The New York Times
Published: December 26, 2009
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A. When I was 16, one of my first jobs was to be a hostess at a restaurant. But I wound up being the boss because I was in charge of scheduling, and I was in charge of deciding who gets to go early, who gets to come in late, who gets to go on break, who doesn’t, what stations should they be at.
It was darn close to being the general manager of the restaurant, which was shocking to me at 16. So I had this level of responsibility that I enjoyed at a very young age, and really took to heart.
Q. Were there some early lessons you learned about what to do, or what not to do?
A. The early lesson was about putting yourself in other people’s shoes. So trying to understand, why do they need this? Why do they do what they do? Why is something important to them?
Q. What other things did you learn early in your career?
A. Over the years, something I really had to learn was how to truly listen. Sometimes people act like they’re listening, but they’re really formulating their own thoughts in their head. When I would get feedback along the way in my career, people would say, "You’re not a very good listener.” I would think I was, but somehow I wasn’t expressing that, or people didn’t think I was listening to them.
So I really spent a lot of time, even in the earlier years, of biting my lip, slowing down and listening to what they were saying.
Q. When did you get the feedback that you needed to be a better listener?
A. Well, it was when I came to Qwest 21 years ago. I probably ignored that for a good five years. But as your responsibilities grow — more departments and individuals and bigger initiatives and bigger budgets — you start paying attention to that.
I reached a point where my department was so big, I couldn’t do all the work or I would have killed myself working 24/7. When I reached a point where there was no way to get it done, except through influencing individuals, that’s when I had to take a step back and say: “Well, I can’t muscle my way through this. I can’t do it myself. I can’t get through this. I’m working weekends and nights, and we’re not getting anywhere, we’re not getting the results.”
You also get to a position where everything’s filtered when it comes to you. So you have to dig under, and the only way to dig under is to listen. People have to believe you want to listen; otherwise you’ll get the corporate gloss-over — “Everything’s fine, don’t worry.”
Q. Any other lessons?
A. I realized people want a leader. I think prior to that I was mindful to not tell people what to do. I was in a phase where I didn’t want to boss everybody around, so I would let them circulate whatever it was, an idea or decision. In fact, it was my role as the leader to give direction, to give vision, and therefore sometimes make those difficult decisions.
Q. How did that realization come to you?
A. With most of the important things I learned about leadership, it was usually because we weren’t hitting our numbers. When things are going well, you think, “Oh good, everything we’re doing is right.” When things aren’t going so great, that’s when you reflect and you say, “What am I doing that isn’t working, or what do I need to change?”
Q. How do you know when to step in and make the decision that needs to be made?
A. It’s very much on instinct and past experience. Even the instinct is driven by watching people’s body language, watching how they’re presenting. I mean you can just ask an open-ended question, and if three people wiggle and one person doesn’t, you can figure, O.K., they’re not working together. So I do spend a lot of time reading the room.
Q. Are there other ways your leadership style has evolved?
A. Well, I would say in the beginning I thought I had to keep work and home very separate. I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do, especially as a woman. You know, you don’t bring up your children and you don’t bring up the fact that you’re having these issues at home. I think young women think you have to be like a man to succeed. I was like that. I just didn’t talk about those things. After a while, when I brought my personal life into the office, it was O.K. Turns out, other people have kids, too. And, turns out, other people have these issues. I felt more comfortable when I could intertwine them. Now my calendar is one calendar — everything personal and everything professional is on one calendar. I used to keep literally two separate calendars, and then wonder why I missed a few things.
Q. Do you find that women executives still, as you used to do, try to keep things separate?
A. I do. I also think they think they have to make a choice. So my theory on why there are not very many women at higher levels is they think they have to make a choice, and they get overwhelmed, like I was. So they either leave or they make some other personal decisions, even as extreme as divorce or whatever.
But they think they have to choose between the two, and I think it’s hard for women to say: “I don’t have to choose. I can have both. I can have both. It can work. I just need to pull this together, and it’s O.K. that I say to my boss: ‘You know what, I want to leave early because I want to be at the soccer game. But don’t worry, I’ll check back in after the soccer game and finish this.’ ” I think a lot of women don’t want to test the waters like that, because they think the answer’s going to be, “Well, then, you can’t work here.”
Q. Was there any particularly good advice somebody gave you?
A. There was one individual who said, “Don’t play God.” That sounds sort of trite at first, but that was me. I think about that a lot, and by that I mean I can’t fix everything. I’m not responsible for every person and for every single thing. I do take things very much to heart, and I can’t part the sea and I can’t add a day on. The point, was you can’t do everything. You can’t fix everything, and people are still responsible for themselves. If they’re miserable about something, the company cannot fix that.
Q. How do you hire?
A. I never hire somebody without having a meal with them. I am absolutely convinced that that’s how you see what people are really like. You can tell by the way they order, you can tell by the way they treat the wait staff, you can tell by the way they drink too much or what they drink — you can pick up all these lifestyle things that you can’t get out of questioning them sitting in your office. Maybe they can’t make a decision on what to order, or they’re very snotty to the waitress. I absolutely have changed my mind on individuals after doing that.
Q. And what questions do you ask?
A. Probably one of my strongest ones that gives me insight is, “If I called three people who have worked for you, how would they describe you?” That seems rather simple, but they usually end up telling a negative story along with two good ones. I don’t know why. It’s almost like they’re afraid you’re actually going to do it.
Q. Is there anything unusual about the way you run meetings?
A. Well, the first is by saying, “Do we all know why we’re here?”
Q. Do you really say that?
A. Yes, because so many people say, “No, I don’t know, I was invited.” It’s usually the bigger meetings — not so much my direct-report team.
I get invited to a lot of meetings where someone wants to brief me, or bring me up to speed on something, which usually means that they want to tell me about their project and then ask me for money. So I open with: “Do we all know why we’re here? Are we making decisions? Are you going to ask me for something at the end?” I try to get that out right away.
It’s amazing, there will be eight people in the room and they all have a different answer of what’s going on there. I’ll also say, once we’re clear about what we’re doing: “Does everyone need to be here? If anyone feels like they want to leave right now, that would be fine.” Every once in a while a couple of people will say, “Yeah, I could use this time back,” and they get up and leave.
Q. But you could chew up 10 minutes just going around the table.
A. Sure, I think it’s a good 10 minutes. I really do.
Q. What about presentations?
A. I use a little saying, which is, “Be brief, be bright and be gone.” It’s also not uncommon for me to say, “Why don’t we put the PowerPoint aside for a minute and why don’t you just talk to me?”
Q. What’s the maximum number of PowerPoint slides you want to see?
A. Six. But I actually prefer no PowerPoint. To be honest, I’d rather just talk. A really great meeting, to me, is someone who is just talking to me and might give me a piece of paper or two to support something, but that’s it.