This interview with Cristóbal Conde, president and C.E.O. of SunGard, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What are your thoughts on collaborative versus top-down management?
A. Collaboration is one of the most difficult challenges in management. I think top-down organizations got started because the bosses either knew more or they had access to more information. None of that applies now. Everybody has access to identical amounts of information.
Q. Why did that shift occur?
A. I would say two things. One is just the massive information revolution. But equally important is the fact that before, while there were global companies, they were really just a collection of very local businesses operating independently from each other. Now a global company means a company composed of teams that are themselves dispersed. So every team can be global in many senses, not just the company.
But with the explosion of information, and flattening technologies starting with e-mail, I think that a C.E.O. needs to focus more on the platform that enables collaboration, because employees already have all the data. They have access to everything.
You have to work on the structure of collaboration. How do people get recognized? How do you establish a meritocracy in a highly dispersed environment?
The answer is to allow employees to develop a name for themselves that is irrespective of their organizational ranking or where they sit in the org chart. And it actually is not a question about monetary incentives. They do it because recognition from their peers is, I think, an extremely strong motivating factor, and something that is broadly unused in modern management.
Q. How do you create that culture?
A. One thing we use is a Twitter-like system on our intranet called Yammer.
Q. How long have you used it?
A. About seven months. By having technologies that allow people to see what others are doing, share information, collaborate, brag about their successes – that is what flattens the organization. I think the role of the boss is to then work on those collaboration platforms, as opposed to being the one making the decisions. It’s more like the producer of the show, rather than being the lead.
I think too many bosses think that their job is to be the lead, and I don’t. By creating an atmosphere of collaboration, the people who are consistently right get a huge following, and their work product is talked about by people they’ve never met. It’s fascinating.
Q. What kind of things do you write on Yammer?
A. I try to see a client every day, and because of my title I get to see more senior people. And so then they’ll tell me things – you know, what are their biggest problems, what are their biggest issues, what are their biggest bets. All this information is incredibly valuable. Now, what could I do with that? I’m not going to send that out in a broadcast voice mail to every employee. I’m not even going to write a long e-mail about it to every employee, because even that is almost too formal. But I can write five lines on Yammer, which is about all it takes.
A free flow of information is an incredible tool because I can tell people, “Look, this is one of our largest clients, and the C.E.O. just told me his top three priorities are X, Y and Z. Think about them.”
Q. Have you always tried to pursue a collaborative management style?
A. Early on, I was very command-and-control, very top-down. I felt I was smart, and that my decisions would be better. I was young, and I was willing to work 20 hours a day. But guess what? It doesn’t scale.
Q. How far can it scale?
A. Hundreds of people in a good business.
Q. Beyond that it breaks down?
A. Beyond that it was beyond my ability. Now, there are plenty of incredibly successful companies run by micromanagers, and that’s a different story. The last year I did that, I was away from home 302 nights, not including day trips. I had to fly around all over the place making all the decisions. And I would walk in, make an uninformed decision, get on the next plane, go somewhere else and repeat the process. I look back at that year; I don’t think I got anything done.
Q. When was that?
A. That was in the early ‘90s, and that experience convinced me that the right way to do it is to do the opposite, which is to hold people accountable, to really restrict the number of things that you say to them, and to decide on the one or two things that are the most important. And then when you meet with them, you always bring back the conversation to that one thing. You have to do that consistently for over a year before you start having an impact.
Q. Besides the endless travel of that year, was there something else that made you shift styles?
A. Yes, it was a huge disagreement with somebody who worked for me directly, and he ended up quitting shortly thereafter. And it wasn’t that the decision that we disagreed on was so big. It was more that, to him, it just wasn’t as much fun anymore. He felt he could do more, and I was in his way. I was chasing away somebody extremely valuable, and that is when I realized I never would have put up with that myself. If you start micromanaging people, then the very best ones leave.
If the very best people leave, then the people you’ve got left actually require more micromanagement. Eventually, they get chased away, and then you’ve got to invest in a whole apparatus of micromanagement. Pretty soon, you’re running a police state. So micromanagement doesn’t scale because it spirals down, and you end up with below-average employees in terms of motivation and ability.
Instead, the trick is to get truly world-class people working directly for you so you don’t have to spend a lot of time managing them. I think there’s very little value I can add to my direct reports. So I try to spend time with people two and three levels below because I think I can add value to them.
