In this episode:
In this bonus episode, Tom talks to Charles Rutstein, a geek turned CEO, in a 2013 interview. They discuss questions like:
- How can you be considered for higher level leadership roles?
- How do you bridge the divide between geeks and corporate leaders?
- What does a CEO think about?
- What should you do to build a really effective network?
Tom: Welcome to a special bonus episode of Becoming a Geek Leader.
Sponsored by Geek to Great
This episode of Becoming a Geek Leader is sponsored by the Geek to Great 101 course. We all want to grow our skills and improve the work we do, but who has time for that? In this online, blended learning program, you and your team will gain practical skills in topics like time management, dealing with difficult people, improving communication, and so much more.
Train your whole team for less than $500. Each lesson is 30 minutes or less, so it fits right into your current team-meeting schedule. Find more information and get immediate access to your first free lesson at brighthillgroup.com/helping geeks. That’s brighthillgroup.com/helping geeks, so that you can get access to the Geek to Great 101 course.
Welcome to the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast. My name is Tom Cooper. As a geek, I’m on a mission to figure out better ways to lead others at work, and at home. Through the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast, I’m sharing what I’m learning, so I can help make you more effective at leading people, too. Ready?
Joel: Hi, my name is Joel Cooper and today I will be your guest host for the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast. Normally you’d be listening to my dad, Tom Cooper, introduce the episode. Unfortunately he has been sick for the past week or so. So I will be filling in for him. However he is overseeing me, so you aren’t just listening to the ramblings of a teenager.
This week we’re bringing you some special content from the archives. This is a re-release of a 2013 interview dad did with Charles Rutstein. During this episode, you’ll learn the answers to questions like, “How can I be considered for higher level leadership roles? How do I bridge the divide between geeks and corporate leaders? What does the CEO think about?” It turns out it’s a lot more math than you might think, and also, “What should I do to build a really effective network, if you’ve ever wanted to have more success as a technical expert in influencing others?”
Dad wanted me to point that this interview is really a master class on how to think and how to act. A deep dive on what it takes to transition from being a technical hotshot to being a head honcho. A leader of a team or an organization from someone who has been there, and done that. They cover a lot of information in a short time, so this is one of those episodes that you’ll want to listen to multiple times in order to get the most from it.
You’ll hear more about Mr. Rutstein’s background in the interview. He has been a hardcore techie and has moved to the top of the ladder in his career. He is currently the CEO of a Boston based company called RISI. RISI is a global information provider about the forest products industry covering pulp, paper, wood, timber and more. So let’s jump right into it.
Thought Leader Segment.
Tom: Today I have the privilege of welcoming Charlie Rutstein to our series. He and I go back a long way. In fact, I’ve been able to observe his journey from hotshot to head honcho, and Charles I think we’ve known each other for what us it, 20 years now?
Charles: It’s probably about that, Tom, yeah.
Tom: Hard to believe that. One of my first memories of working with Charles was when he joined us at Price-Waterhouse. We were both doing geeky consulting there, and one of the directors came up and said, “Tom, you’re not going to believe this guy. He is unbelievable. This guy actually has a network installed at his house.”
Charles: At which point you said, “So do I.”
Tom: Yeah, I did. It’s tragic, but true. Tragic, but true, but it really does speak to the kind of at the time that was an unusual thing. Now we all have wireless devices and wireless networks in our homes. But what was that? Thinnet that you had installed in there?
Charles: Absolutely yeah, and that with a Network 331 server.
Tom: Right on, and then Charles went on to write the book on Windows NT security and then went on to Wharton for an MBA, and then after that moved along with Forrester and spent was it 12 years at Forrester?
Charles: Close to 14, yeah.
Tom: Oh, my goodness. See, time gets away from me, unbelievable. And then you just recently wrapped up your tenure as Chief Operating Officer if I’m not mistaken. Is that right?
Charles: I did.
Tom: So you have been on a journey from nerd to somebody who’s been really leading an organization, and what I really want to dig into with you is about that journey. So I’m curious to know as you were building your Novell network at home, were you thinking about how you might be stepping into a leadership role.
