A Boss Who Believes ‘Nice’ Isn’t a Bad Word

Category : CAREER

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?

A. It’s a question that you don’t prepare for and you’re not used to answering. And quite honestly, who is ever going to say no — nobody is. So I let them talk for a little bit about it as they try to figure out why I am asking that question. Then I stop them and I say, let me tell you why I’m asking that. The reason is that the most important thing to being successful at this company is to be nice. And if you’re not nice, this is the wrong company for you. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you, it just means that our cultures don’t align, and there are great places out there for you, but this is the wrong one. 

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.



Six Soft Skills Everyone Needs

Category : CAREER

Six Soft Skills Everyone Needs

More Than Technical Qualifications Needed to Move Ahead in Your Career

In a 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in the state of Washington, employers said entry-level workers in a variety of professions were lacking in several areas, including problem solving, conflict resolution and critical observation.

You’ll likely see these “soft skills” popping up in job descriptions, next to demands for technical qualifications. Employment experts agree that tech skills may get you an interview, but these soft skills will get you the job — and help you keep it:

Communication Skills
This doesn’t mean you have to be a brilliant orator or writer. It does
mean you have to express yourself well, whether it’s writing a coherent memo, persuading others with a presentation or just being able to calmly explain to a team member what you need.

Teamwork and Collaboration
Employers want employees who play well with others — who can effectively work as part of a team. “That means sometimes being a leader, sometimes being a good follower, monitoring the progress, meeting deadlines and working with others across the organization to achieve a common goal,” says Lynne Sarikas, the MBA Career Center Director at Northeastern University.

This is especially important for more-seasoned professionals to demonstrate, to counter the (often erroneous) opinion that older workers are too set in their ways. “To succeed in most organizations, you need to have a passion for learning and the ability to continue to grow and stretch your skills to adapt to the changing needs of the organization,” Sarikas says. “On your resume, on your cover letter and in your interview, explain the ways you’ve continued to learn and grow throughout your career.”

Problem Solving
Be prepared for the “how did you solve a problem?” interview question with several examples, advises Ann Spoor, managing director of Cave Creek Partners. “Think of specific examples where you solved a tough business problem or participated in the solution. Be able to explain what you did, how you approached the problem, how you involved others and what the outcome was — in real, measurable results.”

Critical Observation
It’s not enough to be able to collect data and manipulate it. You must also be able to analyze and interpret it. What story does the data tell? What questions are raised? Are there different ways to interpret the data? “Instead of handing your boss a spreadsheet, give them a business summary and highlight the key areas for attention, and suggest possible next steps,” Sarikas advises.

Conflict Resolution
The ability to persuade, negotiate and resolve conflicts is crucial if you plan to move up. “You need to have the skill to develop mutually beneficial relationships in the organization so you can influence and persuade people,” Sarikas says. “You need to be able to negotiate win-win solutions to serve the best interests of the company and the individuals involved.”

When It Comes to Soft Skills, Show — Don’t Tell
How do you prove you’re proficient at, say, critical observation? Demonstrating these soft skills may be more difficult than listing concrete accomplishments like $2 million in sales or a professional certification. But it is possible to persuade hiring managers that you have what they need.

To demonstrate communication skills, for example, start with the obvious. Make sure there are no typos in your resume or cover letter. Beyond that, enhance your communication credibility by writing an accomplishment statement on your resume or cover letter, says Cheryl E. Palmer, president of Call to Career. “Instead of stating, ‘great oral and written communication skills,’ say, ‘conducted presentation for C-level executives that persuaded them to open a new line of business that became profitable within eight months.’”

Learn Soft Skills
The good news is that, like any skill, soft skills can be learned. The better news? Boosting your soft skills not only gives you a leg up on a new job or a promotion, but these skills also have obvious applications in all areas of a person’s life, both professional and personal.

  • Take a Course: Some colleges are mixing technology with areas such as effective written and verbal communication, teamwork, cultural understanding and psychology. Take a writing or public speaking course to boost your communication skills. Look for a conflict-resolution course or “leadership skills” class at your local community college.
  • Seek Mentors: Be as specific as you can about your target skill, and when you’re approaching a potential mentor, compliment that person with a specific example in which you’ve seen him practice that skill, advises Ed Muzio, the author of Make Work Great. “Then ask whether that person would be willing to share ideas with you about how you might achieve the same level of capability,” he says. “Maybe it will grow into a long mentoring relationship, or maybe you’ll just pick the person’s brain for a few minutes.”
  • Volunteer: Working with nonprofit organizations gives you the opportunity to build soft skills. And listing high-profile volunteer work on your resume gives you an excuse to point out what you gained there. For example, “As chair of the environmental committee, planned and carried out a citywide park cleanup campaign. Utilized team-building, decision-making and cooperative skills. Extensive report writing and public speaking.”

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