Steve Stoute (Translation LLC) in “The Corner Office”

Steve Stoute (Librado Romero/NYT)

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 Steve Stoute, chief executive of Translation LLC, an ad agency, and chairman of Carol’s Daughter, a beauty products company. He says all employees should be aligned around a mission statement, “so everybody knows what they’re responsible for.”

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

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Bryant: What are some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

Stoute: One of the hardest things to do is run an organization. And teaching people who work for you is a very important skill set that requires patience. I’ve seen a lot of great leaders fail to execute because they couldn’t get a team to rally behind them. You meet a lot of entrepreneurs who want to build great businesses and they have great ideas, but their leadership style doesn’t allow them to have any patience to teach people.

Bryant: What else?

Stoute: You have to set a belief system in your organization. Once you do that, if you have people who have not bought into the philosophy, you need to identify them and move them out quickly. It’s to their benefit and your benefit. If you ask most executives, they know within the first 30 or 60 days if a person is going to work out, but it takes them seven months to a year to get them out of the organization. That’s a waste of time.

I think that it’s very important, no matter how big you get, to have checks and balances to know when somebody has not bought into the culture, because at some point in your organization, something is going to backfire and something’s not going to get done because somebody’s not paying attention. The beliefs of the organization are not going to be passed along because you have people who have not even bought into the belief system. And here’s the biggest problem: Bad behavior is contagious. And once that starts hitting a company, no matter how big you are, no matter how small you are, that will start the demise of a great organization.

Bryant: Define bad behavior for me in this context.

Stoute: Bad behavior is the blatant act of ignoring the belief system of the company — it means not paying attention to the strategic intent of the company and not being aligned around the goals of the organization. So when somebody has not bought into the system, that becomes very contagious, it becomes a cancer in the organization, especially when you’re talking about midlevel talent. Because any organization is not going to move forward unless mid-tier management helps foster young talent to become better. And then you are actually going to lose talent.

Bryant: How do you make sure people are aligned?

Stoute: Well, the companies have clear mission statements, and we have clear goals and objectives that are outlined, and there’s a way in which we want to achieve those goals. There’s a specific way in which I want growth in my companies to happen and take place. To me, that’s where it starts. I have to be crystal clear. They then have to be clear that they understand the mission, and then we can look at each other in the eye and judge each other for how we move forward. If then I start seeing people going off of the track and having their own belief systems, then it’s very clear that somebody is blatantly not aligned to the mission even though they said they were.

Sometimes, I would even go as far as to have people sign a group document — almost like a constitution — so that everybody is aligned around the mission statement, so everybody knows what they’re responsible for. I’m very upfront, I expect the best, and I hold people accountable for everything that comes out of their mouth. Don’t say you’re going to do something and not do it, because in a company of this size, everybody is directly responsible for the person next to them.

It’s like one of those moments where everybody’s holding hands. So if somebody doesn’t do something, it’s felt throughout the organization. The organization’s not big enough to withstand those kinds of errors. At big companies, that happens all the time, and it can take years before it starts to affect the bottom line. Small organizations have the benefit of being nimble, but the threat is that when one person catches a cold, everybody catches a cold.

So I let everybody understand that they have a direct responsibility for the person next to them, and that it’s very important that we’re transparent with one another, that we work with one another, that we are aligned and clear in our communication. I force people to speak to the people next to them, not through e-mail. E-mail has created a lot more productivity but also has created a lot more miscommunications within organizations, because the tone is lost.

Bryant: Tell me more about this.

Stoute: We have to communicate, and we have to get off e-mail and pick up the phone, call our clients and walk down the hall and speak to our peers, because tone makes a gigantic difference in the way somebody receives information. It defines urgency. It defines intent. You need tone and mannerisms to build relationships. But if you mute all those things, you start to get people who are not necessarily aligned because they don’t get to know each other. They know each other by name, but they don’t know each other. And simple conversations around tasks and teamwork and how are we going to move forward get lost in translation if you’re not speaking to the person, and you’re just texting them or e-mailing.

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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. 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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