Anne Mulcahy was interviewed by Adam Bryant of the New York Times on March 22. 2009. Anne Mulcahy, Chairwoman and CEO of Xerox answered questions ranging from lessons learned last decade, how she deals with time management issues, developing leaders, and how to stay in touch with people. She was also asked if she has an acid-test for candidates, what’s the most challenging part of her job, her main role and responsibilities, and how she deals with the subject of change in those candidates she’s interviewing. There are a number of really interesting insights provided by Anne in this interview.
After reviewing the interview a number of times, I decided to summarize the key points of the interview, and including my comments and thoughts.
LESSONS LEARNED LAST DECADE…
Anne Mulcahy was asked about “lessons learned” as she led the turnaround at Xerox last decide. Her primarily response was that the entire management team felt they had a window of opportunity, which was another name for this crisis according to Mulcahy. She went on to say when confronted or given this opportunity (depending on your perspective), you work as hard as you can and accomplish as much as possible. Be an opportunist during this challenging event and change can be very compelling; where you ride it out as much as you can.
ACID-TEST FOR CANDIDATES?
One question asked of Anne had to do with reviewing candidates – whether there’s an acid-test she uses. Anne’s essential response to the review process pertains to behavior and culture. It is understood that qualified candidates already have the necessary competence and qualifications. At this point, it’s about whether they’ll be a good fit. Have they done the homework about the company and really know its vision? Do they really want to work there and will they belong? Anne feels it’s important to probe and this type of approach and exercise helps determine if the candidate will truly fit into the company culture.
HAVE DESIRABLE QUALITIES FOR CANDIDATES CHANGED OVER TIME?
This question revolves around whether Mulcahy looks for different qualities in candidates than she did a few years prior. In her response, it is not clear if she’s talking about senior management, middle management, or all employees. She states adaptability and flexibility are two key skills she looks for in today’s candidate. She is continually surprised on how much we need to change in today’s work environment. In other words, for those that want comfort and structure, it gets harder to be satisfied in her company. She feels ambiguity is the norm. You need to embrace ambiguity and adaptability. It appears that those who do their best actually enjoy this type of culture where it’s Ok when there’s a lack of definition in aspects of the company.
DEVELOPING LEADERS VERSUS EGALITARIANISM…
Anne talks about her experience working in HR. It doesn’t appear she has any regrets working in HR for part of her career. She’s candid about claiming many people in companies rarely receive regular feedback even though that’s exactly what many people desire. Her desire was to attempt to influence the culture that assesses people accurately and dealing with people fairly. What a noble goal, often missed in today’s corporation.
She also goes on to talk about the other part of talent development. Not that everyone is created equal, and it’s crucial that companies identify those employees with high potential and treat them differently. For those with a lot of talent, it’s crucial to accelerate their development and pay them more. This process, according to Mulcahy, is very important to developing first class leadership in the company. She goes on to state that some companies get confused with being egalitarian, they strive for processes that are the fairest but this doesn’t bode well for the success of these companies. According to Anne, to help companies to be successful, they need to be selected about identifying talent and investing in the future.
HOW STAY IN TOUCH WITH HER PEOPLE?
This question probes how Anne, as a chief executive, can stay in touch with people at all levels. Her response indicates she does this through getting feedback, doing town hall meetings, visiting the operation facilities, and spending valuable time with your customers. This tone and behavior she sets helps her entire management staff do likewise.
Part of her answer states the importance of getting up close and personal and allows people to give you bad news without repercussions. Thanking people for identifying problems early and empowering them to try to solve them. What an interesting perspective – this is certainly not typical of all business leaders. She also talks about the importance of handling feedback. Creating an atmosphere of handling feedback well helps keep open the lines of communication. It appears this tone set can flow down to many areas of the organization.
EMBRACE AMBIGUITY AND CHANGE
The interviewer inquires on how Mulcahy can determine if someone has the quality to embrace ambiguity and change. Knowing or seeing this is partly due to experience – knowing how much experience someone has. She goes on to say it’s not just vertical movements, but horizontal as well. She adds this quality also incorporates having the desire to learn new things and the aptitude to handle the non-traditional challenges if necessary. Being open and adaptive to the job environment will help them deal with the uncertainty of change.
MOST CHALLENGING PART OF HER JOB
The most challenging part of her job was asked of her on March, 2009, where the economy was still deep in recession, which was very trying for her and her people. Even though they are doing great work, and working hard, because of economic challenges, the results are not consistent with the work put forth. That has to be tough for a leader; it’s out of your hands but it shows how her caring leadership style. It’s tough that sometimes economic conditions will dictate your success as a department or company even though the compnay may be working hard and doing excellent work. This can be very challenging for a leader having to deal with this situation.
HOW TO DEAL WITH TIME MANAGEMENT ISSUES
Many of us feel the constraints of time in our personal and professional life and this question revolves around the challenges of time management on her job. When life deals you lemons, make lemonade. Which means, because Mulcahy travels often, she uses this time to help her keep in touch with her employees. Travel is part of the deal so she doesn’t whine or complain about it. Instead, she makes it a positive by using her time well. It’s time to be reflective and thoughtful. It’s a time to communicate; it’s time to catch up on her work.
WORKING WITH SENIOR LEADERS
In terms of dealing and working with her staff, Anne feels very fortunate that her staff is tenured, mature, and usually on the same page. Because the team has been together for quite some time, candor is commonplace and members can truly express themselves. Their experience and challenges in the past have made them battle-tested, having gone through the good and bad times together which helps their effectiveness. You can tell she appreciates her staff, which makes her job a little less challenging and enjoyable.
VISION AND DIRECTION AS CEO
How does she deal with the vision and direction issue being a CEO? Of course, a major role of any CEO is providing the vision for their employees. In addition, that vision has to be clear and well communicated. She feels responsible to convey what direction the company is heading. In addition, once employees know and understand that direction, her role is to help them feel passionate about that direction. She feels it is her job to articulate and communicate her vision in such a way so people can identify with it so they can use it to make a difference.