Corner Office – Shanti Atkins

In a Corner Office column (published by the New York Times) on 2 January 2014, Adam Bryant interviewed Shanti Atkins, president and chief strategy officer of Navex Global, which handles ethics and compliance issues.  The full interview can be found here.

[On Twitter, Shanti is @ShantiNAVEX; the company is @NAVEXGlobal; Adam is @NYTCornerOffice; the newspaper is @NYTimes]

I think Atkins comes across as a demanding but fair leader.  She has evolved (by her own admission in the interview) from a background as a lawyer, where perfection was a consistent objective, to a business setting where there are so many issues that triaging and prioritizing become essential.  That shows, to me, that she’s pragmatic about recognizing (and accepting) when “good enough” is an acceptable level of completeness.  That’s an important lesson (and one that’s difficult, especially for leaders who are high achievers themselves).

When Bryant asks her whether she see the influence of her parents in her management style, her answer (not surprisingly) is yes.

 Yes, in terms of demanding excellence from people but in a way that isn’t oppressive. It’s a compliment to demand excellence from somebody. And that’s how I always think of it.

 Bryant immediately dives into the “demand excellence” point, probing for more detail:

 Q. That’s a subtle note to hit just right, so that people take it the way you intend.

 A. I think you have to model it yourself. You have to show people that you apply the same standard to yourself in a way that’s healthy. You set a high standard for yourself because you believe in yourself. You celebrate successes and you acknowledge where you fell short, but then you still show that you’re very confident and have a lot of self-esteem. If you can model that, then I think people respond to it very well as a leadership style.

 If I have to have a difficult conversation with someone, I might start by saying: “Look, I think you’re extraordinary at these things, and this is where I think you can go. So if you’re thinking five, 10 years ahead, I think that you can do better than this.” When you provide that context and perspective of someone’s potential and where someone may be going long term, they’re a lot more open and they feel that you care about them as a person.

 That’s a good summary of an excellent approach to delivering difficult information.  Starting with praise (as long as it’s sincere) eases the delivery of the more difficult message.  Coupling that praise with the longer term, strategic perspective helps set the context for how you hope the constructive criticism will be received.

When Bryant asks Atkins to tell more about her leadership style, here’s the response:

 I like to make decisions quickly. That came from being in an environment early on that was a crisis situation. I find that people react very badly to a sense of uncertainty. So I always ask myself, “If I had to decide in 30 seconds, what would I do?” I always write it down to document my gut decision. I’ll take more time, of course, on big decisions, but most of the time the initial gut instinct is right. You don’t agonize and you move on.

 The balance here between efficiency and thoughtfulness, when making decisions, is really good.  I love the “If I had to decide in 30 seconds” approach, as long as that’s not the only basis for making the decision (and it isn’t, since she immediately adds “I’ll take more time” for significant decisions).  This is a really good guideline – it can help avoid analysis paralysis – the inability to decide anything because too much time is spent exploring and analyzing alternatives.

Finally, Bryant asks Atkins about what she looks for when hiring.

 I’ve always believed in starting with the organizational structure and being very clear what the position is that the business needs. I also find that job descriptions can get really stale. I think keeping job descriptions up to date with what’s actually happening with the business sounds rudimentary, but it’s really important, especially as you get bigger.

 When I interview people, I always ask, “Why do you want to be in this business?” If someone doesn’t immediately have an energetic, authentic response, that it is a huge red flag for me. It’s shocking how many people come in for very high-level jobs and it’s clear they haven’t even been on our company’s website.

 I want someone who is super passionate about excellence and who gets the biggest charge out of doing something extraordinary. They’re seeking that charge out of their jobs.

 This answer is interesting and, in some important ways, very different from the most common responses to this question.  Part of that is necessary, given the mission of Navex Global.  Atkins question “Why do you want to be in this business?” is appropriate, with Navex Global’s focus on handling ethics and compliance issues.  That’s a relatively narrow business area and prospective employees need to understand (and embrace) those objectives.  I think that’s very different from recruiting into a more traditional technology company or financial services enterprise or other more mainstream business.

The other distinctive detail I find here is the importance Atkins places on job descriptions and organizational roles.  This contrasts strongly with the approach of many executives, summarized by “find really smart people and turn them loose.”  Atkins’ response indicates that Navex Global is probably very closely managed and is disciplined and hierarchical in its organizational structure.  That’s not necessarily good or bad – it’s just a likely fact of their organization.  Given that context, her attention to “keeping job descriptions up to date” makes sense and helps avoid mismatches between employee interests and job requirements.  However, it seems like it may preclude the hiring of innovators and creative disrupters.  I’d be curious to discuss that with her, to see if it’s been an obstacle in hiring.

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

I really like Shanti Atkins’ thought process on “if I had to decide in 30 seconds” – I’m going to use it!

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