Q. So what do you do to get in touch with those people?
A. I do my best to see a client every day, and I go there with a rep or the account manager. Let’s say we’re in the subway or a taxi or whatever and we’re heading to the client. The rep is getting ready for this meeting and kind of going through everything.
What the rep is not ready for is all my questions. Their guard is not up when I ask about the organization. And they tell me the first thing that is on their mind, and that is incredibly valuable.
Q. And what do you ask them?
A. “What’s your No. 1 issue? If there’s one thing you could change, what would it be? If you couldn’t be at SunGard, what would you do?” Very quickly you get insights. And I’m not saying that you then act on them, but you kind of build a giant mosaic about what your organization really looks like, and people respect that.
Q. What is some of the best feedback you’ve received?
A. A boss once told me: “Cris, you’re a smart guy, but that doesn’t mean that people can absorb a list of 18 things to do. Focus on a handful of things.” Very constructive criticism, and the way I’ve translated that is, when I do reviews, everything is threes.
So, “Look, Charlie, these are the three things that are going well. These are the three things that are not going well.” Now, that’s very important because then people know that everybody’s going to get three positives and three things they should do differently. Then they don’t take it personally. I’ve found that to be an incredibly valuable tool.
Q. Let’s talk about hiring. What questions do you ask?
A. I care a lot less about the individual skills. I look for drive and a sense of somebody’s intellectual curiosity.
Q. How? What do you ask?
A. I think you can get a lot of those questions in small talk. You might say, “What do you think of this table?” We’re a technology company, so most people are engineers. I expect something interesting or unconventional. We have tended to make more money with people who are willing to buck conventional wisdom.
Q. Give me an example.
A. I interviewed a guy the other day, and he said, “Well, you won’t believe it, but I thought about taking the train and going back home as I was coming here.” I loved that answer.
A. I love that answer because it means the person is trying to think for themselves. That’s what I want.
Q. And why did he think about turning around and taking the train home?
A. Because he was thinking about the company’s position and other considerations. The specifics are not the point. He was trying to come up with kind of a rational process for weeding out the bad ideas from the good ones. And he looked at me almost like he was embarrassed to admit this. And I loved the answer. It takes incredible self-confidence to say that.
I love it when people show healthy skepticism. I think the more an organization is diverse that way, the healthier it is, and better decisions will come out. We have made more money by bucking conventional wisdom than by following it. And I think that in an interview, I look for ways in which people demonstrate that they are thinking about things rather than just accepting conventional wisdom.
Q. Is there anything unusual about the way you run meetings?
A. I actively despise how people use PowerPoint as a crutch. I think PowerPoint can be a way to cover up sloppy thinking, which makes it hard to differentiate between good ideas and bad ideas. I would much rather have somebody write something longhand, send it in ahead of the meeting and then assume everybody’s read it, and then you start talking, and let them defend it.
The question from the beginning of the meeting to the end of the meeting is, “Have we added value: yes or no?” And I would say that if the meeting is mostly the presentation of a deck of PowerPoint slides, you conveyed information, but you didn’t actually add value.
Q. So many C.E.O.’s have told me they don’t like PowerPoint, yet it’s still a ubiquitous tool.
A. The problem is not the software, it’s how people use it. It’s a tool that can make below-average thinking look above average. By the way, something else I look at: Can somebody write? English is my second language, and I write reasonably well. I don’t see very much excuse for people not to be able to write well. I just don’t.
Q. And do you make that a part of the hiring process?
A. I ask them for something they wrote.
Q. And has the writing sample ever changed your mind about somebody?
A. Yes. Mostly, if it was somebody I was on the fence about, it usually confirms that it should definitely be a yes. Sometimes you can tell somebody’s intelligence just by reading what they’ve written.
Q. What about time management? Do you have any tricks or techniques you use?
A. I tell my secretary, I need an hour and a half once a day where I can go somewhere that doesn’t have a PC or a phone, unless I choose to spend that hour and a half writing. But it’s not just managing e-mails and stuff like that. I need an hour and a half to think. And it could be anything.
Sometimes it gets cut short. But many topics or issues can only be dealt with in an uninterrupted format. I worry about our entry-level people – they’re bombarded with information, and they never get to think.
Q. What’s your best career advice for young people?
A. My advice to young people is always, along the way, have a sales job. You could be selling sweaters. You could be selling ice cream on the street. It doesn’t matter. Selling something to somebody who doesn’t want to buy it is a lifelong skill. I can tell when somebody comes in for an interview and they’ve never had any responsibility for sales.