Charles: Not even a little bit. Not in those days, no. I think like a lot of people, I was enamored of the technology from an early age, and found I had a knack for picking it up. So mostly I was interested at that point, in enjoying the journey. Discovering the latest and greatest technologies, and figuring out how they could be useful, and I would say leadership was not foremost in my mind at that point.
Tom: So there came a time when you started to think differently about those things, and I remember I was really impressed with you that you had said at that time, “Look. I’m doing a tour of duty here for Price-Waterhouse, but I’m moving on. I’m going to get an MBA.” At the time, I mean we were a bunch of young bucks who were trying to figure out our space in the tech world, and I thought that was unusual. So what was the thing that really caused you to say, “I think I want to go explore something that’s not specifically technology?”
Charles: Yeah, sure. So at that time, Tom, it certainly appeared to me as though there was a great divide, and in fact, maybe there still is a great divide between the technologist who really understand how this stuff works and the business leaders who need to make the decisions to invest in those technologies, and of course, care primarily about the impact of those technologies on their business. And so being able to have one foot on either side of that divide, having the opportunities to bridge that gap was what I saw as my ticket, my way to differentiate myself, and I think candidly that is probably still true. I think for many technologists today there is still a gulf that they can help to bridge.
Tom: That’s a really interesting point because I think that…I’ll get your take on this. My thinking is that there are an awful lot of technologists who love to build technology because it’s technical.
Charles: Sure. Sure, I think that’s the initial draw for many techies, right?
Tom: But not necessarily getting that there’s a reason that businesses buy technology.
Charles: Yeah, yeah. In many ways, it’s the why should I care question, which fundamentally I can tell you what’s going through the mind’s of most senior executives when they’re talking to techies. What they’re wondering in the back of their head is, “What is this person talking about,” first, and foremost, but more importantly, “Why do I care?” I think many senior executives have begun to recognize the power of technology. They understand that everything is digital in their world’s, whether they like it or not. If you go around the company today and start unplugging wires, you’re going to hear screaming very, very quickly.
Tom: It won’t take long.
Charles: Yeah, they know and they appreciate that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a clear view as to the new ways that technology can help them to shave costs, to serve customers, and new ways to run their business in a more efficient and more effective manner. And so it’s a rare technologist indeed, who’s able to bridge that gap and that, I think, is what’s essential to make this transition, that you’re talking about.
Tom: So I’ll flip it around then and say from the technical perspective. I mean who cares about all that marketing and sales rot, right? Why should I care as a technologist about that stuff?
Charles: Sure, I think the answer is ultimately is if you pop the head of CTO and look what’s in there, what you find is that person cares only about two things. They care about growth and revenue and they care about expansion of margin. That is to say can I make the business bigger? Can I make it more profitable for whatever scale it’s at? So those are the things that we in turn need to think about sales and marketing, and therefore, in turn must we technologists think about the same thing is they to be on the same page.
Tom: Yeah, it’s interesting. I was just having a conversation this week, with a woman who said, “I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years, but I’m not considered for the C-level and I want to know why. I think you put your finger on that. That he was not looking at those aspects in the way that the C-level folks look at that. Now since you’ve been on both sides of that divide, isn’t the stuff that the C-level people do, isn’t that mostly schmoozing and BS?
Charles: It turns out that there is a lot of schmoozing and BS, but it’s a means to an end. There is certainly some of that. But the reason that these guys and women get paid what they get paid is to make some very big important decisions that are fundamentally about resource allocation. So when you sit in a senior leadership chair and you look at a technology investment, you’re weighing that investment against all of the other uses of that capital.
If you have a technologist that comes to you and says, “Look, I have this really cool thing and mobile is really hot and we’ve got to have a mobile app. So hey, can I have the money to do it?” That’s one thing. If that person is coming and saying, “Hey, look, I can drive revenue higher by building a mobile app, I think we can drive revenue of X in the first year and Y in the second year.” Now I have that in a language that I can understand, and I can weigh it against an alternative investment. So for example, an expansion of my sales force is another way to grow revenue, which is going to provide a better return. Now I can go and do the math on it. That make sense?
Tom: Yeah, and it’s interesting you’d put it in those terms. Because really what you’re saying is it’s math. It’s arithmetic.
Charles: It is.
Tom: It’s not BS. It’s arithmetic.
