The New York Times
By: Adam Bryant
December 18, 2011
To stay great, never forget your basics
This interview with Geoffrey Canada, president and C.E.O. of the nonprofit Harlem Children's Zone, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What were some early management challenges for you?
A. At a school in Massachusetts where I once worked, we managed early on through consensus. Which sounds wonderful, but it was just a very, very difficult way to sort of manage anything, because convincing everybody to do one particular thing, especially if it was hard, was almost impossible.
Q. How big a group was this?
A. There were about 25 teachers and instructors and others. And very quickly I went from being this wonderful person, ''Geoff is just so nice, he's just such a great guy,'' to: ''I cannot stand that guy. He just thinks he's in charge and he wants to do things his way.'' And it was a real eye-opener for me because I was trying to change something that everybody was comfortable with. I don't think we were doing a great job with the kids, and I thought we could perform at a higher level.
It was my first realization that people liking you and your being a good manager sometimes have nothing to do with one another. And I really like people to like me. I was always the kind of person who was a team player. Then I found out that that worked in theory just fine, but it made no sense when you were trying to do difficult things.
Managing under those circumstances became difficult because I think it's one thing to manage when people are rooting for you. It's different when people really aren't rooting for you, and they want your plan not to work to prove that they were right and you were wrong.
Q. What other takeaways did you get from that experience?
A. Convincing people to give your way a try will work if you neutralize -- and sometimes you have to cauterize -- the ones who really are against change. They're the kind of person who, if you tell them it's raining outside, they'll fight you tooth and nail. You take them outside in the rain, and they'll say, ''But it wasn't raining five seconds ago.''
I spent a year trying to convince those people to change and give me a chance. Then I realized that was a wasted year. I'd have been much better just to simply say O.K., thank you, difference of opinion. Go do something else with your life. Let me work with this group of folks and move forward. And then you can rebuild that relatively quickly.
Q.And so, your approach now?
A. Now I am very clear with people that I will respect your opinion, and I will listen to the range of issues on the table, but once a decision is made, even if you don't agree with it, it is your job to make me right. That's just how it goes. Then, in the end, if it turns out that we've worked as hard as possible and I'm wrong, I'll just say, ''O.K., so let's change.'' I've also been convinced of some paths we should go down when people make a reasonable case. You want to encourage the kind of risk-taking behavior that keeps organizations moving forward.
You have to drive folks to innovate. The tendency in lots of large organizations is to try and find a comfortable place where you think you can get measured rewards for measured work. In other words, they say to themselves, ''I know how much I'm going to get if I do this much, and then my life is in balance.'' I just don't think you get a lot of innovation under those circumstances. You want people to figure out how to do things better, to figure out a smarter way. When that's a constant process, you start seeing things innovate. It's not because someone comes up with some brand-new idea where you say, ''Oh, no one's ever thought about this before.''
Q.Other thoughts on innovation?
A. Innovation sticks for about 18 months. So let's say you put a great innovative program in place. You put the right people on it, you get everything organized, and then if you don't come back and do anything with it for 18 months, that program's half as good as when you started it. They just start decaying.
And I think one of the challenges for us in this business, in management generally, is that nobody wants to keep going back and doing the same thing over and over. Everybody wants to get this brand-new idea and really get it going, instead of paying attention to the other things that are fundamental to our business. If you don't go back and check on a regular basis, those things begin to decay, and you end up constantly having to reinvent something that you already did. Getting a team of people who really understand how essential that is to staying great is one of the real challenges.
Q. What are some other leadership challenges that you deal with?
A.We have 11,000 kids. The thing that I've been trying to say to the senior team is there's no downside for bringing a problem up and asking for help and support. Or even consultation on it. You'll never get a mark against you, like, ''Oh goodness, this is the third time he brought something up and said he was having trouble.'' I tell the senior folk that you've got to be much more active in actually making sure people really get this fact -- that there's no penalty for bringing something up.
Q.There are politics in every organization, and they really come to the fore in meetings. How do you handle that?
A. There's not a day that goes by that I don't draw on my undergraduate background in psychology. I just don't understand how people manage well if they don't know anything about any of these underlying dynamics in these group settings.
You've got a certain competitiveness of all of the people sitting around a table who all want to show how brilliant they are, and how helpful they are. You've got people who are absolutely going to be defensive, because maybe they're responsible for the thing that's being pulled apart right in front of their eyes. I always love this technique of just saying to that person, ''If I were you right now I would just be feeling like everybody's attacking me, and wondering why I volunteered to do this.'' Then people start laughing, because they know that's exactly how the person feels. And you're sort of validating that they're not crazy, and you pull down the level of anxiety, and you create some transparency so that people realize the point is actually how you solve problems, and not the other dynamics of the meeting.
I always explain to people that if you are unwilling to learn from people who are doing things better than you're doing them, then it's going to be very, very tough to get better at what we're doing. Taking advantage of the group to get better is something that I think folks struggle with. There are people who say right upfront, ''I'm calling you tomorrow because I saw those numbers, and I just don't know how you did that.'' You just look at them and say, ''O.K., that person's going to end up being a star.'' And their numbers improve almost immediately, because they used the highest performance as the base of what they're trying to accomplish.
Q. A lot of managers go out of their way to avoid having difficult conversations. Your thoughts?
A. I call them adult conversations. People don't want to have these conversations. They will avoid them. I am often asking people: Do you need help with having these conversations? So you're going to talk to that person. What are you going to say to them? How are you going to say it?
It's something that most of us aren't trained to do. I used to think it was particularly true in a not-for-profit business, because people who come to work at a not-for-profit want to help people, so it's harder for them to make these tough calls. But the more I have seen people in for-profits, I think they're even worse at it.
I'm just stunned sometimes with how unwilling people are to bring somebody in the office and just say to them: ''Look, you're a good person. You know I like you. I like your family. This job is not really working out, and I'm going to have to let you go.'' And so they will put people in another position, where they don't really add to the bottom line, so they don't have to deal with firing them. We don't have the luxury of being able to do that. I mean, we don't have positions that we can just sort of stuff you in.
Q.Let's shift to hiring.
A. I want to work with people who are on a mission and have really struggled with trying to do some tough things. So I will ask people to tell me something they've really failed at. Then you listen for the quality of the response -- because immediately you can see people doing the calculations, thinking that ''if I give him too big a failure, he's going to think this is the wrong guy to hire.''
But a person who's never experienced any real serious setbacks and challenges is going to have a very hard time working for us. Because all of us are constantly pushing a limit that folks say we can't get to. You have to want to be the best, and recognize that we're not. And that has to be part of the DNA of the people we hire.
I do everything possible to make sure that we stay away from people who see this job as a personal extension of their own ego, or they want it to influence friends and family instead of doing the mission. So I try to drill down on what motivates people. Why do they really want to come here? What kind of challenges have they faced in their life?
And people need a pretty decent sense of humor to work here. We're doing hard work, and people are under a lot of stress, but most of it has lots of humor associated with it. I just find that it is a very healthy way to work. We like people who can celebrate the tough work, and take ourselves very seriously, but also can make fun of ourselves at the same time.