100 DAY PLANS BUILD CONSISTENCY
CAN YOU HANDLE THE 100-DAY TO-DO LIST?
This interview with Geoff Vuleta, C.E.O. of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consulting firm in Manhattan, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant of the New York Times.
Q. Tell me about your approach to managing people.
A. I try to uncover what people are really good at doing and then give them a hell of a lot of that to do. I really, truly believe in that. I am the sort of person who’s never really believed in obsessing over trying to get people to do things that they are no good at anyway.
Q. What are you doing more of, or less of, as a leader?
A. There are always stages where you have to learn to get out of your own way. But there have been times, particularly in the last 18 months, where I realized I had become a creature of habit, and I needed to reinvent myself. I believe that you have to ensure that you are restless yourself as an individual, because you’re certainly demanding it of other people. So reinventing yourself is important.
Q. So what changed in the last 18 months?
A. I went through a big life lesson. Companies around us were growing faster than we were. And I began to realize that I simply wasn’t at enough tables to pitch new business. And then it became a question of, what am I doing that I’ve got to stop doing in order to ensure that I’m at more tables? Nothing like a good crisis to sort that out. So I stopped doing a good number of things at the firm that I’d been doing before.
Q. Were they hard to give up?
A. You think you’re important. There are four or five places in the food chain of any given job that I touched and that I believed it was important for me to be involved with. But you’ve just got to let it go, and that’s the hard thing. When you get to a point where you know you can trust yourself not to pull out the carrots to see if they’re growing all the time, that’s when you know you’ve made a change.
Q. What’s your philosophy of leadership?
A. One of the traits of a good leader is being able to build loyalty beyond reason, and getting people totally believing that something’s possible. And I’ve always believed — and this is fundamental to leading a group of people — that everybody wants to be led.
They want to know two things. They want to know what they should be doing, and they want to know that what they’re doing is important. And you must, therefore, set up an environment in which they totally trust that.
So your consistency of behavior is the most important thing in running a group of people. I have been let down often in my life by people in leadership roles who were just inconsistent — telling you to do something and doing something totally different themselves.
Q. So how do you create that consistency at your firm?
A. We get together every 100 days as a group, and we draw up a list of all the things that we want to get done in the next 100 days. And you go away as an individual and come back with commitments to how you’re going to contribute to that list. Then you sit down with me and our president and we discuss your plan. It’s just our job to make sure that the sum of everybody’s plan nails the firm’s list.
Q. Talk more about that list.
A. It’s made up of really simple things. What were the things that went wrong in the last 100 days? Let’s get rid of those. You want to nail your pain points and go, “O.K., what needs to be done to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” So that’s part of it.
And what do you want to do about your brand? How are you going to advance “thought leadership?” Not all projects are born equal — there are some that are grander than others. What are you going to do to invest in those? Who’s going to take responsibility for them?
And then there’s all the personal growth stuff, which everybody includes on their list. You want to advance. You want to grow as a person. There are things you want to get better at. But the thing that’s material about the list is that the company has agreed that those things are important.
Q. That’s not an easy list to write.
A. It’s a bit goofy to do it the first couple of times because people obsess over how they’re going to do something or what they’re going to do. It isn’t about any of those things. It’s only about an outcome. It’s only about what will have been achieved within the 100 days or at some point during the 100 days.
So the 100-day plan meetings start off with you actually reporting on yourself. You stand up with your 100-day plan, and there’s no wiggle room on it. They’re outcomes. You did them or you didn’t do them. You’re enormously exposed because you offered to do it, and you’re going to do it. Fahrenheit has only had to fire three people because the 100-day plan sorts it out beforehand.
Q. What’s the thinking behind that list?
A. As I said earlier, people want to be led, they want to know what they have to do, and they want to know that what they do is important. You need a mechanism for that to be there and to totally trust it, so that it’s not just words.
There’s nothing that I’m doing that anybody wouldn’t understand or appreciate, because everything’s exposed to everybody else. Everybody can see what everybody else is doing. If stuff happens that prevents you from being able to do it, you lean in quickly and either take it off your list or replace it with something else.
One of the truisms about life is that if you’re working in a void for any period of time, human nature says you’ll view it negatively. You get scared; you begin to believe that what isn’t there is probably bad. Never give people a void. Just don’t, because instinctively they’ll think something is awry. So at no point does anybody in the company not know what everybody is doing in the company, what they’ve committed to, and what the company thinks is important.
Q. And why 100 days?
A. It works brilliantly, because you can never be more than 100 days wrong as a company. You’ve got to allow time for people to feel the pain of getting something wrong. And when you create a competitive environment that has total transparency like we do, you won’t do it twice. You just won’t.
Q. How do you hire?
A. I thought I was important to hiring people. In truth, I’m no good at it. I’m just not wired in that particular way. I believe people too easily — if you say you’re good, I think you’re good. I’m looking for what’s right. I think that’s the biggest fault I’ve got. I’m not looking for what’s wrong. I am an optimist. So I stopped doing the hiring.
Q. But you’ve done it in the past.
A. I have done it, but I’ve made a couple of thunderously bad choices. And I realized, more importantly, that sometimes it isn’t until ages later that you find out what people are really like.
With one of the most important guys at Fahrenheit, I remember thinking clearly to myself when I first interviewed him that I don’t care if he says yes or no. I mean, he seemed good and competent and he’ll be able to do the job, but I’m not going to kill myself if he says no.
I look back now and I can’t imagine what it would be like without him. And I didn’t know because I’m just not wired that way. This same guy, though, is absolutely intuitive about hiring, so now the obligation and responsibility for hiring falls to him.
Q. As a firm, what are you looking for in job candidates?
A. We’ve always believed in looking for certain characteristics rather than qualifications. Our business is broken into two areas: the money and the magic. And the types of exercises you do to get hired to the money side of the business are different from the magic side of the business.
Q. Give me an example.
A. They’re fun. One of the jobs that you do for the magic side is to reinvent yourself as a beverage. So it’s you in a bottle. So what are the defining characteristics or traits that you have? Now bring that alive as a drink. And show me the drink, and tell me why I’d buy the drink. It’s a brilliant exercise.
Q. What other qualities are you looking for?
A. I firmly believe that somebody’s past gives you an idea of how they’re going to perform in the future. But by the same token, people find their zone. Six or seven of the most important people at Fahrenheit today are nothing like they were when they were first hired. If you’re in the right place, doing things that challenge you and are in your zone, you can get performances out of people that they never thought they would ever get out of themselves.
We’re looking for an inquisitive, restless mind and eclectic interests. And you’ve got to prove restlessness rather than saying restlessness. Prove to me that restlessness in a breadth of ways. If you have narrow interests, you’re probably not going to be right.
And the other thing is, are they the sort of person who thinks that being right is important? You don’t have time to be right where we are. We’re developing conceptual things. We’re inventing things that don’t yet exist. We’re working with enormously complex things all the time. And if you’re obsessed with being right, you won’t get there.
We’re in a business where you have to make continual leaps of faith about things. So prove to me that being great is important, not that being right is important.