Charles: It is, but you will get the curriculum and [inaudible 00:11:55] by leaving the business schools these days, and what you find there is that it is largely quantitative, which is to say that there is a quantitative, and numerical answer to most business questions. You just have to apply the right tools to get there. The problem I think in so many technologists is that they’re not able to help senior leaders to translate what they’re saying into terms that they can put into those ways of thinking about problems.
Tom: So obviously you went down that path, and you’ve found a way to do that. So what was it that you did that helped you bridge that gap? Because it wasn’t an overnight thing. You didn’t just wake up one morning, and all of a sudden you could speak that language. So what was it that helped you in that process?
Charles: Well, what helped me was undoubtedly the business education that I got because there are a set of tools that are in the leaders toolbox if you will, and if you understand them well, again, this is about communication. It’s about an ability to be able to talk to that senior leader. So for example, understanding how to do a discounted cash flow to get to a net present value. If you can present your technology wishes and dreams in that way now you can have a conversation with the senior leader in a really effective way because you’re talking the same language.
I think an investment in learning some of those analytical tools is first, and foremost. Second is maybe asking yourself this question of, “What is this other person across the table care about? The stuff I’m going to talk to my technical peers about is almost certainly not what this person cares about.” You remember a moment ago when I talked about looking inside the CEO’s head and seeing what’s there? If you can tie it back to one of those two drivers, whatever the conversation is that you’re having, you are far more likely to be successful.
Tom: Wow. That’s really insightful. I think about a conversation I had with a technologist. I was working for a software company and he said, “Tom, the reason it’s going to take me a long time to build this module is we’ve got to implement Microsoft distributed transaction coordinator.” At that time I was VP of products and definitely far from being a technology guy and I said to him, “Okay here’s my problem with that. We’re not transactional and we’re not distributed.”
Charles: Right. And I think even equally important, Tom, you can ask the question that says, “So what?” That’s a pretty effective tool. As you think about, for the preplanning, maybe a conversation with a senior leader, think about what you’re going to say and say, “Well, who cares? Why does that matter? What does it tie back to in the business that this person actually cares about?” Because they don’t care about distributed processing. They don’t care about how the technology works or how long it takes to implement. They care about, “Hey, does it accelerate revenue or does it grow margin?”
Tom: That’s a really good point, and I think you raised something even more fundamental there. Because you said, “Prepare to have a conversation with a leader.”
Charles: Yeah, right. I recommend it.
Tom: Well, and not only that, but specifically preparing to have that conversation in the context of what that person cares about.
Charles: Yeah. Well, let me give you a window into my experience. It certainly is not universal. But in the last seven years or so I spent as COO at Forrester I would have typically somewhere between 8 and 12 meetings a day. So I’m chock-a-block from 7 a.m. until late in the afternoon, one after another, and all I’m trying to do in those meetings is figure out, “Is there an important decision to be made here, and if so, do we have the information required to make the right decision?”
So I’ve had a lot of people, especially technologists want to do a big preamble. There’s a big setup and there’s a big backstory and so forth. Personally I just want to get to the heart of the matter. So it was always for me much more helpful when a technologist would come in and just say, “Look, here’s the bottom line. We have a decision. We can do A. We can do B. Here are the implications. This one’s going to cost more money, but it’s going to be more profitable in the long run. This one we can do that,” etc. I think if you get to that, boy, I was incredibly receptive to that conversation.
Tom: So that’s interesting because really what you’re talking about is twofold, if I’m reading correctly. On the one hand you’re talking about putting it in a language that you can understand, and the other is putting it in order of importance for the things you care about.
Charles: Yes, yes, and getting to the point quickly.
Tom: But we care about the technology. Don’t you care about the technology?
Charles: The truth of the matter is, when I’m on company time, I actually don’t. Now at home I may be tinkering around in the basement on the PC or what have you. But at work, as a senior executive, no, I just don’t care about the technology. I care, and of course this is the important bit, I care about what that technology can do for the business. I care about if it can accelerate revenue or expand margin. I care about whether it can differentiate me in the long run, and give me a capability that my competitors don’t have and can’t match. I’m interested in what comes next. If I want to be ahead of the curve and meeting customer needs, and in those fundamental drivers, I just don’t care what the technology is.
