The New York Times: CEO Tiffany Cooper Gueye Speaks from The Corner Office
This interview with Tiffany Cooper Gueye, chief executive of BELL, a nonprofit organization that assists urban children, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Tiffany Cooper Gueye is C.E.O. of Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, a nonprofit group that assists urban children. She says that "trying to dance around issues is probably the worst thing you can do" for someone you supervise.
Every Sunday, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing. In his new book, "The Corner Office" (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. Excerpt »
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody's boss?
A. The first time was as a site manager for BELL when I was 20. I was a college senior, and I was supervising other college students and some graduate students. Being in that leadership role wasn't scary or even all that challenging. I had done leadership things throughout high school and college, so that part was easy.
But I remember my first challenge: a colleague I was supervising, instead of jumping right into tutoring, would actually start reading his newspaper. That kind of challenge stuck with me for a few years - managing people who aren't self-motivated, and the ones who don't quite get it. The people who are psyched about the mission, and committed to it, will thrive because they're about the right things. But how do I kick-start somebody who maybe shouldn't have been there? That stuck with me for a while because I didn't know what to do with it.
Q. So what did you do in that particular situation?
A. I probably let it go on for a couple of days without doing anything. What I wanted to say was, "That's a ridiculous thing to be doing right now." But I had kind of rehearsed something in my head like, "Well, maybe there's a way you can use that story to engage your students," and I tried to hint at it that way. He got the message, so that worked out fine. But I did learn a good lesson about the need to be direct.
Q. Because it sounds like you weren't really direct with him.
A. Right. That first year I was too nervous about the role, and what it meant to be a manager, and I didn't want to upset people, and I wanted them to like me. I've since learned, of course, that hinting or trying to dance around issues is probably the worst thing you can do for somebody whose performance you're responsible for. And so, since then, feedback is probably one of the most important things to me in my leadership role. Assuming I have all the right people in the right positions, I think the most important thing I can do for them from there is provide direct, honest, clear feedback. And I get a lot of feedback in return from my direct reports that they really value that.
Q. Tell me more about the learning curve to reach that point.
A. For several years in management roles early on, I realized that I'm really good with the people who are high performers. I'm not so good with the people who are not very good performers. And I continued to learn that the hard way for a couple of years by being kind of dismissive of the people who weren't high performers - you know, never mind, I won't try to get things done through this person, I'll go elsewhere. And I think it took a couple of years before I really had an appreciation for how much that hurts the organization, and how poorly I'm using resources when I do that, and how I am misusing the high performers when I do that.
This notion that somebody could be low-performing and take feedback from me that they would see as valuable - I really didn't have the confidence those first couple of years to believe that. For the last five years I have really changed my mind about that. I'm not more expert necessarily. I'm not smarter necessarily. But I know what I know about what we're trying to achieve, and I know what I know about people's performance. So that's a valuable perspective. I feel really confident in that. And as long as I'm really clear in communicating it, then I think people appreciate it.
Q. So how do you make that happen now?
A. I think having a very formal performance review process in an organization is an important thing, so I use that. The first time I did it, it worked well. I was very clear. I was able to use specific instances as examples. But I also learned that you can't wait many months after something happens for the formal review process to give somebody feedback. So I started giving more immediate feedback, then revisited it in the formal review process. Within a couple of years, I realized that my responsibilities were about more than giving feedback, and that I also had to help turn around their performance.
So what does it look like to really accept responsibility for somebody in a role, and help them get to a new level of higher performance? It's not just the feedback, but it's really examining where the gap is, why is the gap there, and how can we close it. And so that's really something that happens every day.
Q. Can you elaborate on a point you touched on earlier, about the problem of managing people who seem undermotivated?
A. Of course, you try first to hire people who have that motivation, and that's about really skillful interviewing. I'm not perfect at that yet, but I try to ask a lot of questions like, "When were you at your absolute best?" If they can pick something and light up about it, I get a sense that this is the sort of person who wants to see things done well. I try to get at it through other interview questions, too, like, "If I did a focus group with your peers or your direct reports, what would they tell me about you?" Of course, they say great, rosy things, but the adjectives they use, I think, are really telling.
Then I try to ask them, "If I dug up your critics - I know they'd be super-hard to find - but if I dug up your critics somewhere, what would they tell me about you?" I think that can be pretty revealing, as well.
Q. And do people talk about that?
A. More often than not, they're caught off guard and they come up with something that I can evaluate.
Q. Talk more about the intangible qualities you're looking for.
A. You can tell a lot by how engaging a person is in an interview - even their eye contact, their demeanor. Are they overconfident about their abilities? Because if they're going to carry an ego around here, they're not going to get along with people. Are they confident enough? I try to pick up on body language like that. I try to use as many behavioral questions as possible to get a sense of how other people perceive them, like this focus-group question about what your critics would say about you. I ask them to talk about times when they did not see eye-to-eye with their supervisor - what were the conflicts and how did they handle them?
But the intangible qualities I'm looking for are mostly around humility more than anything else. People at BELL want to serve children, and if you're here just to advance your career, it's probably not a good fit. We're a not-for-profit. You're not going to make big bucks. You're not going to be the C.E.O. in two years because I'm only 32, and I'm not going anywhere.
Q. What other questions do you ask to get people off script?
A. I'll also ask about feedback they've gotten in a performance review. If they don't come up with anything there, they're just not being honest. I mean, everybody has had at least one performance review where their supervisor has said, "Think about this next." If they come up with some phony stuff, it tells me they're not really being reflective about where they can improve. But if I feel like they've come up with something really genuine, and I have a sense that they're self-aware, I think that's indicative of humility. Others that come to mind are, "What sort of organizational culture frustrates you? When are you not at your best?"
Q. What about parental influences early on?
A. My family held me accountable. I would get A's and B's in school, and my mom would say: "You got a B, so how do we get you to an A? Maybe you're not studying enough." I became self-motivated pretty quickly - I got A's for my own sake, and I wasn't trying to please anybody at that point. I learned a lot from my family about hard work. I have a really strong work ethic, and value that in other people. I have a commitment to seeing things through that I start. There's lot of things that I start and I say, I wish I had not done this and had delegated this a long time ago, but I'm going to finish it because I started it.
Q. How has your leadership style evolved in other ways?
A. I use a lot more variability in my style now than I used to. I also used to really be impatient with my C.E.O. about some people. I would say: "I can't believe you're letting this guy work this way. He's not producing." I would be really vocal with my boss about that, and really impatient, and now I have much more appreciation for what it takes to get things done. And I have more appreciation for our responsibility as an organization to help people who work here improve, and for my responsibility as a leader to make that happen.
So my approach to performance issues is different. I'm more patient. I value people and teamwork more. I certainly have a lot more appreciation for what individual people are contributing than I used to. I used to be really focused on what I'm doing. For some people, their leadership style is about that, and it works in their organization. But we are fairly large at this point, and what I contribute on a personal level is a drop in the bucket and matters very little relative to how much we achieve together.
And this seems hokey, and I still don't have this right, but it's really hard to get the whole organization to function well together. So you have to find ways to communicate often and slow down, because communication is part of how we get there. I still like to move very fast, but I work hard to slow myself down, bring people along, share the message and appreciate what people are contributing. I can't dismiss the low performers. Instead, I have to recognize that I'm probably going to have to invest more time in them. I can't turn my back on them. That's a huge evolution for me.