Avinoam Nowogrodski, the chief executive of Clarizen, a work management software company, says leadership is about asking the right questions.
Were you in leadership roles early on?
The first time that I went into a leadership role was in the Israeli army. After 18 months, I became an officer. My leadership style from Day 1 was that I was never about command and control. It was always about creating leadership, and not relying on your rank. I stayed in the army for five years.
Where did that approach come from?
Maybe it related to my childhood. I was a terrible student — they threw me out of school three times. I wasn’t paying attention to learning and I didn’t like to be told what to do. I managed to do well in university later on.
Any early lessons as a new manager?
I first started managing people when I was 30. I was a complete idiot. I never listened to anybody until one day the vice-president of sales at the company told me, “Listen, Avinoam, you’re very smart, very capable but you have one issue: You are not listening.”
And for the first time, I got it. I started forcing myself to listen and to try to understand what other people are trying to say versus what they are saying. Because many people try to say things, and they have good ideas, but they may not be very articulate. We have a tendency, especially when we are young, to immediately jump to conclusions. There may be, in effect, a small person on your shoulder who tells you when you’re talking to someone: “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s an idiot.” I just replaced that with a voice that tells me to listen to what the other person has to say. Try to learn, try to understand, try to get out of the meeting with some value.
How else has your leadership style evolved?
The level of uncertainty and the dynamic of everything that happens around us require that leaders change their style — to move from command and control to sense and respond. I think that real leadership is about asking the right questions. Great leaders ask the right questions because they recognise that no single person knows the answers and that a team is much better at figuring out the answers.
And once you ask the right questions, the answer just jumps out. It’s amazing. You put a team of people in a room, you ask the right questions, and the right people will offer up ideas.
But many people still hold on to the notion that leaders should have all the answers, and that they should be able to see around corners.
You are not going to succeed if you are not open, if you are not respectful and if you are not modest. Modesty, for me, is about knowing the limits of your own knowledge.
It’s not about being humble; it’s about having the confidence to ask questions, and the confidence to understand that you don’t know everything.
At the end of the day, I think that a big part of leadership is about showing respect. And respect creates a kind of feedback loop. There is a formula for creating respect, and it depends on you. If you respect other people, they’ll respect you. If you are aware of this, then you can basically manage innovation. Why? Because innovation is created with people who you respect. It will never happen in a group of people who hate each other. If you want to have innovation within your company, you need to have a culture of respect. And a culture of respect will come in part from asking the right questions.
Other lessons you’ve learned over your years of being a CEO?
You mainly learn from failures, and the most impactful moments are the times when you have a crisis. I believe that people are measured by how they handle a crisis, and this is where leaders need to stand out. There are people who know how to manage uncertainty and there are people who know how to manage certainty. I’m always attracted to people who know how to manage uncertainty and who just feel comfortable doing that. I feel like I stand out in uncertainty — it’s where I’m very calm and constructive. When there is certainty, I let people do what they need to do because I know that the uncertainty will come. I will give people authority in times of certainty because I know that in uncertainty, I’m going to be probably the right person to deal with it.
How do you hire? What qualities do you look for in job candidates?
I have three main things I’m looking for. One is: Is this person curious? Do they care? Do they listen? Are they drawing conclusions? The second attribute is modesty. Does this person think they know everything, that their cup is full? Because if they think their cup is full, then we don’t need them, because they know everything. The third element is passion. Is this person passionate about what they do? It correlates very well with asking the right questions, because when you ask the right questions, you’re showing curiosity. You want to know. You don’t ask the question just for the sake of asking.And how do you figure out if the person embodies those qualities?
You can understand them in the way that people talk about themselves. Do they think they know everything? There are certain kinds of people who are always trying to show off when it isn’t appropriate. I don’t mind people showing off in the right circumstances, by the way. And it’s not that I think I am the most humble guy on earth. But I think that you get a sense of their modesty if people understand the limits of what they know.
What advice do you give to graduating college students?
The lesson I try to teach is really about listening. I think that’s the key attribute — the ability to listen — that will make a difference in people’s lives, because listening is the key for everything that has to do with the environment and society around us. Problems start when we are not listening enough and respectful enough to what is going on around us.
New York Times
I believe that people are measured by how they handle a crisis, and this is where leaders need to stand out