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Gary McCullough, CEO – Career Education Corporation (NYT)

Corner Office

This interview with Gary E. McCullough, president and chief executive of the Career Education Corporation, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

The Lesson of the 38 Candy Bars (Published NYT: August 8, 2009)

Gary McCullough

Every Sunday, Adam Bryant (NYT) talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing.

Q. What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?

A. The biggest one I learned, and I learned it early on in my tenure in the Army, is the importance of small gestures. As you become more senior, those small gestures and little things become sometimes more important than the grand ones. Little things like saying “please” and “thank you” — just the basic respect that people are due, or sending personal notes. I spend a lot of time sending personal notes.

I’ll never forget one of the interactions we had with my commanding general of the division in which I was a platoon leader. We were at Fort Bragg, N.C. We had miserable weather. It was February and not as warm as you would think it would be in North Carolina. It had been raining for about a week, and the commanding general came around to review some of the platoons in the field. He went to one of my vehicle drivers and he asked him what he thought of the exercise we were on. To which the young private said, “Sir, it stinks.” I saw my short career flash before my eyes at that point.

He asked why, and the private said: “There are people who think this is great weather for doing infantry operations. I personally think 75 and partly cloudy is better.”

And so the commanding general said, “What can I do to make it better for you?” And the private said, “Sir, I sure could use a Snickers bar.” So a couple days later we were still moving through some really lousy weather, and a box showed up for the private. And that box was filled with 38 Snickers bars, which is the number of people in my platoon. And there was a handwritten note from the commanding general of our division that said, “I can’t do anything about the weather, but I hope this makes your day a bit brighter, and please share these with your buddies.”

And on that day, at that time, we would’ve followed that general anywhere. It was a very small thing, and he didn’t need to do it, but it impressed upon me that small gestures are hugely important.

Q. What’s the best career advice someone ever gave you?

A. I believed early in my career that if I just worked hard, put my head down and did my job, everyone would notice and good things would happen. And in fact, that’s not true, necessarily. You can do your job and you can toil along in anonymity without anybody noticing for a real long time.

I was among the last people in my class who came into Procter & Gamble to be promoted to brand manager, and I would attribute part of that to the fact that I just wasn’t very savvy politically. A mentor taught me that no one could micromanage my own career better than me. And so I won’t say that I became more demanding, but I certainly began to have more of a plan around things that I felt I needed to do to grow, and I was more overt stating what I wanted or what I needed.

I think it’s an implied contract. You know, when you work at a company, you owe them a good day’s work. The company owes you a fair salary and growth opportunities. I was giving my best effort but I didn’t think I was getting, in some cases, all the return. So I started asking for it, not in a rude way, but in a way that it implied a quid pro quo, so to speak.

Q. Talk about how you’ve handled failure.

A. There was a point in time in my career where I was told point blank that I wasn’t going to be promoted, that I didn’t have the skills to go on to the next level. And when you’re faced with a situation like that, there’s two ways you can respond to it: You can accept it and you can move on, which I think would’ve been the easy thing to do, or you could seek to find out why people had that belief and convince them that you can do the work. I chose the latter.

I think when you’re faced with that, everybody has to dig in to look at themselves and say, “Am I here to make something happen, or am I going to believe this to be the case?” There are some things that are within your control and that you’ve got to drive to make happen. And there are some things that are outside your control that you can’t.

When they said I wouldn’t be promoted, I basically said, “Tell me what I need to do.” And I focused like a laser beam on those things and I delivered those.

Q. What has surprised you most about the top job?

A. One is the breadth of topics or issues that you’re confronted with on a daily basis, and you have to be able to go from one thing to another to another, and sometimes it feels like they’re completely unrelated.

In some cases it’s a snap decision. It’s got to be, “This is how we’re going to proceed, move forward” versus taking time to really contemplate the question. So if you’re not comfortable with dealing in gray areas or you’re not comfortable with deciding with 75 or 80 percent of the data you would want to have, then this is not a job that people should aspire to.

I think the other piece is just the demands of the various constituents. You know, you have employee demands, I’ve got a board of directors that has demands. There are investors, there are analysts and shareholders and so on and so forth, and they all require time and attention. So marshaling enough time so that you don’t feel like you’re giving everybody short shrift is really tough to do.

The other piece is the fishbowl nature of the job. It’s relentless to some degree, in that respect.

Q. How do you make sure you’ve got the energy to do all that?

A. I think part of it’s just genes and disposition. I’ve always been an early-morning riser. I like to get up early. I like to get a workout in because that gets the blood pumping to face the day. So a couple times a week, I’m up at 4:45 or 5 at the latest.

Q. How do you hire?

A. When I’m hiring, particularly at the senior levels, I’m looking for a couple of things. One is demonstrated leadership — has somebody shown that they have mastered the work, that they can lead people and lead organizations? I look for intelligence — business intelligence — and I’m not talking book intelligence. I’m rarely swayed by people who were 4.0 students at the best colleges and universities. I’m just talking about basic smarts.

You do recruit for raw intelligence because if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. You either do or you don’t. But I’m also looking for some street savviness. I’m looking for the ability to work with other people.

Teamwork’s important to me. I grew up playing on teams. I’m not a fan of people who are “lone wolves” at the tops of organizations, because they don’t do a good job of working with me and with the organization in many cases.

So I ask them to tell me about a time when they were in, say, a leadership situation where something simply would not have happened had they not been there, and what they did to influence the action. Questions like that tend to be pretty open-ended.