In fact, underneath the covers of these technologies that I would know or care about, I don’t care what’s in them. In other words, I might look at a mobile app and say, “Yeah, hey. You know what? I really need that for my customers.” What language that’s written in, high-level language, lower level language, how it’s interpreted, what kind of server’s behind it, I just don’t care.
Tom: Wow. That’s a pretty challenging thing because as a leader then, how are you going to communicate that to your team members without horribly offending them that you feel like they don’t matter?
Charles: Well, it’s not the question of whether they matter or not, in the sense that, I care that it gets done. I know there’s a lot of complexity that goes with it. I know we have to have great people who are doing it and I know that we have to pay them a fair competitive market wage. But the details of how we do it frankly are somebody else’s problem. And so that’s I think, the difference between an individual contributor and a leader. An individual contributor their responsibility is to manage those details. The leader’s responsibility is to pick the right technologies to implement, to do the right research allocation, and then get the right people on the job.
Tom: That’s really interesting. As a person who has been involved with business leadership, I totally understand the language that you’re using. But when I think back on those days of our youth when we were working together on projects and traveling and that sort of thing, how different a perspective that is.
Charles: It is.
Tom: Because there were so many times we were trying to figure out how to get the server to talk to the client or we’re trying to get the wide area network thing to blah, blah, blah, buzzword, buzzword and it didn’t enter into our day-to-day conversation. More than that, I never had anybody in my career who said, “You know Tom, what you need to do is you need to learn to speak the language of business.”
Charles: Yeah, I wish that there was more of that going around. I think we’d be more effective as a community of technologists if that were the case.
Tom: Yeah, it’s interesting. Did you have somebody in your career who said, “Charles, here’s what you need to do?”
Charles: No, I don’t think it was quite like that. It was more evolutionary for me. As I got more and more senior you start to have a little trial and error here. You have conversations with senior execs and some of them maybe go well, and some of them maybe go not as well. If you’re attuned to that, then you learn to tune your message and tune your language and that sort of thing.
Tom: Right. Either that guy’s just totally clueless or he’s a jerk to, “Oh, he resonated with this. Let me try and put it this way.”
Charles: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, there’s a little experimentation there, right? You never know exactly what’s going to happen when you get into a meeting, but certainly we observe people and adapt to them. Maybe that’s another thing that’s important for technologists here, Tom. Is to recognize that it is they who are going to need to do the adapting. If they wait around for the senior executive to adapt to the way they think about the world, they will be waiting in vain.
Tom: That’s an interesting point. I’m just processing that. You’re right. You’ve got the opportunity to choose to adapt to the other side.
Charles: That’s right.
Tom: Now the one thing I admired about you and have always admired about you is that your sensitivity to people, and your humility even when you were the smartest guy in the room, which was often. You didn’t act like you were the smartest guy in the room. And I watched a number of guys, and we could name names, but we won’t, who didn’t have that perspective, right?
Tom: Who would make it clear to you just how stupid you were, if you didn’t understand the buzzwords.
Tom: So I’m curious about your thinking when it comes to people skills Because even when we met, you had already a set of skills that you had refined over time and you’ve continued to do that. As I’ve watched your communications over the years, and the way that you’ve handled yourself, it’s been obvious that that’s something that’s important to you, and it’s not always important to the technical folks. So how did you get plugged into that concept of being attuned to the needs of other people?
Charles: So number one I’m not as think as you smart I am, so it was easy to hide that. Let me tell you in a different way. One of the single most important attributes in my view for a senior leader is the ability to understand people and the ability to communicate to them. Now that sounds like super trivial and super obvious. It turns out that it is much more complex than most people think. Another reason why a senior executive in that position is typically they are great communicators. That means that they’re able to communicate in lots of different venues and lots of different contexts and adapt their message and their style to what people need to hear which is to say what they need in order to hear the message that that person wants to convey.
So in order to accept that, in order to say to yourself, “Yeah, I need to do that,” but you’ve got to respect the person who’s on the receiving end here. You have to respect them and say, “Look, they have a different worldview than me. They have a different perspective than me. Maybe they’re smarter than me, but I need to find a way to make them understand what it is I’m asking them to do or asking them for.” And so I think at root this is about understanding what’s in the other person’s head, respecting where they’re coming from. But again, it’s that bridging the gap. Being able to talk to them in their language.
