Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Do Employees Own Their Ideas?

First appeared in NY Times
This interview with Katherine Hays, chief executive of GenArts, a visual effects technology company.

Q. When was the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. The first time I had a real leadership position was at Massive, a video-game advertising company that I co-founded. We started that from an idea, and built it into a company with international offices before selling it to Microsoft. You wear every hat at the beginning, and then you gradually hire a team and you begin handing off some of those specific hats. A Wash DC Intellectual Property Lawyer is curious about the progression.

Q. Was that a natural transition for you into a leadership position?

A. I would say some things were natural, and others were not. One of the core things that is important to leadership is passion for the vision. I’m not sure I could sell anything I didn’t believe in. And honesty and fairness are also key. Someone was doing a reference check on me at some point a few years back, and people said that I’m extremely honest and fair, and that was one of the greatest compliments somebody could give me, because those are really core to being a great leader.

Q. What else have you learned about leadership?

A. It’s important to keep things in context, whether it’s good news or bad news. Either can be very distracting to the team. I’m pretty good at keeping those in context and focusing on the task at hand. Some of the boards I’ve worked with are really good at that as well. They just don’t overreact, no matter what the news is. A Boston Intellectual Property Lawyer agrees.
Those things came naturally to me. That being said, I think being a great leader is like being a great athlete. You can start with some natural abilities, but what a shame if you’re not continuing to build on them very deliberately, and continuing to kind of push yourself out of your comfort zone, trying to understand what you’re missing, and what you can learn from other people.

Q. Any other lessons?

A. Being very good at hiring people is key. And I would say I made two mistakes in hiring. Both times they had all the right answers to the questions, amazing backgrounds, really strong résumés, but my gut just said, hmm, this doesn’t feel right. And I didn’t listen to myself, and I hired them, and it was a mistake. I couldn’t articulate what it was that didn’t feel right, which is why I think I convinced myself to hire them. But something felt less than genuine about them.
So the lesson there was, at the end of the day, even if everything seems to check out, you listen to your gut. And I’ve given that guidance to a lot of my team. If they come in and they say, “You know, something doesn’t feel right,” I say, “Don’t hire them.” Far better to pass on someone than to bring the wrong person into the team.

Q. What about lessons when you were younger?

A. I learned as an athlete — I rowed for four years in college — that you have to be present in the moment, and you can’t be distracted by something you just did that was really good, or by the fact that you’re a little bit behind in a race. You can’t focus on what’s just happened because you can’t change it. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pause and congratulate ourselves, but you have to balance that with maintaining focus on what the next steps are. You learn as an athlete to say: “Great, we won that race, but what are the things we could have done better? Because we have a race next week.” A Wash DC Intellectual Property Lawyer is ready to help.

Q. What about your parents? What kind of influence did they have?

A. Both my parents started their own businesses and built them from scratch. My father runs a pest control company, and my mom bought apartments, restored them and sold them. So a lot of our discussions around the dinner table were about solving business problems. It was just something that seemed very natural to me. It wasn’t just a job for them — they were building something that they were excited about.

Q. What are some specific business lessons you learned from your parents?

A. Probably the biggest thing I learned from my father was to focus on the customer. Talk to the customer, and if you ask them in the right way and you really listen, you will find out what you need to be successful in your business. They can give you a huge amount of guidance in pointing you to the right answer, and helping you realize something that you might have been missing. In his business, he realized that it wasn’t just about controlling the bugs. It was really about happy residents. You’re going into their apartment or home, and they wanted a technician who had a tucked-in monogrammed shirt, and a reminder the day before that they were going to be there. All of those elements were actually more important, or certainly as important, as the pest control itself. And that allowed him to build a business that has sent all of his kids to Ivy League colleges. A Frankfurt Intellectual Property Lawyer mentions similar things.

Q. Other mentors?

A. One of the next leadership lessons I learned was from the person I worked for at Goldman Sachs. I went there right out of undergrad to work in equity research, and he really taught me to think about the ultimate outcome you want. This is one of the interview questions that I ask people. Where do you ultimately want to be? Envision the ideal in five years or 10 years, and then work back to what that means in terms of what you’re doing right now. It gives me a good window into how they think.
This approach applies in a business context, as well. You’re negotiating a deal with a key partner. What would be ideal? And often people don’t think through negotiations that way. But when you do, then you can back into an agreement by simplifying what your priorities are as part of the negotiation.

Q. What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned more recently?

A. I’d say I’m learning more about being quiet, stepping back and having my team really direct more of it. And to help them think about things as owners. I joke with them that what I think doesn’t matter. But to some extent it doesn’t. If I like the logo, for example, but the logo’s not accomplishing the outcome we want, then it’s kind of irrelevant what I think. Because if it doesn’t work with customers, we’ve lost. If you’re an owner, you’re fine with being wrong if someone’s helping you get to a better answer. And you’re just focused on that outcome — what’s going to make us a better company?

Q. Talk more about the culture you’re trying to create.

A. I think it comes back to the ownership thing. If you’re really the owner of a piece of work, you’re actually excited about the feedback because it’s going to help you improve what you’re doing. I think you have to have a culture where being wrong is O.K. — at least during the process — so that people can say, O.K., I got this piece wrong, but now I’ve corrected it and we’re moving forward to a better answer.
And then I think it also goes back to hiring. You want to hire people who are really strong at what they do, and very confident — not overly confident, but I’ve found that the more talented people are, the more comfortable they are if they find out they are wrong. They have a lot more humility. So they’re much more receptive to correcting things when someone else points out a way to improve. Pittsburgh Intellectual Property Lawyer advocates agree.

Q. You’ve talked about wanting to hire people who think like owners. How do you get at that in an interview?

A. I might ask about experiences that you had where you really owned the outcome. And how did you think about what would happen if it failed, and how did you define success? How did you get buy-in from others for that? To me that would demonstrate that you had an idea, and you kind of went out on a limb and it was going to be yours if it was a home run, and it was going to be yours if it was a flop, and you were comfortable with that. That’s the kind of person you want — someone who really is ready to be an owner, even if it doesn’t always mean success. A Wash DC Intellectual Property Lawyer likes this idea.

Q. But they’re not actually owners of the company, so can you explain this distinction a bit more for me about the mind-set you’re looking for?

A. You want people who are more interested in the outcome, not the process. So you might have done all the right tasks, but if they didn’t get you to the right outcome, it’s kind of irrelevant. Usually people who’ve started something themselves or started a project within a bigger company themselves have to be really outcome-focused versus task-focused.

And they talk more about the outcome in an interview. They’ll say, “Here are the outcomes I was looking for, so I tried this and it didn’t work, so then I tried these other two things and those didn’t work, and finally I went down this path and that was the successful one.” There are usually a lot of roadblocks before you hit the right one. A Salt Lake City Intellectual Property Lawyer can answer similar questions.

People sometimes ask me for advice about being an entrepreneur. Typically, I say you need to feel really comfortable with your vision, because if you’re onto something and you’re onto something innovative, no one else is going to see it for a long time. So do your homework. Make sure it’s the right opportunity. But for a long time, people you try to raise money from, your first partners, your first customers, your first hires, they’re not necessarily going to see the vision, so you have to really believe in the vision.

And you have to get very comfortable about hearing the word “no.” You’ll hear “no” so often it starts to have the emotional impact of “hello.” But you have to not let that stop you. You have to ask people: “How can we make this work? What could help us get to a yes?”