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Leadership + Business

A Leader’s Test: Balancing Drive and Compassion

This interview with Wendy Lea, chief executive of Get Satisfaction, a customer experience platform, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. When did the entrepreneurial drive kick in for you?

A. I worked for some big companies early on, and then I worked for an entrepreneur in my early 30s, and I got the disease. It’s almost an addiction.

Q. I’ve heard others describe it the same way.

A. I can’t speak for others, but this disease for me is a combination of adventure quest and problem-solving. It’s not hard for me to look at all the pieces of the puzzle — products, people, market — and then kind of put that together and have a vision. I’m a synthesizer. Once you have the vision, you become kind of addicted to it and you start believing it almost immediately.

Then it becomes hard. You’ve got all these little pieces. They’re like knots in a necklace chain. There’s nothing but problems. So you’re identifying problems, you’re solving them and comparing them against the vision. That circular thing is an addiction. My addiction is to the potential of the vision.

Q. How has your leadership style changed over time?

A. I’ve always been very organized and disciplined, and I’ve always been highly curious and worked harder than most people. But there have been times that I needed to step back and not take on so much emotionally. I have this strong fire and this drive and this vision, but I also care a lot about people.

Q. That’s a tough balance to strike.

A. It’s really hard, and on some days I just wish I could rip out that part that cares so deeply. I’ve had to teach myself the difference between empathy and compassion, because when you are too empathic, you lose yourself. I have had to teach myself to be simply compassionate, so that I can hear the problems one of my employees is having and not lose myself and try to be them. That allows me to lead more effectively.

Q. You’ve started your own company and run several others. When you took over from the founders in your current role, how did you approach the issue of culture?

A. In the company I started from scratch with my co-founder, we just embodied the culture. Now, when I move into a company, I talk to the founders about what they stand for and their philosophies. What do you believe in? What matters to you? Those things are going to be applied, either directly or indirectly, to the people they’ve hired.

Q. What about the culture of your current company?

A. We are transparent — everybody knows everything — but I also have to say that I’m so tired of that word, because most people don’t know what it means. To me, being transparent means your heart is exposed and your head is on fire. And I am open and willing to tell the truth that you need to hear, and I expect people to do the same with me.

Q. A lot of people are uncomfortable having frank discussions, though.

A. In a start-up there’s always something. Something’s always breaking. But in that turmoil, I always feel so centered. I’ve had to fire a lot of people over the course of my career. I’ve had some personal tragedy, too — my first husband died in a car accident. You develop resilience, and resilience is different from tenacity. Tenacity is persistence. Resilience is just the energy that it takes to begin again and move forward.

Q. Let’s talk about hiring.

A. I look for lots of curiosity, and I look for natural talent and expertise in a particular area — just good business athletes. But here’s my favorite interviewing question: “Let’s assume we’ve worked together now for six months. There’s something that I’m going to observe of you that I have no idea about right now. What would that be?” And it could be good or bad. I’ll let them decide. It forces them to clean out their closet a little bit.

The human condition is so complex. I’m not a zipped-up girl. I have moods. I have emotion. I need people to show me their own complexity, because if they don’t have any, they may freak out with me.

Q. And what kind of answers have you heard from people?

A. I might hear, “Well, you might notice I get overwhelmed.” And I’ll say, “What would be the circumstances that would put you in that state?” This is not a formula, but it does help me understand how self-aware they are. I had one person say: “I think you would be surprised that I’m as decisive as I am. People think I’m not because I’m kind of easygoing, but I’m more decisive than I look.”

Q. What behavior do you have a particularly low tolerance for?

A. Poutiness. I don’t expect them to be Tinkerbell, but when people have that dark cloak, that just drives me crazy. The other thing that drives me crazy is when people speak for others, like, “The whole sales team thinks that. ... ” People do that when they don’t want to be honest about their own perspective. I want them to own it, be direct and say how they feel.

Q. What’s your best advice for people who want to be entrepreneurs?

A. Success is not an exit. That’s Silicon Valley talk. Success is building and bringing value every day. The obsession on just the exit, the money, makes me sad.

The second thing I’d say is, experiment. That’s different from innovation. Experiment with people, with where you sit in an office, with different kinds of customers. Stay in the beginner’s state of mind, then you’re more apt to experiment.

The third thing is call it out fast. If you think there’s a problem, there is. If your instincts say there’s something wrong, there is, and the longer you wait to tackle it, the worse it gets. I’m so tired of having to relearn that lesson.

That’s true in all of life, but it’s especially true in a start-up where time is not your friend and resources are limited. If you think one of your employees is unhappy, you can be assured that he is. If you don’t go talk to him about it, it’s only going to get worse because he’s going to tell five other people outside the company or inside the company.

See original article from source: A Leader’s Test: Balancing Drive and Compassion 



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