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 Selina Lo, president and chief executive of Ruckus Wireless.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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“I Never Wanted to Be a Manager. But I’ve Learned.”
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were someone’s boss?
Lo: When I was a student at Berkeley, a real estate company hired me to computerize all its investment listings. I started there part time in my junior year, and when I graduated, it needed me to stay on for another year to finish the project. And one of the things it offered me, as an incentive, was to let me manage a programming team. And that was my first time being a manager. The other programmer obviously felt that I wasn’t qualified to manage her. And it was not something I enjoyed.
As a young manager, I had no idea what to do other than supervise the actual work. I also felt that as a manager, the one thing you do is you take care of your people. So we were flying on a business trip, and when we got off the plane, I said, “Hey, remember your briefcase.” I was just looking out for her. But she took it as me micromanaging her. And that got escalated up to my boss, and I just thought, “Wow, why would anybody want to manage people?”
Then I went to Hewlett-Packard, where I had two mentors, and they really showed me how to get things done within the organization, both on the formal and informal track. And during my six years there, I actually got trained on a lot of the formality of being a manager, and the responsibility.
But I still did not want to be a manager. I decided that I liked to touch things and to do things too much. Part of being a manager is that you have to deal with other people’s pace and style of doing things. I didn’t want to have to deal with that, and throughout my H.P. career, I would completely excel on everything in my performance review except for teamwork. They would always say, you have to respect other people’s opinions.
Bryant: So what changed?
Lo: When I was young and very single-mindedly focused on my career, I realized that you have to be a manager to move up. And so, even though I resisted management all those years at H.P., when I moved on to another company, management was offered to me again, and I accepted it because I felt it was good for my career. I thought that H.P. was incredibly political. But little did I know what politics really meant. In my next job there were different camps, and a hostile environment. That reinforced my feelings about not wanting to be a manager.
And because of that experience, I swore to myself that if I had any control of the environment, it would never be political. I would never let internal problems become the agenda, and that has been the theme in my career since then. So the next goal for me was, how do I get myself into an environment where I can control who I hire? That was really why I got into this whole start-up thing.
Bryant: And so how has your leadership style evolved?
Lo: I’m impatient. I can occasionally get emotional, and sometimes when you’re too passionate about something, it can become disruptive. However, the one thing I learned is that a lot of people actually respond well to that because it means you can cut through all the stuff and get things done. That was what I lived for — to get things done, and really be the cheerleader for those people who want to move faster than the system is moving.
But I also had a wake-up call. One of my employees told me that he wanted to report to another person. He said my pace was just way too fast for him, and I was just way too abrupt, that I was too demanding and expected people to know what I wanted just by osmosis. He also told me that I created too much stress for him and that he was having trouble sleeping. And I thought, really? It had not occurred to me that people would actually have a physical reaction to my style. And so that was a wake-up call. I was greatly humbled.
There’s a Chinese proverb that doesn’t translate very well, but it’s basically a spoonful of sugar, a spoonful of tar. Tar is like the Chinese medicine, the herbal thing that is always very bitter, and that was me. And so, people love me and hate me at the same time. But I thought that was O.K. The problem I had was the balance. I’m sure, even today, people love me and hate me at the same time. Today, I’m much more mindful of that balance. But in those days, the hate part completely dominated the love part.
Bryant: You joined Ruckus in its infancy, so you had a chance to set the culture early on. What did you decide to do?
Lo: I decided that I would accept things that I never would be good at, and I would hire people who were good at the things I’m not good at, so that I can focus on what I’m good at. So one thing I knew is that I’m not a good manager. I am a good leader, but the art of management is not something I have the patience for, and it’s not really something that I want to deal with.
Bryant: Obviously there’s a difference between management and leadership, but how do you see the difference?
Lo: A leader is someone who carries the flag, and takes the organization where it needs to go. A leader is somebody people want to follow. A manager is someone who says: “O.K., in order to do this, I need 15 people. Five of them need to be of this discipline; the other 10 need to be of that other discipline.” They get the people, and then they build the team. They make sure the infrastructure is there. They nurture the people, and they build the teamwork that allows them to implement the plan.
I just don’t have enough patience for that. Also, I know that I’m tough on people. And as a C.E.O., you cannot be tough on everybody because some people may take it the wrong way. With my direct reports, I assume they understand me and, well, they have to understand me. And so I can be very tough on them. But you go down a few layers, and it can scare someone to death. So I decided that I definitely need some people who can manage that.
Also, there’s process management. I hate processes. I like to cut through multiple layers and go and get things done. And if I can’t find someone to get things done, I roll up my own sleeves and do it. But an organization cannot behave that way. So I needed to put some people in place to manage the processes and manage me.
That said, I don’t want the company to be too process-oriented and to be too hierarchical. You don’t want processes and structures to become boundaries for how to execute. If somebody can help out with a project, even though it’s not part of their responsibilities, I have no problem going straight to that person to get them involved. Sometimes, it really irks my staff, but they understand. And as a start-up, you will never have enough resources to staff every function, so you’re going to have to keep that boundary a little gray.
I’ve also found that people who are entrepreneurial like to not be defined. They really like to go beyond what they are told to do, and they would put in their own time, and put their heart in it. If you give them the opportunity to extend, employees like it. I like it. I just need the people in the middle to make sure that it doesn’t go out of control.
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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.