Q. It’s hard to test for those intangibles up front.

A. Yes it is, which is why I want to spend time with people. At the levels I’m hiring for, I want to have a meal with you. I want to meet your spouse. They should want to do the same thing with me and with my spouse, because you get a sense for who people are when you get them out of the business environment.

I’ll tell you another quick story. There was a woman named Rosemary who long ago retired from Procter & Gamble. Rosemary was a cafeteria worker, and at the time at P. & G., we actually had a cart that would come around at 7, 7:30 in the morning. They would ring a bell and you’d go get a cup of coffee and a doughnut or a bagel or something to start off your day.

And Rosemary had an uncanny ability to discern who was going to make it and who wasn’t going to make it. And I remember, when I was probably almost a year into the organization, she told me I was going to be O.K. But she also told me some of my classmates who were with the company weren’t going to make it. And she was more accurate than the H.R. organization was.

When I talked to her, I said, “How’d you know?” She could tell just by the way they treated people. In her mind, everybody was going to drop the ball at some point, and then she said: “You know you’re going to drop the ball at some point, and I see that you’re good with people and people like you and you treat them right. They’re going to pick up the ball for you, and they’re going to run and they’re going to score a touchdown for you. But if they don’t like you, they’re going to let that ball lie there and you’re going to get in trouble.”

Again, I think it’s those intangible things. I had taken the time to get to know Rosemary and know that her husband’s name was Floyd and know the thing that they did in their off-time was bowling. So, it is all those little intangible things that you see, not when you’re sitting around a table in a conference room, but what you see in other ways.

Q. What’s your approach to time management?

A. When people ask me for time, they generally don’t need the time that they ask for. So my assistant asks people, “How much time do you need?” and, “What are the outcomes?” If they say an hour, we cut it in half. If they say 30 minutes, we cut it to 15, because it forces people to be clearer and more concise. By doing that, I’m able to cram a number of things into the day and move people in and out more effectively and more efficiently.

Sometimes there are things that people come in to discuss because they want face time, or because they’re unsure, or they want me to make a decision so they can say that I made the decision and hide behind that. And so those things don’t work very well.

Q. Are you a gadget person?

A. I live by my BlackBerry, as most of us do. I do make it a point on Friday night to turn it off and I don’t turn it on again until Sunday morning. I do that for a couple of reasons. One is, you have to try to separate at some point during the week. Anybody who needs me, whether it’s a board member or one of my leaders, they know how to reach me if something comes up that’s a crisis.

The other reason I turn it off is because when things come in, if I respond, then I’ve got people in the organization who would see that I’ve responded on Saturday morning at 8 a.m. And the next thing I know, I have a response to my response at 8:15 and so it goes. And I want people to have a life.

Q. How do you find out now in your position what people throughout the company are thinking?

A. The more senior you get, the harder it is to really keep a pulse on things. I tell people that coming to my office is like going to the principal’s office. Nobody wants to make that walk if they can avoid it, for the most part.

I call people and say, “Hey, can you come talk to me?” They bring all their staff books and things, and I literally want to have a conversation. So I walk around and I ask questions. I think the best way to do it, to figure out what’s really going on, is to travel to the other company locations that are away from the corporate headquarters and have town hall-style meetings.

I send out on at least a quarterly basis, sometimes more frequently, e-mails to all employees. I help them understand what our results were, as an organization, what some of the issues are, what some of our priorities should be.

I’ve gotten responses back, sometimes from only 50 employees, sometimes from as many as 200 or 300. And I do my best over the course of a couple of days to respond to every one of those e-mails. So I’ve actually got people in the organization who I’ve established dialogues with over the course of the last couple of years, who will send me notes that will say, “You know, have you thought about this?” or, “You should know this is going on in our company or in our location.” And I treat every one of those pieces of information with a great deal of respect. I protect their anonymity, and it gives me a good picture of some things that are going on that I otherwise wouldn’t know.

Q. What do you think business schools should teach more of, or less of?

A. Having gone to business school — this is going to sound terrible but I’m going to say it anyway — I didn’t learn that much at business school. It was a great way for me to transition from the military to the private sector, and I learned basic things, like buy low and sell high. I learned that sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And I made some lifelong friends, which was all good.

I think I’d ask them to be mindful of teaching about leadership. If I was going to teach a course, that’s what I would teach, about leadership, about playing nicely in the sandbox with others, about being more collaborative, and I would ask them to teach or to impress upon people that when they graduate, it does take a little while to get a job like mine.

I can’t tell you the number of young people who think that they’re going to end up with a job like mine after a year or five years. It just doesn’t work that way, and I think if people could come out of business schools with a more realistic sense of how things really operate in organizations, and that there is a bit of dues-paying that has to happen, we’d all be better off. So managing expectations is something that I’d ask those people to really think through.

Q. What’s your two-minute commencement speech?

A. I would tell people that the race ultimately doesn’t go to the fast. It goes to the strong. It goes to the resilient and it goes to the people who are well prepared. I have my own kids, and I tell them that when I walk into a room of more than five or seven people, I know that I am not the smartest guy in the room and I’m very, very comfortable with that fact. There are people who are off-the-charts smart, and that’s great. That’s good for them. I like to surround myself with really smart people, as I said before.

I will outwork, and have over the course of my career, about anybody. If you’re clear about what you want, if you’re strong, if you’re resilient, if you’re well prepared and you’re willing to work — I mean really work — then good things can happen. I’m a guy who never planned to be in an office like this, and that was not my goal coming out of business school, believe it or not. And so, it surprises me that I’m in this role and in this job. I think when you’re too focused on the top job, you can get derailed somewhere along the way.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 9, 2009, on page BU2 of the New York edition.

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