Corner Office, a new Sunday Business feature, offers highlights from conversations about leadership and management. This interview with Greg Brenneman, chairman of CCMP Capital, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What do you consider the keys to effective leadership?
A. The most important thing is that you treat everybody incredibly well and lead with a bit of humility. I’ve found that when I go into a company to lead it’s important to have a plan and to make that plan a simple one that everybody can understand. So even before I go into a company, or even if we’re looking at a business here at CCMP, I’m constantly asking the question, “What are the two or three levers that, if done right, if pulled correctly, will really turn this business?” Then what I do is take that and put it into a one-page plan.
I learned back in the days when I was consulting at Bain & Company — and before that when I was at Harvard Business School doing case studies — that they give you more information than you could possibly read. So you needed to quickly step back and say, “What are the two or three things that really matter?” And I find in the world that people don’t really do that often. They just dive into all this detail and start using acronyms and buzzwords and they don’t step back.
For example, when Gordon (Bethune) and I took over Continental, the first thing we did was we sat down at his dining room table, and I just had out a notepad and we started drinking wine, and we switched to Scotch, and we just started to endeavor to write down everything that was brain-dead about the airline, everything that was wrong.
And that ultimately, very quickly, within a week or less, got put into a plan called the Go Forward Plan, which was a market plan called Fly to Win, a financial plan called Fund the Future, a product plan called Make Reliability a Reality, and a people plan called Working Together. And it all went on one page, and even underneath each of those items it was all just stuff that was very easy to understand, like: “The fastest way to make money is to stop doing things that lose it.” And so we stopped flying to places that lost money.
Q. Is there a magic number of points for a business plan?
A. I’m not sure there’s a magic number, per se. I’d divide the page in quadrants: Market, Financial, Product and People. And if I can’t simply put what needs to be done on one page, I probably haven’t thought through it very well.
There’s a great saying: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” I find that in business a lot people take the time to write the really long letter, but they don’t take time to write the short one, and it even applies to doing investments.
When one of our guys is presenting an investment, you always kind of know they have it if they can explain it very quickly. And if it takes a really long time and you’re into the square root of the price of oil in Uzbekistan, you probably know that it’s gotten too complicated, and that’s when I start asking questions — when people start having trouble simply saying, “Here’s the idea.”
Q. On your first day at a new company, what is your goal, what do you want to communicate to the staff?
A. On the first day it would be more like, “I am proud to be here with you and appreciate what you have done; here are some observations about the business and some rules for how we’re going to treat each other.” Shortly thereafter we would roll out the one-page plan.
I tell everyone that my e-mail’s always accessible and I’ll always respond within 24 hours. You don’t need to feel like you’ve got to come up through the ranks; you can always e-mail me. Something that we’ve used ever since the Continental days when we started it there is to leave a voice mail for the troops every single Friday. Usually it revolves around the plan. Here’s what we told you we were going to do, here’s what we did, and here’s where we’re headed next week. So a lot of communication on that first day is just kind of breaking down communication barriers, firing people up and putting people at ease by letting them know what to expect.
Q. When you are hiring, or evaluating a management team, do you have one or two or three acid-test questions?
A. Yes, and I’ll phrase it in terms of what I look for and then maybe we can go to questions. Right now, CCMP has about 50 portfolio companies. Fifteen companies make up about 80 percent of our economics, and I’m actually mentoring C.E.O.’s of some of those companies.
My job now, which I love, is a little different than running a company because I interact with so many C.E.O.’s. And I really test for two things. One is, are they smart enough to do the job? Do they have enough capability to find those two or three levers that really make a difference in a business? And I call that the I.Q.-dipstick test; if you stick the I.Q. dipstick in and it comes out two quarts empty, there’s nothing else we can do. Thankfully, the vast majority of CCMP C.E.O.’s I have met pass the I.Q. test.
Q. And how do you ...
A. I’ll start asking questions. What really drives this business? If I told you I’d love to see earnings up 20 percent, what would be the levers we could pull to do that? Right now, it’s actually a different question, which is, how is your revenue forecast coming out? And then you just listen.