Now in this particular relationship, the adaptation really needs to come from the technologist because that’s the way the power structure works, especially in larger companies. So you just have to do that adaptation. But I think, regardless of whether you make the shift or not, whatever conversation you’re going to have, understanding the nature of that other person and what they want, and what makes them go, what makes them tick, whether they’re tiresome. I think it’s central to business.
Tom: Okay. So I just have to stop you here. Because this is a pretty profound shift in thinking. It sounds to me like what you’re saying is, “If I’m a technologist, and I’m working hard, and learning technology and implementing that technology well, and solving hard problems that the business desperately needs solved, that’s not enough for me to get promoted and move up into a leadership role.”
Charles: That’s very well said. Yep, it’s maybe required, but it’s certainly not sufficient. Because look, the skills that you’re going to need at any level in the hierarchy are going to change. I remember Tom, I’m a pretty direct guy and that carried through from when I was an individual contributor to when I was first leading the initial teams that I led. And then I stepped up to running much larger teams, hundreds and hundreds of people around the world, and I carried through that same style. And I had a boss who came to me early on and he said, “Look, you’re going to have to change the style.”
It turns out he was right. Because what’s happening was that people were trying to figure out the message behind the message because nobody else in that position had ever been quite so direct. So they were all, I’d have an offhand comment, and they would go off and be panicked about we’re going to step product line or we’re going step on the process or what have you. So I had to learn to attune my communication style to a different context, and a different audience, and so forth. I was able to keep that direct nature of communication, but the style had to change.
What I found was that style had to continuously change as I moved up, as I moved geographically around the world, different audiences, different types of people, whether it’s cultural differences or functional differences. Talk to a finance team differently than you’d talk to a technology team and so forth. So I think that ability to be a bit of a chameleon to adapt a style is required, whether you’re a technologist coming up or anybody else. The earlier you learn that the better.
Tom: Wow. That’s an interesting observation. It has to do with, I sat down with a client the other day and they said, “Well, we could hire a management consulting firm to come in and do this stuff. But you speak our language and we feel very comfortable with you, so want to have you in here.” I think you’re tapping into that. Even the idea of using the terminology of finance when you’re talking with a finance person.
Charles: Oh, you bet.
Tom: It’s a huge shift in the marketplace. I remember when I first heard the term net present value it made my eyes roll back in my head. I have no idea what that is and I don’t know why I care. The same thing that you were saying.
Tom: Yeah, right. That’s it. Look, it’s no value judgement here, at least from my perspective, Tom. Some people will maybe heed this message and say, “I really do want to make this transition, and move into a senior leadership position.” I’m telling you, you better do these things. On the other hand, there are going to be many people who say, “Having looked over this cliff, I’m not really interested in jumping,” and that’s fine, too. I think there are a great many people who have wonderful careers as technologists, all the way through, so it’s a choice. I’m being rather emphatic about having to do these things, if you decide to go this direction you have to do these things, but it doesn’t mean that you have to go in this direction.
Tom: Yeah, it’s a good point and I think what’s interesting though, is that I would suggest to you that very few technical people recognize it’s a choice they’re making.
Charles: You’re probably right. Do you think that people, that technologists that you spend time with these days, Tom, do they think about the long term, as they should?
Tom: I don’t know. I think that an awful lot of the folks that I work with generally have felt like, “You don’t really understand the technology the way you may once have understood it.” I was in leadership for a while in that world, and they would, “Well, you don’t really get it because this is harder than it was when you were…” whatever. It may be true. They may be smarter than me, but they’re so enamored with the digital bits of it that they struggle with the other pieces of understanding how that fits into the overall playbook. So I think just the idea that these are areas that you need to look at. Now the one thing that you talked about that was relatively frankly a bit abstract is this concept of business expansion and increasing profitability of business. What are your thoughts about the technologists beginning to learn about how the company operates, and then also the industry that they’re in?
Charles: Well, I think that those tools are a means to an end as well, and those ends are those two things that you referred to, the revenue and profit. What is it that governs the ability to grow the business? Well, obviously it’s the environment in which the business operates. It’s the types of product the business sells. The ability of the customers to pay for or interest in the customers and paying for additional products or services. So all of those are certainly contributors. I think the reason that I focus on the two, the profit and revenue growth is simply to say that, look, every thing else is a means to an end. It’s to do one of those to things. So there’s a lot of contributors, but make sure that you don’t lose the forest for the trees here.
