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 Laura Ching, co-founder and chief merchandising officer of TinyPrints.com, an online card and stationery company. While other companies often save celebrations for Fridays, her company holds them on Mondays, to start the week on a good note.
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
* * *
On Mondays, Look Forward to Coming In
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss or manager?
Ching: It was at Walmart.com, where I worked after business school. It was really challenging. I just remember thinking that “it will be so easy to be a good boss” because I had been frustrated with bosses before and wondered, why don’t they get it? But once you start doing it, you learn so much.
I think one of the things I learned was that it was really hard for me to give negative feedback. I’m kind of a people-pleaser. I like it when people are happy, at work and in their home life. And it took me awhile to figure out that it’s better to give that negative feedback right away. I remember one person I managed who was doing an O.K. job, and I gave her constructive criticism, but I balanced that with positive reinforcement, too. I think she only heard the positive, and the negative didn’t resonate.
By the time we got to the review period and she didn’t get a great review, we were just so disconnected. And that was a horrible feeling for me. I wondered, what did I do wrong and where did it all fall apart? It taught me that I needed to be more comfortable with giving that feedback, and that if I really care about someone, then it’s better to be honest with them, to want them to succeed and to say the right things that will push them to be better.
Bryant: So how do you learn to frame those discussions?
Ching: You know, it’s taken awhile for me to get comfortable doing it. A lot of it is making sure that I’m authentic and that people understand me and my intentions. And so I feel more comfortable giving that feedback when they know that I’m well intentioned and that I want what’s best for them. So a lot of it is about investing in the relationship with that person. It’s about them getting to know me and my values and how I work, and that I am sincere about wanting them to do well.
Bryant: What were some other early lessons in that first management job?
Ching: In the beginning, I tended to spend time with the people who worked like me and managed like me and who I felt comfortable with. And that was just really selfish, I realized, because while that was safe for me, I needed to spend time with the people who didn’t work like me, so that we could work better together, and for me to understand what motivated them and how they needed to be managed.
It took a little bit of time for me to balance that out and to realize that I’m not doing anyone any good by just focusing on the stuff that’s working really well. You also need to focus on the other stuff.
Bryant: When you left Walmart.com to start Tiny Prints, did you have a blueprint or thoughts about how you wanted the company to operate, in terms of culture?
Ching: Yes. There were three co-founders. The backdrop was that we all were about four years out of business school or working at big companies, and we kind of got that entrepreneurial itch. We are very competitive, driven people and wanted to try to build something great, but we were also motivated about creating a culture, because a lot of things were moving too slowly in the jobs we had.
And we didn’t have the idea at first for the kind of business we would start. We just knew that we all had similar values. And so we spent about six months — a bunch of us in a tiny apartment, every Wednesday night, over Baja burritos — brainstorming all these crazy ideas. Some are just too embarrassing to even tell you. And being business school students, we would poke holes in all of them. And the one that really resonated was this idea of birth announcements. There were business reasons why we thought it could work, but we also liked the human connection and preserving the art of letter-writing and sending notes.
We didn’t know where it was going to go. But we spent a lot of time just forming our partnership agreement. What were our expectations of each other? How long did we expect each other to be committed? What happens if someone’s not doing their job right? And I think that honesty and candor really were a foundation for some of the values that we wanted to set. Early on, we focused a lot on culture.
Bryant: That was a lot of time to spend on the business prenup.
Ching: It was mostly Ed Han, who is our C.E.O, who insisted on it. And I have to say that in the beginning, it was like, come on, let’s just get started. We don’t even know if this is going to mean anything. We didn’t have a business plan. We spent more time saying, “O.K., what’s the ownership going to look like?” But I am so glad we did it because there have been situations that have come up between us where I’m glad we already thought about them early on. It’s easier to agree on something when everyone’s being objective.
Bryant: Can you give me some examples of things you do at the company now?
Ching: One is just looking forward to Mondays. We didn’t feel that way about the companies that we worked for, for a variety of reasons. And we like to have fun. I mean, we really have the attitude that if we’re going to work a lot of hours, we sure hope our employees will look forward to what they’re doing.
Some of the things that we’ve instituted include taking the celebrations that would typically happen in other companies on Fridays, and we do them on Mondays. We had an Olympics where all the teams competed against each other and did crazy stuff. And that was on a Monday. We have lunches on Mondays and we play bingo.
Bryant: Obviously, hiring the right people is key to building the culture you want. Can you talk about what you look for in job candidates?
Ching: First, do they have the right skills? But on a more personal level, we want someone who’s genuine and memorable and enjoys connecting and relationships, because a lot of what we do is also customer service.
And it’s about treating those customers like family and going the extra mile for them. And so I like to understand, what are the most important relationships in their life? How do they maintain those? That’s a big one.
And second is just the passion to win. We’ll screen for skills, but I’d much rather choose someone who just can’t stand to lose. And so I ask a lot about trying to get at their competitive nature. Have they played competitive sports before? What about a musical instrument? The debate team? How important was that? Our company gets so competitive. We’ll have an Iron Chef pumpkin competition in October, when everyone has to make something with pumpkin as an ingredient.
Bryant: They cook at home or in the office?
Ching: In the office. People go crazy. They’ll bring in a Bunsen burner to make crème brûlée. Or we’ll have pumpkin-carving contests. I think it says something about people that go all out about that as well.
I also want to get a sense of their emotional I.Q. Self-awareness is really big for me. When it comes down to the review period, I’ll evaluate you, and you’ll evaluate yourself. Some people are right on in terms of their performance — or even better, their worst critic — and I think it says a lot about their maturity and their insightfulness and wanting to get better.
Bryant: What else do you ask?
Ching: I’ll ask them, “Tell me what you think this job entails.” I always want to make sure that they understand it correctly. And then I’ll say, “What are your concerns about the job?” I want to know whether they have really thought about the job, and where they can excel and where they might see problems. It shows me that they’re confident in being comfortable enough to reveal that information to me.
Bryant: On those occasions where someone doesn’t work out after being hired, what were the missed signals?
Ching: One of the hardest things to screen for is adaptability — just being able to go with the flow. You can ask so many questions, but it’s hard to pinpoint.
I mean, at Tiny Prints, things move so fast. You can come in and this is what the job description says today, but after a month’s time, it’s going to look different. We don’t have that much time to be telling you exactly how to get it done. And so we very much need self-starters who can figure things out and who are O.K. with not stressing out about whether this is what they’re supposed to do, and what it means for whether they’re going to get promoted. We just like people who are up for the challenge of learning and growing.
* * *
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.