Robin Domeniconi (the Elle Group) in “The Corner Office”

Robin Domeniconi

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 Robin Domeniconi, senior vice president and chief brand officer for the Elle Group. She says she encourages her team to remember the art of “M.R.I.,” or the “most respectful interpretation” of what someone is saying.

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

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Say Anything, but Phrase It the Right Way

Bryant: How long does it take you to decide whether to hire someone?

Domeniconi: I would say that I can tell within the first five minutes whether they’re going to fit into this environment. And by then I’ve already felt the energy — the way they come into my office, the way they shake my hand, the way they sit down, the way they’re easy with the conversation. I’ll find out whether the functionality and the expertise are there, but in the first five minutes, I know whether this person’s going to be good here.

I want someone who’s candid, who’s very willing to be open. To me, the willingness to be open takes a lot of courage, because you’re displaying your vulnerability. I find that if you’re willing to be open, to expose your vulnerability, you’re going to succeed with me. Because I don’t have all the answers, and you shouldn’t think that you have all the answers. So we need to be open with each other.

Bryant: How do you create a culture of openness with your staff?

Domeniconi: I’m not shy about saying to them: “I don’t understand how to do this. I have this idea. But you’ve done this before. How does this work?” And this might be with someone who works, maybe, three levels below me. It doesn’t matter. Because I know once I understand something, I can guide it. And that’s basically what my role is — to guide the ship.

I also have dyslexia. A lot of times, people will say things that I don’t understand. I am never embarrassed to ask them to repeat what they’ve said. It’s a vulnerability that you show. I once had an editor say to me, “You’re the best publisher I’ve ever had because you’re not afraid to show your vulnerability.” And I think it offers a sense of humanity and humility to the entire team. And, so, once they see that, they know I’m not some unapproachable C.E.O. or president. I’m not, and I’m willing to trust that you’re O.K. with that. I have enough confidence to do that. I would like you to have enough confidence, too.

Bryant: What qualities are a turnoff for you?

Domeniconi: If you’re intimidated by me, and if you’re nervous, it usually doesn’t work with me. Because I’m very intense, and I’m very passionate. And if I’m picking up this pen, and I’m telling you this is blue — and I say: “We could sell the heck out of this blue pen. So go get your team. Let’s sell this blue pen.” — I don’t want you walking out of my office saying: “She’s crazy. This pen is yellow. Why is she saying it’s blue?” I will change on a dime. But until you convince me, with facts or with opinion, that I’m wrong, I will be passionate about my decision at the time.

If you’re too intimidated to challenge me, it won’t work, because we can’t succeed like that. I need you to be able to challenge me. I want to be challenged. I want to be able to encourage debate, so we can arrive at the right decision.

Bryant: If you could ask job candidates only two or three questions to decide whether to hire them, what would they be?

Domeniconi: One would be: “Why do they want to come work here? ” And the other would be: “How’d you grow up? Tell me about your life growing up.” I find that the ability to face adversity and overcome it shows that you can really move in this environment today. I love people who have worked hard and come up from nothing to make it in this world. They’ve got some street smarts. They’ve got some real tenacity to be able to move forward.

When I grew up, it was really hard for me because of my dyslexia. You have to work that much harder to just stay above water, to be just average in your grades. So if someone tells me that they had to overcome some kind of learning challenge, or that they came from a family who moved around all the time, I’ll want to hear more about that.

I also love someone who comes from a family that’s very solid, that has seven kids, and they’re all still really close. There are just different things you can get out of it. It’s mostly how they tell the story and what they stop and point out.

Bryant: What were the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned over the course of your life?

Domeniconi: The ability to not be afraid to say what you believe in, and to challenge even your boss. I’ve always worked for bosses who’ve wanted me to challenge them. If I haven’t been able to challenge my boss, then I’m not learning. And so I want people to challenge me, and not be afraid to, so that they can learn, too.

I’m willing to change my ideas, and my decisions. But I need you to be passionate, and to have facts, and to have an opinion behind it. Otherwise, I’m going to believe mine is the right one, even though it may not be.

Another thing that I’ve learned — and I think most of my success with my teams has been built around this — is the idea that none of us own anything. We all are here together. So even if you’re in P.R., or you work in sales or print or digital, or whatever it may be, we are all here, as a group, to work together. So you have to be able to finish each other’s sentences. You have to be in this together. We want the same outcome.

One lesson I learned is from a phrase I picked up called M.R.I. It means the “most respectful interpretation” of what someone’s saying to you. I don’t need everyone to be best friends, but I need to have a team with M.R.I.

Bryant: Can you elaborate?

Domeniconi: You can say anything to anyone, as long as you say it the right way. Maybe you need to preface it with: “I’m just curious, and I want to understand what you’re saying better. Right now, my point of view is quite different. So can you help me understand why you don’t want to do this, or why you wanted to do this?”

If you get people talking and challenging each other, you’re going to have the ability to arrive at the right decision so much quicker and so much easier. I just make it so it’s a human environment. I’m not going to motivate by fear, but I’m going to motivate by saying: “Let’s win. This is going to be so much fun to figure out. Let’s figure it out together.” I guess my management style is very much about like imagining we’re all children and really vulnerable. Because we are.

We’re all vulnerable, and we all are really human. We have all this stuff inside of us that we’ve carried with us. So if you have compassion for that, and you understand that, and you know someone’s smart, then you need to make an effort to understand why they may behave the way they behave. I think everyone should open their closet and show the skeletons.

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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 that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.

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