Some C.E.O.’s will say, ‘I’m gonna do one, two, three, four, five.’ And you sit there and listen and you say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense. I got it.’ But then you have some that look at you like you came from Mars — and I worry about those guys. Or you have some that will just filibuster you for 30 minutes with stuff you just don’t understand — this buzzword, that buzzword. I worry about those guys even more than the guys that just give you a blank stare.
The second thing I look for is if I were to get on an airplane with this guy or gal, would I want to fly across the Atlantic with them? Are they nice people to be with? Do you want to be with them? Because I find that people that don’t relate well to anybody, from owners or board members to peers to direct reports to folks that actually work for a living in the trenches, they don’t succeed very well. You can usually tell that by asking, “What do you enjoy doing? What do you do as a hobby?” And ask a few questions to the people that work around them, and you get a pretty good sense pretty quickly.
Q. How do you run meetings?
A. We tend to run meetings a bit like a food fight here at CCMP. Anybody can have an idea or a thought, and the best idea wins. And so there’s not a lot of formality or pomp and circumstance around it, at all. It’s a very informal and very free-flowing dialogue.
Q. Is it ever an issue for you that you want to make sure you’re getting straight talk from your direct reports?
A. Yes, no question. Some people that were brought up in the hierarchy of life have trouble with that. But they don’t survive very long, honestly, in the companies I’ve run. I usually tell people upfront what to expect, and that I really want their feedback and their ideas, and if they think I’ve got a hair out of place or food stuck in my teeth, gosh, I want to know that.
Q. Was there an insight you had that, looking back, put your career on a different trajectory?
A. Some of it was luck. But I remember something that Mitt Romney told me at Bain. He said: “Greg, in any interaction, you either gain share or lose share. So treat every interaction as kind of a precious moment in time.” And I’ve always remembered that, because I think it’s really true. So what I’ve tried to do is have more conversations where I’m gaining share than losing share, to try to add value to everything. I pass on any opportunity I see that I can’t add value on.
Q. Tell me about your as-good-as-it-gets moment in business.
A. Being able to hand people checks, whether it was an on-time bonus to say thank you for helping us be on time, or whether it was a car for having perfect attendance, or just being able to hand employees checks. At Burger King we were able to do that, too. We had some big moments financially where we were able to just hand out checks to employees who helped us get there. Those are the best days, I think.
Q. Is there an effective time-management technique you’ve developed?
A. Nothing incredibly impressive, other than to never allow meetings to last very long. So we start on time and end on time. I think probably the biggest time-management thing is being on time. I do not run late. Growing up on a farm you’re just not late when it’s time to do chores or go to work. I grew up Mennonite and so that work ethic and timeliness was just ingrained in me from a very young age. It seems like if you run meetings on time and you don’t schedule them for too long, that time management kind of takes care of itself.
Q. And is there an ideal length of a meeting?
A. It depends a little bit on the meeting, but an hour at the most. Shorter is generally better.
Q. Do you have a favorite gadget?
A. I’m pretty addicted to the BlackBerry. I love the iPhone technology, and I’d like to find a way to switch completely to Apple because I think they’ve so figured out computing. It’s hard in business to make that leap when you’ve distributed systems that use I.B.M. and Microsoft so much. But I’m pretty addicted to that BlackBerry.
I started taking them away in meetings at Quiznos, but the C.F.O. there is just addicted to it, beyond probably what most people are, and he was just watching that light, and he wouldn’t answer it because I said you couldn’t answer your BlackBerry in this meeting. But he’d look at the light and the light would drive him nuts, so I had him turn it over. And then, of course, I took it. He was doodling during the meeting as we were talking, and when he got up to leave the room I grabbed the paper he was doodling on, and he had doodled a complete, to scale, picture of a BlackBerry. Subconsciously, he doodled one while we were sitting in the meeting. That’s how addicted he was to it. I actually still have this. I’m going to give it to him framed.
