Ex-Bullet Carter Featured in New York Times

"The Scoreboard Can't Tell You Everything"
By Adam Bryant,
New York Times, April 16, 2010

Q. Talk about early leadership lessons for you.

A. I grew up in Maryland, in an area where lacrosse was the dominant sport. And I happened to go to a high school that was the dominant program in the country, and it was run by a coach named Joe McFadden. I don't remember losing more than three games in all of high school. I was in this culture of winning, where all the coaches, the players, the kids in that high school and the administrators expected us to win.

I was recruited to play lacrosse in college by a very sort of mediocre team at the time — Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. And again, by sheer luck, the day before I was to go on campus as a freshman, I received a letter in the mail that the lacrosse coach had retired, and a new coach was coming, named Hank Janczyk. He's still there 20-something years later. And today, he’s one of the top lacrosse coaches of all time.

Again, there was this culture of winning, this expectation that every practice was going to be unbelievably competitive. Every game was judged not only on whether we won or lost and what the score was, but on how we played. And I think that has definitely carried over, not only the expectation of winning and creating a business culture about winning, but also about whether it was the best that we were capable of doing, not just based on the outcome.

I think about that a lot in the context of our business now, about when we go into a new business pitch. If we win, I still evaluate the pitch and whether it was the best portrayal of who we are, or whether we won for some other reason. And I think about that at times when we lose new business pitches or don’t do an exceptionally good job for a client in the client’s eyes. I can still look at that and evaluate it based on factors other than the final result.

Q. Did lacrosse influence you in other ways?

A. Because I had shown an interest in coaching while I was in college, I spent summers in lacrosse camps coaching high school kids. I learned a lot about communicating with younger people, which has been directly useful in my business.

Q. How?

A. In terms of communication, I think that I do my best to try to step away from my own belief system and my own priorities, which are the priorities of a 41-year-old man who’s married and has a young daughter. Instead, I try to evaluate decisions based on what the 25- to-32-year-olds in our office are trying to get out of their career, what they want in a workplace.

Q. And what do they want?

A. Their expectation is not necessarily like a junior lawyer who is satisfied to maybe be at the bottom rung and work their way up in a corporate law firm over many years. The expectation of all of the young people in our office is that they’re professionals in their field right now, and that they’re going to have input right now, they’re going to have communication with clients right now, and they’re going to be involved in decision-making across the company.

Q. And are they ready for that? Some of the C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed have talked about the expectations of many young employees getting ahead of their capabilities.

A. I say send those people my way. Because we probably want our staff, at the early stages, to be a little bit overconfident, a little too willing to be in the room with a brand manager who’s our client, because it shows a level of independence that we need them to have.

I would rather somebody go make a mistake — and have myself or another senior person go back to the client over what’s probably a relatively small error — than have to go through an enormous amount of teaching to make that person “client ready.” While we are looking for some level of humility in people up front, we want them to have a lot of confidence.

I think that if you want to hire confident people, once in a while you’re going to have a problem. You probably don’t exactly know where that line is until you’ve maybe crossed it once or twice. Again, I think our bigger mistakes over the last 15 years have not been as much there as they’ve been maybe not having enough confidence ourselves to just sort of do things our own way.

This question of confidence also probably speaks a little bit to the fact that I think, in our business, the idea of teamwork is probably overrated. Everything can’t be about teamwork, right? I’ll take one fantastic graphic designer and one fantastic brand strategy person over a roomful of mediocre people in those functions. The ideas are better, the execution is better, we can get more done. And a lot of this, I think, is about speed. It’s not always sitting back having everything be buttoned-up and perfect.

Q. Let’s go back to these lacrosse coaches you mentioned. Can you elaborate on how they affected your leadership style at Fuse? 

A. My high school coach had a unique style for that age group. He had a very sort of business approach. There were very good players, there were mediocre players and there were players who probably were not very good and that were not going to get a lot of playing time. And he was very sort of matter-of-fact about it. The best players played. The mediocre players maybe got a little bit of time, but it wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart. It was because somebody needed a rest. And the players of lesser ability just simply didn’t play.

It was about rewarding the best players, regardless of how they had sort of achieved that. Just because he saw somebody working really hard in practice, that didn’t mean anything when it came time to play in a game.

And I learned something from that. I think working hard is great. You can log a lot of hours in the office. You can do a lot of extra work. But if the partners at our agency and the directors who run our business groups don’t think that someone’s ready to be put in a position to give a client presentation or be in a new business pitch, they’re not going to be there. And it has nothing, really, to do with what we believe about the person or their effort level. It just has to do with choosing the best people in our office to put in those positions.

When my college coach arrived, his job was to change the mediocre culture of the team, and then literally change the makeup of the team. He said very directly: “There are going to be major changes now that I’m here, and those major changes are going to come in the form of the makeup of the team, because I’m out there recruiting. And frankly, I’m recruiting players that are better than the players in this room.”

That was a tough thing to hear, but he was very honest. And the reason he did it — it wasn’t to be spiteful in any way — was to essentially say: “So, if you plan to be here, you’ve got to get better. You’ve got to get better every day in practice. You’ve got to prove in games that you deserve to be here.” And he was right.

And so I watched a culture change over those four years from mediocrity to this expectation of winning. A lot of that had to do with the recruiting practices, which I can directly tie to our own hiring practices. If you want to make the team better, you go get better players. And where were the better players from? They were from high schools that won, from their high school coaches that instilled a culture of winning, from schools that were, frankly, more competitive.

So I think about that when we recruit people. You want to be better? Go get people who are at organizations that are, at least in a particular function, better than what you have now.

Q. So, what kind of leader are you now?

A. I think that I’m fair, because I try to be honest and direct in a helpful way. If you want people to be at their best, and if you want the whole company to be on the same page all the time, you need to be willing to communicate directly with people. In our office, what we’ve achieved is that being direct is not a personal attack.

I did learn that, to some degree, in my college lacrosse experience. When my coach was coming down on me or somebody else, it never felt like a direct attack. Now, it felt awful, but I never thought he was being mean-spirited about it. I never thought he was doing it for any other reason than he wanted us, as a team, to be on the same page and to be the best that we could be.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved? What do you do more of, or less of?

A. One of the things I do more of now, and probably a better job of now than I did 10 years ago, is being really present in our office when I’m there. I think many senior people, C.E.O.’s and presidents of companies, both small and large, obviously spend a lot of time outside of the office. What I used to tend to do with the 50 percent of the time that I was in the office would be to go into my office and shut the door, literally or figuratively, and delve back into the real core responsibilities of that day or that week. And I might as well have not been in the office. I wasn’t interacting with other staff, both senior and junior staff. I wasn’t gauging anything that was going on in the staff, learning anything new, or understanding the challenges that people were facing.

I’ve learned that when you’re in your office and you’re in that position, the best thing you can do is spend at least 50 percent of your time in the office communicating with as many staff as you have time to communicate with. Holing yourself up in your office is not the way to learn about what’s happening in the organization. The information doesn’t flow up to you when you’re in a closed-door situation like that.

I think that if you look at your core responsibilities a little less literally, you’d probably want to spend more time with your staff, because what are most C.E.O.’s really in charge of? Well, they are in charge of setting strategy. They are in charge of creating the best work environment. They are in charge of finding the best talent. How can you possibly do that by isolating yourself in your office and only communicating with people from accounting or your outside legal counsel or the majority of the people that are probably the ones e-mailing you?

Your junior staff people are not e-mailing you. And if you don’t go down the hall and talk to that person, you're not going to know the real challenges.

Posted: Wed, 21 Apr 2010

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