Tom: Well, it does kind of boil it down, right? How are the projects, that I’m doing, directly related to revenue growth and what if they’re not?
Charles: You bet. So I’ll give you an example here, Tom. As I changed the way that I managed our technology folks, we used to do at Forrester a big prioritization of projects every quarter and always lots of stuff in the hopper. What I asked for was we change the nature of the prioritization conversation that we would do roughly every 90 days, and I wanted a couple of columns added to the spreadsheet that they were using. What they were tracking in the spreadsheet was typical and IT stuff. It was about the project, and the cost, and the timeline, and the phases, and all of that stuff.
I asked them to add to that spreadsheet, “What is this going to do to revenue, and what’s it going to do to margin?” And many, many times I’d look across the spreadsheet and what was in those columns would either be blank or it would be not very meaningful and I’d say, “Look, we’re not doing this project.” There’d be a great outcry and they’d say, “Oh, we have to do this,” and blah, blah, blah. I’d say, “Guys, if you can’t find something meaningful to put in here, I’m not doing it.” So I take a kinetic stream in saying, “Look, you better be clear as you’re thinking about what it is that you’re developing or what it is that you’re enhancing, so what’s it doing for the business?
Tom: So I’m intrigued by that. So let’s say that I’m a senior database administrator and I’ve been doing and I’m the guy who’s now in charge of the DBA’s and I’m thinking, “Okay. I want to move into a more leadership role,” and I know everything there is know about database tuning and spindles and all those kinds of things, and I’m starting to see there are some of these things out there. How in the world would I begin to get started even thinking about how I would tie the database, which is a core infrastructure piece, to profit and revenue?
Charles: Okay. So first things first, you’ve got to think a little bit beyond that core technical expertise. Obviously to get higher your purview is going to expand, so what’s a click up from one individual technology? Well, maybe it’s a collection of technologies. That is to say maybe the next step is to an architecture role. So hypothetically if you’re going to map that, you’ll say, “Well, where I want to be after being in charge of the database operation, it’s in architecture.” Well, what’s the purpose of architecture? A couple things. Number one, it’s to make sure that the environment operates efficiently, so that is it saves money, drives money down to the bottom line or it allows us to create new products or services, more quickly to get in front of our customers to drive revenue. So you can pretty quickly once you get up to that level, tie it back in a very direct way. I think to your point it is harder at an individual technology level, but necessarily, “Hey, you’re going to have to go that higher level, as your next step in any case.” Does that make senses?
Tom: It does. It does and I think that’s a great next step natural progression piece. So for you Wharton was a model, right, to go in and get equipped to do some of these things. How about the people aren’t destined for Wharton? Do you have some suggestions about areas that they would even begin to consider? Are there bloggers or are there books or courses you could take online? Any of those kinds of things that you might even think, even in the general direction that might be helpful for folks?
Charles: Well, all of the business schools, especially at this point, have executive education, and so that’s a place where you might think about taking a course or two. Most of them do nights and weekends and this sort of thing. I think it’s important personally to have that experience because again, you’re building your toolkit. It’s not anything specific that you learn there. It’s a toolkit. It’s a set of capabilities that you’re building in yourself. But that set of capabilities, as I pointed out earlier is also a language, and so you can read books, and so forth, whatever online or what have you, but immersing yourself in it, is a very, very good investment of time and energy.
Tom: Well, the challenge is, I like the points that you bring up about the executive education. Because an awful lot of folks don’t have the guts to do what you did which was to quit a job where you were doing very well, and you were getting paid nicely for your contributions to say, “I’m going to now go to school and fund that,” and that was a bold decision that you had made about your career progression. So I think the concept of the executive education is that.
Charles: Well, it turns out to be less bold maybe than it might first appear, Tom. The reason why I’m hesitating to recommend that all techies go get a business degree is that, I think at a certain level, it’s not worth it. So I’ll tell you what I mean. If you go and you take your GMAT’s and you have your college grades and so forth, if you can get into a top 20 B-school, I’d say it is absolutely worth doing. You should do it. You should do without hesitation because actually it’s not that big of a risk. If you look at all of the numbers on that, what you tap into at those schools is a very good out placement for your next gig, and also typically a very big jump in salary when you do so.
