ACL CEO Laurie Schultz Profiled in The New York Times


This interview with Laurie Schultz, chief executive of ACL, an auditing technology firm, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Were you in leadership roles when you were younger?

A. My parents got divorced when I was 7. My sister was 4, and my brother was a baby. My mom worked two jobs, so I became an adult pretty young, and took care of my brother and sister. We were poor. It was tough. Between first and seventh grade, I think I was in seven different schools because we moved so much.

But when I was in seventh grade, I had this experience with a teacher, Mr. Templeton. He noticed me and said: “Why don’t you join the basketball team? What about other teams?” So I became pretty good at sports, and it took somebody like him to reach out and notice somebody like me. It really had a profound impact on me. I think one of the core roles of a leader is to notice people, to discover something or someone, and to create an environment where they’re given a chance.

Q. What about after college?

A. My first full-time job was with Alberta Government Telephones. I was about 21, filling in for someone on leave, and I was running a team to launch this massive new caller ID technology. Even though it was an overnight success, there were a lot of concerns about privacy at the time. I had to figure out how to deal with something I didn’t know, which was this very valid privacy issue — with women’s shelters, doctors and the police — and we figured it out. We launched call blocking, and that became mandated across Canada. It was also a great first job experience because it taught me that there are always two sides to every issue.

Q. Tell me about your management style today.

A. As I said earlier, I believe my job is to notice and to discover talent. What puts my feet on the floor every morning is the opportunity to come to work and notice people who are amazing. To say: “Hey, you know what? I think you should try this. And guess what? I’m going to give you six weeks, and you’re going to come back with something that might not be perfect, and that’s O.K. Let me just see what you can do.” So my job is to create an explosion of talent. That’s how you scale an organization.

Q. What’s the best way to do that?

A. Town halls are an amazing way to spot talent. You get 15 front-line people in a room at a time, with no managers, and have a fireside chat. What’s working, what’s not working? People are on the phone or out in the field every day talking to customers, and customers know what we should do. You get in an environment like that, it’s easy to spot who the change agents are.

People usually tell me exactly what they think, and that can be a very empowering thing — not just for the people who are brave enough to tell me what they think, but for me, too, because then I don’t have to come up with all the ideas. I’ve got 15 smart people in the room, they give me a bunch of ideas, then I say, “Well, what do you guys think are the top two most important things to do?” We prioritize, and then we do them. So you get a community of peers telling one another what’s most important. You can feel who the change agents are based on how their peers watch them. It’s not just what they say; it’s also their ability to influence a conversation among their peers.

And if you do a town hall and you ask people for ideas, and then you prioritize them, the worst thing you can do is not act on them. And it can’t be tweaking or small things, like we need to put in new coffee machines. It has to be big.

I’ve been at ACL for about two years, and I was brought in to help it grow. From these town halls, I was able to spot talent, and today about a third of the 200 people have been promoted, about a third of the 200 people are new, and about a third are in the same jobs. It’s been a fairly pronounced organizational change. It’s not all because of these town halls, but they’re a big reason I’ve made the changes.

Q. How do you hire? What questions do you ask?

A. I’m trying to understand the intensity, curiosity and spirit of the person. I like to ask two questions, and they seem innocent enough, but I learn a lot from them. One question is, “Describe your proudest career moment.” I’ll often hear things like, “I doubled revenues at my last job.” Or sometimes I’ll hear something like, “This is not really a career moment, but I put myself through college by selling action figures on eBay.” And that’s cool. I’m also looking for how they tell their stories. Do they show emotion and energy? Because you really want people who can inspire.

The second question I always ask is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Some people do a double take, particularly if they’re on the mature side. But I’m often surprised by how many people don’t know, or haven’t thought about it. Maybe it’s an unfair question, but the ability to define your future is an indicator of the ability to build strategy, because nobody knows what five years looks like from now. But leaders need to be able to define a future. If they can define a future and if they can inspire people, that’s a great combination.

Q. What advice would you give to a class of graduating college seniors?

A. Three things. The first is: Love your job. Many people might say, “How do I know if I’m in the right job?” Well, if you’re asking that question, you’re in the wrong job. So love your job. It is possible.

Two, be the same person from 9 to 5 that you are 5 to 9. I strongly believe that you need to be yourself. Don’t try and be a script. Be a human being.

And the third is that time is the single most precious asset we have, and that we can control the short term. So spend it wisely. What are the three things you want to be amazing at? Then forget about the others.

(Source: ACL Blog)

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