The technology can become a bit of a slave driver. It is so efficient, though. What I like is when the plane’s coming down, you can actually get the messages coming in and you can answer them while you’re taxiing in, and then you’re done. That piece of it is really nice.
Q. What do you do to recharge your batteries?
A. My kids are 20, 18 and 16, so we love spending time with them. We have a house in Beaver Creek, so we like going up there in summer and winter to spend time skiing, hiking, mountain biking, that kind of thing. Play a little bit of golf. Just really hanging out and trying to spend some time with them. I exercise at least an hour every day, if not an hour and a half or two hours. Mostly either running, or I can read on the Stairmaster, so I do the Stairmaster a lot, and then some situps and weights and stuff.
Q. Back to your e-mails that the staff at various companies have sent you — was there an e-mail that you remember that was the toughest? The most memorable?
A. If you are C.E.O., you get flame-thrower stuff constantly. Some e-mails are very heartfelt and moving, too. I’ve saved a few of those. Answering customer and employee e-mails keeps you grounded a little bit, because you’re in these meetings, and you can get a little bit in the ivory tower, and it keeps you kind of focused.
I’ve heard everything. I tell folks — because folks will often write a really nasty e-mail, and then write one back later and say, “Gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t really mean it.” I say you really can’t offend me. I used to stand in the break room with the mechanics in Gate 86 in Newark. They were great guys but they were tough and had pipe wrenches in their hands. You can’t be any tougher.
One thing that I have very rigorously reacted to is absolutely no nasty e-mails from executives back to employees or back to franchise owners. Or to each other. If I intercept one of those, it’ll be a bad day. Another bad day for somebody is if you don’t respond to an employee or franchise owner within 24 hours. That is a very bad day. I had one lawyer who did that. He decided it wasn’t important, he had so much to do that he couldn’t respond within 24 hours. And I went and sat down with him and said, “It takes you just as long to respond quickly as it does slowly. It’s not a time management thing for you.” He just couldn’t get it, so he’s working somewhere else.
Q. If you had to choose another profession, what would it be?
A. I’d have probably gone into the ministry. I’d have probably gone into a profession where I feel I could help other folks. I’d like to say I’d have played on a P.G.A. tour, but that’s a remote possibility given my golf game.
Q. What’s your handicap?
A. I played in high school to about a four or five, and I probably play now to a 13-15. But I can get lower than that if I just play. I don’t play much. During ski season in particular, if I get a chance to go golfing for a weekend or going skiing for a weekend, I’ll always opt to go skiing.
Q. If you were interviewing different C.E.O.’s, what question would you ask to get some insight into how they manage and lead?
A. How are they motivating employees and managers at this particular juncture in the business cycle? And what do they consider to be important, in terms of what I’ll call the “shadow of the leader” that they cast over the organization at this difficult point in time.
Q. Now can you ...
A. Answer your own question? I think it’s important to talk to people about how we’re in a fundamentally different world. Ask the question, “If compensation isn’t going to be the same for a while, where do you get your fulfillment in life?” Certainly, work is a big piece of that and work is rewarding well beyond compensation. But faith, family, friends and hobbies create real balance. The conversation I’ve had with a lot of people, both in large groups and small, is make sure you have balance in your life and make sure that all your fulfillment doesn’t come out of economic gain.
I’ve talked to a lot of people on Wall Street where their entire fulfillment came from the answer to, “Is my bonus bigger this year than last year?” Or, “If I worked 100 hours a week this year, can I work 101 next year?” It’s actually a great time for us as leaders to help people to step back and ask the question: “Where do I get the fulfillment in my life? And how do I make sure my job is a big piece of that?” I’ve found that employees who are fulfilled on a much broader basis in their lives usually do a much better job of work than those that are completely, single-mindedly focused on and get all their value out of work.
I think that’s one of the bigger questions we have as a society. We’ve gotten so used to every generation doing better economically than their parents. Are our kids going to do better than we’ve done? I hope so, but I’m not sure. So it seems like we ought to tell them that socioeconomic wealth is not the only, or even the most important, metric of personal happiness.