I am no business executive. I know that.
Instead I am a journalist transmogrified 21 years ago into a newspaper editor (chiefly to find an outlet for my work as a journalist) and then into a newspaper publisher (to find a way to pay for my editing and reporting exploits).
So now I find myself — a journalist at heart — running a $1.something million business, managing a dozen fulltime people, two score part-time employees, and two separate newspapers with nearly 100 deadlines per year. There are vacation days and holidays to consider, a computer and E-mail system to back up and secure, a health plan, a profit-sharing plan, federal and state tax deposits, quarterly 941s and NJ-927s, and — did I mention? — a door to the west wing that doesn’t shut properly and a link to an archived article on the website that doesn’t open properly. A screw driver will fix one. Screw it for the other.
Call me an accidental executive. I’m willing to bet that I am not alone in that category. Hundreds of companies within the reach of this newspaper are headed by men and women who started out on their own, high on the horse, lance in hand, and suddenly found themselves heading up a small band of compatriots. So when the Inc. 500 issue landed in my mailbox, with the teaser about “The Psychology of Great CEOs,” the journalist in me immediately saw a first-person story and the editor in me saw a sidebar to complement Barbara Fox’s cover article on the two Princeton area Inc. 500 CEOs.
So I plunged in: What is the psychology of a great CEO? The story in the November issue of Inc. turns out not to tell you. Instead it tells you what a CEO isn’t, debunking four common myths about the leaders of fast growing companies. The Inc. description of successful CEOs of fast-growing entrepreneurial companies that make up the Inc. 500 is based on a 144-question personality test administered to 250 current and former leaders of Inc. 500 companies. “Entrepreneurs, it turns out, are indeed a breed apart,” writes the developer of the test, Keith McFarland of Sandy, Utah, “but not for the reasons everyone thinks.”
Myth: They thrive on risk. As I have felt from the beginning, and as lots of other entrepreneurs have noted, we who start businesses are not huge risk-takers. The Inc. survey showed that “fast-growth CEOs actually enjoy facing adversity — but most of them also manage and mitigate their risk.”
I don’t need a personality test to know that I fit in with this crowd. The first issue ever of U.S. 1, in November, 1984, was called “the sneak preview.” If it had been a laughingstock I would have retraced my initial delivery steps, picked up every loose copy I could find, and started over again at square one.
Myth: They’re control freaks. Inc. CEOs are controlling, the survey suggests, but they are no worse than all CEOs. I’d say I am one step above that.
The best piece of personnel advice I ever got was from Alan Lopez, the former proprietor of Thorne Pharmacy on Nassau Street. Shortly after I started the business he stopped me on the street: Sooner or later, he told me, I would ask an employee to do something, they would tell me to screw myself, and I would want to fire them on the spot. Forget it. The best you can do, Lopez advised, is to hire good people, train them, and let them do what they want to do. Nobody does what they don’t want to do for very long.
Myth: They’re lousy at strategy. “According to the stereotypes, successful entrepreneurs are quick on their feet, great at making quick decisions in the heat of the moment, but not much good at long-term strategic thinking. Not so,” according to the personality survey.
If I were great at long-term strategic thinking, I’d be down in sunny Culebra right now, along with all the other Princetonians who were recently chronicled in the New York Times “Escape” section. All I know is that in the year 2000, when everyone was telling me to pour more time and effort into the website, I started another community newspaper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News. We’re now throwing it into 12,000 driveways every two weeks. People like it.
Myth: They’re bullies. The survey found that CEOs of start-up and fast growing companies are “great persuaders” and they get their way not by bullying, but rather by an exceptional “ability to express support and encouragement — higher than any other group except high-performing salespeople. . . Inc. 500 CEOs succeed by helping other people — their employees, partners, investors, suppliers — become successful themselves.”
Hmmmm. I’m no bully, and I don’t need to be since I’m not a control freak. But am I a nurturer of the people around me? I think back to a closed door session I had with an unhappy employee. You never tell me what you want, you never tell me I did well, you never care if I grow or not in my profession.
At that moment I had an epiphany, which I blurted out at my sad worker: I don’t care if you feel good about what you do or not. That’s your responsibility, not mine. Only you can decide that what you do is worthwhile — my opinion doesn’t count.
A short time later the employee quit. And since then I figured out a sports analogy (always better than something you blurt out in a meeting) to explain my role toward my staff. Rather than a cheerleader or a coach, I’m more like a golf course greens keeper. My job is to make the course both enjoyable and challenging. But at the end of the day, the golfer has to decide for him or herself how well they have played and how satisfied they should be with the result.
Still, that didn’t sound like an effective CEO’s role. So I decided to take the same test the Inc. CEOs took and see how well I matched up with a successful executive personality.
If the reporter and editor in me liked the editorial concept, the publisher in me smiled painfully to discover that Inc.’s offer to “test your own entrepreneurial aptitude” at www.inc.com/inc500 in fact was a solicitation for a $125 online test. Nevertheless, I was intrigued and forked over the credit card information. A few hours later I had a user name, password, and access to “The Attentional & Interpersonal Style Inventory” (TAIS). Each of the “inventory’s” 144 questions could be answered by choosing never, rarely, sometimes, frequently, or always. Even allowing for a little reflection and introspection, the test took no more than 20 minutes.
A few hours later the assessment came back via E-mail. How did I do? Not all that great, I would have to say, when compared to successful CEOs.
That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the extent to which the test pinpointed peculiarities of my work and lifestyle:
On information processing: “You like a busy world. Apparently there is a great deal going on in your world and in your mind. You seem to have the energy to keep up with this; in fact, you are probably stimulated by such a hectic existence.
“You need to know that you may make those around you feel rushed. Many people you know like a slower pace.”
On drive and confidence: “You are a self starter and generally have confidence that you will succeed. You rarely need to be motivated by others yet you don’t like the hassles of trying to get others to do things all the time. . .More to the point, you appear to lack the ‘killer instinct’ that it takes to get to the top in many cut-throat organizations.”
Decision-making style: “You tend to make decisions more quickly than the average person. . . You will be frustrated by bosses, coworkers, or subordinates who are more cautious than you, who drag matters out and make you wait.”
Communication style: I was in the mid range of values for Inc. CEOs in expression of ideas and of criticism and anger. But in terms of expression of support and affection, I was a corporate loser. “You don’t talk a great deal, but when you do, you are more critical than supportive. You definitely need to increase your sensitivity to those things people do right versus what they do wrong.”
I had one quibble with the test’s bias. It asked if I engaged in physical competition, and as a 58-year-old with an arthritic knee and a stent, I answered “never,” one of the only times I ever said never. The computer grading the answers assumed I didn’t like competition, and added that to a generally anti-social profile that I offered.
But if I were a corporate headhunter and evaluating Rich Rein as a possible CEO for a Route 1 start-up, I would not otherwise argue with this test or its results. As this test suggests (and as my reporting of Route 1 start-up companies confirms), the very best CEOs are driven but warmly compassionate and convivial extroverts. They are the gladhanding upbeat members of their golf foursomes. At the end of the round they might thank the greens keeper, but then they move on, to bigger and better things.