So the odds are in your favor if you can do that. The story’s a lot less clear if you’re not able to get into one of those schools. You go to the regional B-school, I think if you can swing it, that you can afford it, you’ll be well served by it, but it’s not exactly a financial slam dunk in the same way. If that’s the case, my recommendation is maybe you should think about just taking some classes.
Tom: Well, that’s interesting insight. The one thing that I’m curious about as well, and it hasn’t come up in our conversation is the idea of the people that you meet in your journey. So the folks that you met in business school, are those folks that you have stayed in touch with?
Charles: Oh, yeah. Yeah, you bet and many of them have gone on to very impressive things, and started companies that you’ve heard of, and all of this sort of thing. But the power of the network is a big reason to go to one of those schools. The ability to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, look. We went to the same school,” and be able to at least get your foot in the door to have a conversation. Yeah, it’s a significant factor.
Tom: But I would suspect that your network is not limited to those folks that you went to school with. If I know Charles, I know that you’ve been building your network for your whole professional career.
Charles: Oh, absolutely and I think that’s hardly unique. I think we all do that, especially in this age of Facebook and LinkedIn, and so forth. It’s essentially become easier than ever to do so. Personally I’m all about collecting smart people. People who I look at and I go, “Wow. I can learn a lot from that person,” so those are the kind of people, like you Tom, that I keep in the network over the long haul here and say, “Look, I want to understand what this person is up to and maybe I can learn some things.”
Tom: Well, that’s an interesting point, and you’re really looking at how are the people, selecting the people intentionally that you want to have in your network as opposed to just letting it happen by accident.
Charles: Oh, sure. Yeah, for me, I’ll give you an example with LinkedIn which is great tool, of course. I think a lot of people just say, “Hey, look. Anybody that sends me an invitation, come on in. More connections is better.” But that sort of dilutes the value of it, both for you and for everybody else. To me, I try and think of the future and say, “Look, if somebody came to me and they said, ‘Oh, this person’s in your network. Would you recommend them to me?'” If I don’t either know them well enough to make a recommendation or frankly wouldn’t recommend them, I’m not putting them in the network. So I have hundreds and hundreds of invites sitting in the inbox that I’m not sure what to do with because I’m not going to put them in network. And so I think being a little bit selective there is a win because the quality of the network then becomes a powerful tool. Quality in my view is more important than quantity.
Tom: Well, that’s a very good point, and I think for most of us, we meet the people we meet in the projects that we do, and it doesn’t occur to us that we might weed some of those people out of the network.
Charles: Yeah, I think you have to do that.
Tom: So what are your thoughts on this concept that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with?
Charles: That’s interesting. I’ve not heard that before.
Tom: Is that right?
Charles: The average of the five people I spend the most time with. Well, the people I spend the most time with, I suppose are in my family. So I’ll take that as win.
Tom: Choose your family well, right?
Charles: Yeah, right, exactly.
Tom: Well, I think that the idea of being selective and intentional about who you want to be around, whether those people are going to suck the life out of you or whether they’re going to encourage you and build you up, whether they’re going to challenge you. I liked what you said earlier about finding people that you can learn something from.
Charles: Yeah, you bet. I’m sort of ruthless about that. I’m always looking to find the angle where I can have somebody teach me something. So obviously I’m there for people as well, to maybe teach them something, if there is something that I know that they don’t know. But I’m always looking to learn from others.
Tom: So I’ll do one more question here and it really speaks to the question of mentoring relationships or having people who have been influential for you. Have you had any formal or informal mentoring relationships and how did they get started?
Charles: Yeah, so I’ve had maybe both. The informal ones have occurred organically as they do. Where you get to know somebody and through time you pick their brain, and bring problems to them and so forth. I think that’s an important thing to have a sounding board like that, professional sounding board beyond the family sounding board. Somebody maybe understands the context of your business life a little bit better. Then also on a formal basis, I worked for some years with an executive coach which was a terrific experience. It’s a top guy who coached basically our entire executive team and helped to create a more effective, more functioning, higher functioning team. From somebody who was able to give us some very direct advice and feedback about what to do in particular situations. So my advice would be if you have the opportunity to do some of that do it.
