior vice presidents who led each of those big businesses. I took those senior V.P. positions away and hired one executive vice president for global business who shared my vision for what I call One Global Abt.

At the heart of that is taking down the walls so people can collaborate more freely, so that we can leverage all of Abt. We now ask people to pick their heads up out of their project work or their division focus and look across the whole company. So I now ask my managers to wear two hats. Everybody’s got their job in the big picture of the company, but they all have to wear an Abt hat. It’s really easy, given the time pressures and the pace of our work, to put blinders on and be very project-focused. It’s harder to take a step back and ask, “How does this apply to the whole company?”

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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 new 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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