Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?
A. That was in 1989, right when I got promoted from being a sales rep in the Digital Equipment Corporation to being a sales manager at the age of 27. I had about 20 people at that point in time. All but two of them were older than I was.
Q. Was that a good experience?
A. When you’re 27, you’re inexperienced, so you don’t know what to fear. I didn’t know what I probably should have known. The first time I realized it was serious was when, after about six months, I had to lay somebody off. And then suddenly you move from the sunny side of the deal to the real deal. I remember I was sleeping very poorly for almost for a week. He had a family.
So one of the lessons I learned from that, which I’ve been very aware of since, is to be friendly, but not a friend. I had grown up in the company and I knew everybody, so I was more a friend. But then I had to start having honest conversations with people about how they performed, and that taught me a lesson. I’ve always been friendly but never been friends anymore. When we have parties, I’m the one who will leave early.
Q. What were some other lessons?
A. Later on in my career, I realized that there is nothing personal in business because most decisions are made for business reasons.
Q. How did you learn that?
A. In 2004, I was dismissed by Hewlett-Packard. My immediate reaction was to take it very personally and say, “What are they doing to me?” I was running a division with 40,000 people and $30 billion in revenue. I learned a lot from that.
Within a month, I had 11 job offers, all in high tech, and I had one that came from a completely different industry. It was from Henkel, a consumer goods and adhesives company. And I decided I would take the job offer from Henkel because there was a clear path I could see to get the C.E.O. job.
But I realized when I came in that I had no clue. I didn’t know the industry. I didn’t know the employees. I didn’t know the customers. I didn’t know the competitors. And when you grow up in an industry, you tend to know more and more, and a lot of people, me included, become a bit complacent or arrogant because you know it all. You’ve seen all the problems before.
Here, I had to start from scratch again. It was like going back to first grade in school and I had three years of questions. It was a reminder of just how important it is to ask questions and listen and listen and listen and just be humble again. It was a great lesson for me, and I think I’ve changed my leadership style, to be much more humble and listen much more and ask questions.
Q. It was your first C.E.O. job. Were you surprised by anything?
A. I was surprised about a couple of things. One was how much conflict actually ends up at the C.E.O.’s desk. All of the problems that nobody else wants or can’t sort out, they end up on your desk. And there’s the immense amount of time you deal with people, and how important it is for you to be there and be visible, not sitting in the office, so people can see you and feel you and ask you things instead of just sending an e-mail.
Q. How would you say your leadership style has evolved over time?
A. I do less e-mail and a lot more of being present. Last year, I just moved my office to the U.S. and traveled around for six weeks without going home. This year, I’ll go to Asia for six weeks and will visit as many sites, employees and customers as I can. So that’s one — just understanding how important it is to be where the business is and understand how it works. The second part is being very clear on what is urgent and what is important and being very selective about the battles I pick.
Q. You mentioned you’re doing less e-mail.
A. I think e-mail is very often disruptive in corporate cultures. You sit next to people and send e-mail to each other instead of walking over or making a call or just trying to look for the personal interaction. I use e-mail more and more as text messaging — just very, very short messages. It’s very efficient, but I am convinced that e-mail does not replace presence. Also, I never read cc e-mails.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. When I see on an e-mail “cc Kasper,” I delete it. I don’t read it.
A. Because it’s a waste of time. If they want to write to me, they can write to me. People often copy me to cover their back.
They need to deal with their business and I need to deal with my business. If it’s important, they need to write it to me, but I’m not going to read a cc e-mail. I’m not advocating against e-mail, but you can get into a great argument in e-mail because people can read whatever they want into the words. It takes two minutes to pick up the phone, so I try to encourage that as much as I can. It’s not either/or. I’m just saying you’ve got to get the balance right.
Q. And when you became C.E.O., did you already know who you were going to keep on the executive team because you’d been working with them?
This interview with Kasper Rorsted offers some interesting insight from a seasoned leader. You can read the entire article here: http://nyti.ms/9Umuj4
I believe that new leaders can benefit from the advice but I was most interested in his views on communication, since I am exploring these very issues in a series of posts this week. I share his views on email and have seen gross misuses that lead to complete breakdowns in communication. Conversations, especially the ones we often wish to avoid are best handled by real human interaction.
What are your thoughts?