Tom: That’s a great recommendation says the guy who’s in the coaching business.
Charles: So Tom is a great coach. If you’re thinking about looking for a place to start, I think you might’ve just found it.
Tom: Well, I think it’s helpful to get some dispassionate perspective. Our families tend to be very much on our side, as they should be, and having somebody who’s just not on the boat with you, but somebody who can see where you’re boat is going to say, “Hey, there’s a waterfall over there. You may not want to go over there.”
Charles: Yeah, well said. Well said, I like that.
Tom: So it’s really I think just an idea that folks do have the answers, but it’s a question of perspective and if you look at it from a different perspective, frequently I find with clients they’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t frame it that way.” “Well, maybe if you didn’t interpret it that they were attacking you…because they aren’t thinking that much about you.”
Charles: Right, well said. Maybe the corollary to that is if you’re going to go that direction, make sure you listen to the coach. There’s nothing worse than having somebody give you that outside perspective and just say, “You know what? They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Tom: Yeah, really.
Charles: They probably did know what they were talking about.
Tom: Oh, my. Well, I appreciate very much your investment of time with us today and I know that there are folks who are going to really get a huge amount of value from this conversation. Do you have any final thoughts about somebody whose a technical person who’s saying, “Yeah, I really am ready to make that jump?” Any insights from the COO that you might want to bring to say, “Here’s what I think you could do that would be a great first step?”
Charles: Well, I’m just going to reiterate maybe, Tom, what I mentioned for the course of the conversation here. Which is, understanding how the person across from you thinks about the world, what they care about, what they need in the world, is just incredibly important. So at the most senior level, as I mentioned, revenue and profit, and there are derivatives of that as you go down the chain. I think if people could take one thing away from this, if they could do more active thinking about what that other person needs and wants, they’re going to be better off.
Tom: Well, that is hugely valuable advice. I can tell you, it applies in marriage. It applies in business. It’s worthwhile in so many different areas. So I think this has been an incredible investment of time for our listeners, I know to able to get that perspective from an expert like you, Charles. So I appreciate your contributions here and I’m excited to watch to see what’s happening next for you. You’re involved with some climbing adventures as well, are you not?
Charles: I am, yeah. When I’m not working, I’m hopefully up in the mountains somewhere.
Tom: So what’s your next challenge to conquer in that respect?
Charles: So let’s see. In January I’m doing, I want to ascend up Mt. Washington, up in New Hampshire, home of the world’s worst weather. One of their official taglines and then March, [inaudible 00:46:45] and June up Mt. Ranier. So I’ve got them stacked up here.
Tom: That sounds fantastic. I’m sure you could talk about some leadership lessons from mountain climbing, as well. We’ll have to do another call on that one.
Charles: All right. Fair enough. Well, thanks for the time, Tom.
Tom: Yeah, thank you. Take care.
Joel: Here are some key ideas from the interview. Number one, brilliantly solving key technical problems very well, is not enough to get me promoted. Number two, leaders think differently than technical experts. Someone has to adapt and it’s not going to be the leadership people. And to number three, understand how the person across from you thinks. What do they care about? What do they need? Today’s episode hack is for you to make a plan, for you to make that next level. What is the next level? Who do you need to influence? What do they care about? What are one or two areas where increasing your business knowledge will help? Who is a person that already speaks that language? Can you ask them to help you? And that is today’s episode hack.
Tom: Thanks for listening to this episode of becoming a geek leader. You can play a part in helping the podcast to grow. If you enjoyed it, please do me a favor. The way to get the podcast to grow is for you to go to iTunes and give it a rating. If enough of you give me a good rating in iTunes, this podcast will show up in their New and Noteworthy section. Being in New and Noteworthy is a great way to attract more listeners, and having more listeners, helps me have the support to keep the podcast going. There are three simple steps to giving me a rating. One, go to the iTunes store in the podcast section. Two, search for Becoming a Geek Leader, and three give the podcast a great rating, and while you’re there, why not write a quick review as well? Thanks. This is Tom Cooper. Thanks for listening. Be sure to join me next time for another episode of Becoming a Geek Leader. Join me in my mission of discovering better ways to lead others at work and at home.
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