This interview with Harry West, chief executive of Continuum, an innovation design consulting firm, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What were some early influences on your leadership style? What about your family?
A. I’m the eldest of six kids, and I think that may have some significance. One of the main groups in our company is the strategy group, and we once looked at the family position of most of the people in the group, and they’re pretty much 100 percent the eldest kid. So I think there’s some correlation between maybe being the eldest and wanting to blaze a trail. I think that probably helps in some way. But I think that’s just one type of leadership, which is the type I have: the need to find a new way and take responsibility for other people.
Q. I’ve been surprised by the number of C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed who come from big families.
A. Well, there’s probably a good reason for it — you’re surrounded by other people all the time. And you have to take responsibility if you’re the eldest or one of the older siblings, and you’re constantly communicating in a way that perhaps you aren’t if you’re in a smaller family.
Q. What about lessons from your parents?
A. My father builds homes. So I grew up around the idea that you can take a piece of land, and you can bulldozer it and build new homes on it. You can create something new. My parents both left school at 14, but my parents are incredibly smart, successful, thoughtful people. So one of the lessons I learned from my parents is that the fancy degree is just a foot in the door, and there are a lot of very smart people out there who don’t necessarily have the fancy degrees. And given the opportunity, they can do amazing things.
But the only explicit lesson I got from my father was when I was not doing very well in school, and he had a little chat with me and said, “You know, there are people who work for me who dig trenches, and there are people who are professionals, and if you keep going the way you’re going, you’re going to be digging trenches for the rest of your life.” So that shook me up.
Q. How would you describe your leadership style to a new hire who’s going to work with you every day?
A. I trust people, and I respect their areas of responsibility. People who work for me know that they have a lot of autonomy. I like to know what’s going on, and I’ll offer my opinion, but I want people to feel that they can say to me, “That’s great that you have that opinion, but, no, we’re not going to do that.” I really appreciate it when people say “no” to me. I want people to understand that I’m totally supportive of what it is they’re trying to do as long as we’re all on the same team.
Q. That can be a tricky balance to strike.
A. I have to trust those people. There’s no system of controls that can replace trust, so I need to reinforce that trust, and part of reinforcing trust is making sure that people feel accountability, and with accountability comes some degree of autonomy. You don’t have one without the other.
Q. What other lessons have you learned over the years as a manager and leader?
A. Pacing is really important in an organization. When you’re leading, you’re generally trying to lead change, and I think it was Roy Amara, who said about technology, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” And I think the same applies to change within an organization.
I have in the past tended to overestimate the amount of change I can affect in the short run and then not fully appreciate the change I can affect in the long run. And so I’ve learned that it’s critical to think carefully about the pace of change, and it’s something that I’ve learned the hard way. It’s important to manage that carefully, because it’s not just about the pace of change that certain people in the company can manage.
It’s about the pace of change that the company as a whole can manage. You can push and push and nothing seems to happen, and then suddenly it takes off and you’re sort of running to catch up.
Q. And why is that?
A. I think in most companies you’re surrounded by the past. This is true for most of the companies that we consult with. And, to some extent, I’ve realized it’s true for us, too, because you can look back and see what you have done. You may have a Web site or archives or a lobby that sort of shows off your work of the past. The future is not as tangible. It’s not as clear, and so there’s always a tendency for people to go: “Well, I know the business we’re in because I can see it. I see it every day. That’s the business we’re in, right?” Well, that was the business you were in.
Right now we are in the process of inventing the business we will be in. When people see that, it takes off. But until people can see it, until it’s in some way real and relevant to them, they don’t know what they can do to be part of it.
Q. Let’s shift to hiring. What are you looking for? What questions do you ask? How would you interview me, for example?
A. I’d ask a few very basic questions. “What is it you want to do? What is it that you’re good at? What is it that you’re not good at? Tell me about what you’ve done.” Those are basically the questions. But I try to keep the conversation as open-ended as possible. It’s basically what I’ve learned in the consumer work that I’ve done. I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing consumers. And you get the most honest response when the questions are open-ended.
What I want to do is to hear, very honestly, what it is that the person wants to do, because the most important criterion is that the candidate wants to do what we think the job entails. The major source of satisfaction in our work is intrinsic. We’re not bankers. There’s not a ton of money in it, so if you don’t actually want to do the job, it’s not going to work out. So that’s the most important thing for me — to, at least in the beginning, have a conversation so that I can get a truthful understanding what it is the candidate wants to do, what it is he thinks he’s really good at, and equally what he’s not good at, and then some stories around what he’s done.
Then, as I’m listening to those, I’m listening for whether the candidate talks about people. Because if you’re not interested in people, this is not a good place to work. So if I don’t hear a lot of, “This is how I helped somebody,” then this is probably not the right place. If I hear a lot of, “I did it,” I’m going to be worried about team behavior.
I’ve also learned that I tend to like people, which is a weakness, so I always have a series of interviews — by me and others here — because some people are totally impressive in that first meeting, but by the third or fourth meeting when you’ve heard exactly the same pitch, it kind of wears thin a little bit. Or after the third or fourth meeting, it becomes more apparent what the candidate is looking to do, and you realize it’s not the perfect fit for the job that you have, and that the candidate’s going to be better off in another position. And we’d rather that happened then rather than later.
Q. Just a devil’s advocate question: If you are interviewing the candidate for a specific position, aren’t they simply going to say that that is what they want to do?
A. I’ve seen in countless consumer interviews and job interviews that people are really well controlled in the first five or 10 minutes of an interview. And then, if you just maintain the conversation, eventually the truth — what it is that that person really wants to do — comes out. And so it doesn’t matter what’s in the job description.
Q. Anything unusual about your office space?
A. We’re totally driven to improve things for people, to make lives better for people. So we have a wall in the back of the company with an 8 1/2-by-11-inch photograph of each of the hundreds of consumers we have spoken with over the last few years. They’re a good reminder about why we are here — to help these people. I also love the wall of photos because I had nothing to do with it. Someone suggested it, and made it happen.
Q. Do you have explicit discussions with your staff about how people are supposed to engage with one another?
A. One thing we have done for about a decade is social-styles training. There are some very simple questionnaires that elicit insights from people about their communication style. We ask everybody to go through that, and then we share that information with everybody. We even put it on our intranet because we want people to understand that often people don’t necessarily disagree with you, it’s just that they have a different way of expressing the idea. So we try to tease apart the issues around communication style from the issues around content, because we want to focus on the content, not necessarily the style.
We have an incredibly broad range of people in our company — from people in their 20s to people in their 60s, and they have backgrounds in design, anthropology, electrical engineering, software, graphic design, law, history. This can mean differences in communication style. It’s just the way it is. So we need to get over that and focus on the content.
You might learn that one person is always going to phrase every question as a question, and another person is going to phrase every question as an option. And they’re both trying to say the same thing, it’s just that they have different ways of doing it.