Michel Feaster (the chief executive of Usermind) 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 Michel Feaster, the chief executive of Usermind, a customer-engagement software firm. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: James Nieves/The New York Times

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Tell me about your parents.

I got a lot of my values from them. My mom was born in Wiesbaden, after World War II. She sued for independence from her family when she was 14. She worked her way through high school and college as a maid working for the Bismarck family.

Then one day she decided she wanted to come to America. She learned English by watching television. She had a construction company once but now works in nursing.

My father was an objector to the Vietnam War — he was deferred and was sent to Lebanon for 18 months to teach English. He’s very principled. He’s a professor now.

Were you in leadership roles early on?

No. I was kind of a nerd. I didn’t fit in. My parents divorced when I was 8, and we relocated to Providence. We were poor. We lived in a bad section of the city, where we were renovating an old house.

I remember thinking that I was going to help support my mom and get her out of this situation. I decided when I was 11 that I would get straight A’s and go to Harvard. I ended up getting into Harvard, but I dropped out. I didn’t fit in.

What did you do?

I moved home and got a job at a convenience store working overnight. I worked my way up to running that store, and then I managed a number of them, with about 50 or 60 employees.

A lot of my hiring philosophy comes from that time. The people who applied for those jobs were either high school or college kids who wanted a part-time job, or they were adults who weren’t really skilled workers.

It was fascinating to me that I couldn’t predict who would be a good worker. I would hire these clean-cut young kids, and they would be lazy or not attentive to detail.

And then I would hire people who were in their 50s who didn’t look put together. But their commitment to the job was incredible. I’ve learned that you hire based on what’s inside people.

In start-ups, people who are great hires have grit and tenacity, because it’s hard and everything’s breaking all the time. It was a real lesson about the dangers of judging people based on appearances.

I ran those convenience stores for five years until my partner at the time told me about a technical sales job at Compuware. They taught me everything about tech, and my whole life changed.

What have been some key leadership lessons for you?

To me, the difference between leadership and management is the commitment to unlock the employee. I’m passionate about building teams and looking to understand each person’s strengths and weaknesses, and helping them see their strengths.

Most people don’t see themselves very clearly. Our internal narratives prevent us from seeing our superpowers and our weaknesses. So it’s important to have mentors and leaders who are committed to helping you see yourself more clearly.

My philosophy is about helping people unlock what they’re really amazing at and help them understand their weaknesses enough to manage them, because you’re not really going to change who you are.

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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 of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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