Putting Himself Up for Re-Election (by His Staff)
Published: October 30, 2010
This interview with Arkadi Kuhlmann, chairman and president of ING Direct USA, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Earl Wilson/The New York Times
Each year, Arkadi Kuhlmann, chairman and president of ING Direct USA, says he asks his employees if they want him to stay on, because “I don’t want to serve here unless I’ve got the commitment of people genuinely wanting me to serve.”
Every Sunday, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing.
Q. What advice would you give to somebody who’s about to become a C.E.O. for the first time?
A. The one thing that you’re going to have to work on is being able to think on your feet. If you didn’t grow up as a street kid, you’d better start thinking like a street kid, because you’re going to have lots of surprises.
People are always testing you. People are always watching you. You are always on. You have to understand that everything’s being interpreted, and you have to keep thinking in two and three dimensions.
The only reason you’re going to be a leader is because people are going to follow you, and they’re only going to follow you if they have confidence in you. And the No. 1 job of a C.E.O. is to eliminate doubt. My only job, really, is to eliminate doubt in every situation.
Q. But it’s also a C.E.O.’s job to ask questions.
A. You’ve got to understand the timing. No one expects you to always say, “My way, my way.” That’s not what I’m talking about. But if we have this meeting, somewhere in the meeting or at the end of the meeting, they’re going to look to you because you’re the C.E.O., and they’re going to say, is there any doubt? There may be disagreements, different views, but people need confidence. Companies need confidence, and that’s a big part of my role.
Q. Were you always a leader, even when you were younger?
A. I do put my hand up. In school, if the teacher asked a question, I’d put my hand up. If I’m in a room or a crowd of people, I tend to just get involved. Usually, I really like whatever the problem is. I like to get close to the fire. Some people have a desire for that, I’ve noticed, and some people don’t. I just naturally gravitate to the fire. So I think that’s a characteristic that you have, that’s in your DNA.
Q. How has your leadership style evolved over time?
A. I’m probably a bit more deliberate now than I probably was 10 or 15 years ago.
Q. What does that mean?
A. I used to do meetings and say, O.K., somebody’s got to lead. Enough discussion. This isn’t a democracy. We’re doing it and that’s it. I probably did more of that in the past. I do probably a lot less of that now.
A. I think I’m able to handle a lot more frustration now than I used to. I can tolerate much more chaos. I can probably emotionally tolerate you making mistakes for another week and a half, whereas 10 years ago I would have said, “O.K., that’s enough.”
Now I’m willing to let you sort of stir around because I’m very conscious of you being critical of me micromanaging or making decisions too fast or saying that I won’t listen.
I’m a little bit more sensitive about those issues than I was years ago.
Q. What else?
A. The other thing I’ve learned is that a lot of times, things work a lot better when I’m not there. I hate to say that, but it’s absolutely true.
And I learned that, actually, from my two young boys. You know, like a typical dad, you play with them, and then they have something they’re working on, and I try to help them. And then I go away because I’m off running an errand or doing something else. I come back, and they’ve done it actually quite well on their own. And the light bulb goes on, saying, well, sometimes you’ve just got to let people do their own thing. And they will get it done.
Q. What is unusual about the way you run your company?
A. I’ve been the C.E.O. for 10 years. In December, I’m asking the employees again, would you vote for me to serve with you another year? And all my colleagues think I’m nuts, and the board thinks I’m nuts. But I don’t want to serve here unless I’ve got the commitment of people genuinely wanting me to serve.
Q. Tell me more about that.
A. It’s a vote. It’s anonymous, of course. I’m not asking for a popularity contest. Part of it is, do you have faith in the mission? Do you have faith in the company? Do you have faith in me? Now, the shareholders are O.K. with me, the board’s O.K. with me, the regulators are O.K. with me, and my customers seem to like me. But what about the associates? It’s a big question.
The difficulty is getting people to interpret why I do this vote. I want people to get two things from this. One is that I don’t take the job for granted. And, No. 2, that I’m willing to be accountable to them, not because I work for them in a broader sense, but I’ve got to walk the talk, right? So if I keep walking around saying all the time that our associates are so important, then why don’t they have a say in terms of whether or not I’m leading?
Q. How would you finish a paragraph that begins, “My philosophy of leadership is … ”?
A. My philosophy of leadership is to be authentic in the way you deal with people. And that means if you’re going to walk the talk, that you actually do that. The second thing is that leadership is about service, and you can’t lead if you can’t follow. And so you’ve got to create a mission.
It is never about you. It is always about the mission. And people will follow you if you’re prepared to get a mission done, something with a goal that is a little bit beyond the reach of all of us. That’s what leadership’s about.
Q. How do you hire?
A. When I recruit people, I start talking about the mission. I say, “Do you want to join me on this ride? Here’s who I am.” And then the first thing I say to you is, “Tell me about all your setbacks. Have you been fired, divorced, or does your dad not think you add up to much?”
I want to know that you’ve had challenges in life, and I want to know what you’ve done about them. Because if you think that riding with me on this mission gives you an opportunity to prove to a lot of people and to yourself that you’re actually pretty good at something, and that you can make something happen, then this is your moment, and I’m going to give it to you. I can give you the break, but you’ve got to get it done.
I’ve operated like that my whole life, because a lot of successful people look good, they’ve got great degrees, great families, they’ve got everything. How can you motivate them? You’re not going to motivate them. You’re going to keep them in the great style they’re accustomed to. So you can’t be a rebel if you don’t have something to prove. You can’t be an outlier unless you want to actually turn the tables upside down. And you’ve got to mean it.
Q. So let’s say you’re interviewing me. How do you find out if I’m an outlier?
A. Well, one clear sign is if you’re difficult. Outliers are, by definition, always difficult. They’re difficult to manage, difficult to get along with. The other thing is, you’ve got to start by looking outside the industry. I’m looking for people with new ideas, a new set of eyes who look at things differently.
But in the interview, I have to look and say, “Well, what really makes him tick that would make him different?” So I’d be probing to see if you have a hobby. What do you do in the evenings? I’m trying to find data points, some clues to figure out what you are all about.
Q. Give me an example of how you do that.
A. Here’s one. There are five animals — a lion, a cow, a horse, a monkey and a rabbit. If you were asked to leave one behind, which one would you leave behind?
Q. Leave behind? In what sense?
A. Make up your own scenario.
Q. I’d leave the rabbit behind.
A. What was the story you had in mind?
Q. If I’m going on a journey, the rabbit isn’t a lot of use to me.
A. “Isn’t a lot of use. …” O.K., so a utilitarian approach.
A. Well, I would leave the cow behind because I thought I could ride the horse; the monkey would be on my back; the little rabbit, I would just stick in my jacket. But the one thing that was going to hold me up is the cow, which is slow. And the lion can forage out there. So now you know what I picked and I know what you picked.
So the lion represents pride, the horse represents work, the cow represents family, the monkey represents friends, and the rabbit represents love. In a stress situation that you and I’d be working in, I know the one thing that you would sacrifice would be love, and your story would be something like this: that you could sacrifice love with people because you could make it up to them later.
So if you have to get something done on the weekend, you’d work all weekend. When push came to shove, you’d sacrifice love. So that teaches me quite a bit about you. If you picked the horse, the conversation would end. I wouldn’t hire you because we’re never leaving work behind. Those types of examples teach me quite a bit about you.
Q. But this psychology test of the five animals …
A. It’s actually a Japanese personality test. I just happened to pick that up.