Monday, June 13, 2011

Got An M.B.A.? Great, But I Prefer Uncommon Sense

This interview with Byron Lewis Sr., the chairman and chief executive of the UniWorld Group, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. How do you hire? What qualities are you looking for?

A. I'm looking for entrepreneurial capabilities. I'm looking for integrity.

Q. How do you tell if somebody has integrity?

A. We ask them for references, but it's also an intuition you need to have. Many people who come to us don't have traditional backgrounds. I'm looking for people who have ideas. I'm looking for people who can move the agency forward. I am looking for people who are different but different within the context of a business.

Q. Can you elaborate on that last point?

A. I'm looking for people who are not siloed. You have to know how to work with the creative people. You have to know how to bring the best out of them.

Q. What's your advice for getting the most out of creative people?

A. Creative people never know when or where the inspiration will come from, and leaders should understand that. The best way to build a team is to let the creative people feel that you understand them, and if they want to go off strategy, let them have their commercial or two, but make sure you have what the client asks for. The best creative also comes from good strategic planning and staying on point.

Q. Let's say you just hired me, and I ask you, "What's it like to work for you?"

A. Well, I'm a piece of work. You have to understand that I never worked for an advertising agency or a mainstream marketing company. It might be difficult because I built this company and I'm a nontraditional person. I'm looking for ideas, and I'm looking for people who go beyond. When the thought hits me, I want to share it, and I'll call a meeting in a moment. Working with me would be challenging, but rewarding.

Q. What's your advice on how to lead and manage?

A. What I've learned is that what I value the most is common sense. When you really find a leader, that person has uncommon sense. I do not believe in formulas. I believe in integrity. Integrity is that you feel a loyalty not only to the company but also loyalty to an idea. I'm driven by ideas and I want people to be open and honest with what they believe, because I've learned to listen and value ideas. My company depends upon innovation. That's how we started, and the older we get, the more important innovation becomes. Change can only come from people who feel free and have the courage to stand up for what they believe.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

A. To be candid, I used to tell people that you have to be able to stand me — I am insistent on doing things a certain way because I knew they worked. But that wasn't necessarily creating harmony, and now I'm aware that I want to hear from others. I want them to feel free to be honest about what they think.

Q. How do you create a culture of honesty?

A. The truth is, people need to see their ideas being used. I used to insist upon doing it my way. Now, I'm much more interested in seeing that they do it their way.

Q. And when did that change happen?

A. It's happened much more recently. I'm pretty clear about who I am. I'm very clear about where I stand. I think my brand is, "Byron is kind of difficult but he's interesting." People are aware that I'm difficult, but they also see that it works.

Q. And why are you difficult?

A. As a start-up company, I was desperate to make sure that we would be successful. I did a lot of things myself, and it's difficult to move away from that, partly because I managed to keep the company going during some tough times.

But it is very important that we have mutual respect. It's particularly important because UniWorld is truly diverse. Our people bring different perspectives and customs that really contribute to our understanding of what we do.

People who work here know the history of the company, and that is our culture. It's about innovation and change. There's no formula, but that's what we've created, and there is respect for individual people and where they come from. In another sense — I'm not as interested in M.B.A.'s as I might have been. I respect people for what they bring. I'm looking for people who have common sense, common decency. But I'm primarily looking for people who have uncommon sense because that's where genius comes from.

Q. Talk more about that phrase, if you would.

A. Uncommon sense is what Bill Gates and certain people have. Sure, they went to college, but they didn't even finish because they created an idea. They had a vision and acted upon it.

I don't claim to be on that level, but with my history and my company's history, that's in our DNA and it works, particularly in these times. I'm open to ideas as long as they're strategically sound.

People of color — because of their background — they're used to hard times and hard living. Hard times and hard living create the originality and individuality that you find among black athletes, black musicians, jazz and hip-hop artists. That's what I'm looking for in my space. Jazz musicians do not think traditionally. They are creative people. That's what makes this music, makes our culture global. I'm looking for those characteristics.

Uncommon to me is where genius comes from. Uncommon people, in our culture, get the most traction, and we see that today, where Mary J. Blige, P. Diddy and Jay-Z are now considered fashion icons. A person like Queen Latifah — who would ever have imagined that she would be an iconic figure for P.& G.'s CoverGirl brand? She has an uncommon background, an uncommon view of the world. Strangely enough, those views resonate across all spaces.

This interview has been edited and condensed. A collection of past interviews, searchable by topic, is at nytimes.com/corneroffice.

Thanks To Adam Bryant / The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/business/12corner.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print

 

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