Featured in nytimes.com August 27 2011
This interview with Andy Lansing, president and chief executive of Levy Restaurants, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. Andy routinely asks jobs candidates if they are nice, which surprises them.
Q. You rose to the C.E.O. position from the legal side. How did that come about?
A. I started, just because it was my nature, poking my nose into other areas. I would say to people, why do we do it that way in purchasing, or why do we do it that way in human resources? And Larry Levy, our founder, would say to me, “Just go fix it if you want. Go work with it.” So I found myself collaborating with other people who didn’t report to me.
Q. How did you do that without people getting their backs up?
A. Part of it is the nature of our company, which is sort of this entrepreneurial family where people really didn’t live in silos. Even though there’s a head of human resources and a head of purchasing, there’s more of a sense of openness. We all did everything, we all worked hard, and I would approach people in a nonthreatening way.
I sort of did my best Columbo act, where I’d come in and say, “I don’t know, I don’t quite get it.” Maybe things made perfect sense to everyone else, but not growing up in the business gave me an advantage because I could say, “I don’t understand; will you explain it to me?”
I also learned early on about a trait of good leaders, which is that I may have the idea, but I’m going to make you think that you came up with the idea and give you credit for it at the end of the day. So it’s sort of getting people to do things without letting them know what hit them, and giving them credit for it.
Q. And how did you learn to do that?
A. I don’t know. What I can tell you is that early on I wasn’t crazy about the concept of telling people what to do and being a boss. The power of being a boss is an awesome responsibility, and I feared it a bit when I first became a boss.
I figured out that I didn’t want people to fear me and do things because of who I was. People have personal power or they have positional power. Positional power means I have power over you because I’m your boss — “I’m very important, I’m the C.E.O.” You should fear me because of who I am. And then there’s personal power, which is what’s inside of you. I always say there are people in our company who are dishwashers who have more personal power than someone who’s a manager because they have that quality.
So what I figured out early on is that being a manager doesn’t equal being a leader. You can have the title of manager and that’ll give you the right to walk around and spin keys on your finger or talk in a walkie-talkie or look and act important, but that’s not what gives you power.
What I figured out is that what gives you power is how you treat people and how you lead. I remember when the first secretary I had at a law firm would introduce me to someone and say, “I want you to meet my boss.” To this day it makes my skin crawl. I’d say, “I’m not her boss; we work together.”
Q. Can you elaborate on the quality you’re describing?
A. Leaders are the people you want with you when all hell is breaking loose. They have the knowledge about how to treat people with respect and dignity and how to just be a natural leader. There are those great debates — are leaders born or are they made? — and I think there are people who are just born with that natural ability that makes people want to follow them. I think some people are born with something that makes people gravitate towards them and want to work with them. I’m not saying it can’t be honed, but I don’t think you can teach someone that. I think it’s in their DNA.
Q. Let’s shift to hiring. How do you do it? What do you look for?
A. I have a pretty nontraditional approach to hiring. I hire for two traits — I hire for nice and I hire for passion.
If you sit down with me, no matter how senior you are in the company or the position you’re applying for, my first question to you is going to be, are you nice? And the reactions are priceless. There’s usually a long pause, like they’re waiting for me to smile or they’re waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come out and say, “You’re being punked.” Because who asks that question? And then I say, “No, seriously, are you nice?”
Q. What do people say?
Because if you get in this company and you’re not nice, I’m going to get you. It may be a day, it may be a week, it may be a year, but you will not have success at this company long term if you’re not nice.
Then I say, I know you’re not going to tell me that you’re not nice and you probably are very nice. But when you’re reflecting on the interview afterwards and whether you want to pursue this after our conversation, if you think that this nice thing is kind of “that’s not me and why do they care about that, they should only care about if I can do the job,” then pull yourself out of it. No harm, no foul. They won’t say it, but I’ve had more than one person not come back or not pursue the job.
Q. Where did you get the idea to do that?
A. It was probably from Larry Levy, talking about the importance of being nice, and it kind of just evolved as a company philosophy that we only hire nice people. It’s probably the first line in every one of our training manuals — we only hire nice people. And I realized a bit selfishly, too, that I only want to work with nice people. I don’t want to work with jerks. Life’s too short. I also knew intuitively that if you have a company of nice people in a service business, in a hospitality business, that’s going to be a good thing.
Q. And the passion question?
A. Then I say, “What are you passionate about in your life? What does passion mean to you?” And I’m looking not necessarily for the magic answer, but I love it when I hear that someone has fire in the belly. And then I say, you have got to be passionate about this company and the job if you come to work here. If you’re not, you’re going to be standing there, people are going to be driving by at 90 miles an hour and you’re going to say, “Whoa, what’s going on?” So again, ask yourself whether this is just a job to you; if it’s just a job, it’s the wrong place. If it’s just a step onto another career, it’s probably the wrong place. And then we talk about how the two biggest predictors of success in our company are those two traits.
If you give me someone who’s nice and who’s passionate, I can teach them everything else. I don’t care what school you went to, I don’t care where you worked before. If you give me someone with those two traits, they will nine out of 10 times be a great success in the company.
Q. What else is unusual about your culture?
A. I’m not a fireside-chat kind of guy, doing company updates that are very formal. So we have a really fun thing called “On the Road With Andy,” where I’ll take my flipcam with me whenever I go to one of our locations and we’ll do a video, either about a great employee we want to highlight or about an incredible food item they’re doing at a particular location that I want the rest of the company to see. It’s real tongue in cheek and fun and we post those for the whole company to see.
We just did a really neat feature where the whole company participated in a contest. We called it March Madness. Everyone’s always saying, “Andy, we want you to come to our location, we have something to show you.” So all 100 locations submitted a one-minute video of why I should come to their location, what they want to show us. And the whole company used brackets, like March Madness, with two videos that they were voting on online. One location got some pro athletes to say, “Come on Andy, you’ve got to come here and see this.” Some had mascots doing things. To me it’s about those kinds of fun, human things that help set the culture.
Q. Can you elaborate on what you said about not being a fireside-chat kind of guy?
A. I don’t like the idea of being a corporate C.E.O. with formal messages. I don’t like the town hall where you have to line up with a microphone. It’s not who I am. So the more we make it casual and the more we use humor, the better. You don’t have to be a comedian, but humor to me is the world’s best tonic. I always say that the shortest distance between two people is humor. I didn’t make that up, people have said that before, but it’s totally true. We work our tails off in the hospitality business, but if you can do it and laugh and have a good time doing it, it’s really special.