April 19, 2009
Think ‘We’ for Best Results
Nell Minow is a co-founder of the Corporate Library, a provider of
corporate governance research. She is a former principal of Lens, a
shareholder-activist investment firm, and is a former president of
Institutional Shareholder Services. This interview with Ms. Minow was
conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. When did you first start
I first began managing when I was 3, which was when my first sister was
born. I then started managing my two younger sisters and went on from there.
We had a lot of clubs, and I was always president and vice president — I
didn’t want anyone closing in on me. Martha was the secretary and Mary was
the treasurer. But my first professional management job was at O.M.B. [the
Office of Management and Budget] when I was about 31.
What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned through the
The first time I ever really thought of myself as a leader was when I had a
series of experiences in college, over a period of about 18 months, working
on four different group projects. What I learned from that is that if you
can get everyone to agree what the goal is, and to identify themselves with
the successful achievement of that goal, then you’re pretty much there.
Early in my career, I also
kept getting offered the job of special assistant to somebody. About half
the time I turned it down, and about half the time I took it. All the times
that I did it I enjoyed it very much and I learned a lot. When you are a
special assistant, by definition you’re working for somebody who is
otherwise many, many levels above you. And so I got to hear managers talk
about the people they managed at a stage when I think most people are not
privy to those conversations.
One thing that helped move
my thinking forward was that I noticed in my first job that there was
something very definitional in who was included in somebody’s “we” and who
was included in somebody’s “them.” I found generally that the more expansive
the assumptions were within somebody’s idea of who is “we” — the larger the
group that you had included in that “we” — the better off everybody was. I
started to really do my best to make sure that my notion of “we” was very
expansive and to promote that idea among other people.
I also learned a lot about being a manager from being a mom. When I first
became a professional manager, I was pregnant for the first time, and so I
grew up with both responsibilities at the same time. You have people saying
the same two things to you all day long, which is, “Look what I did.” And
you say: “It’s really good. Do some more.” Or they say, “He took my stuff.”
And you have to say, “Tell him to give it back.”
You’re constantly trying,
whether you’re raising children or dealing with employees, to get them to
take responsibility for their own issues. I’m not saying that in a
maternalistic way, just in a way of trying to get people to take
responsibility for themselves, to do the best that they can and to learn as
much as they can. In both cases, you’re trying to make people more
independent and bring them along.
The best book that you’ve read about management?
The book that influenced me the most about management was a book about
parenting, called “How to Talk So Children Will Listen and Listen So
Children Will Talk." It was a tremendously educational book for me. In terms
of interpersonal skills in dealing with people of all ages and situations,
there just isn’t a better book.
What have you tried to do less of, over time?
One of my primary goals in life is to go to as few meetings as possible.
So when you’re running a meeting, what do you do?
I like to be very, very clear at the beginning of the meeting — this is what
we’re going to accomplish before the end of the meeting. People have agendas
other than achieving that one goal for that meeting, and so you’ve got to
just keep bringing people back to that. People that I work with know that I
don’t like meetings and that they will do better to just keep it moving.
What did you learn from your best or worst boss?
Bob Monks has been my business partner now for 23 years. He taught me two
things that I think of all the time, and that I think are really important
for any manager to keep in mind. One of them I learned when he was trying to
persuade me to take on a big project that I thought I couldn’t do. And I
said no, I can’t do it. And he asked me three times and all three times I
said it’s just not something that I can do. And finally he said to me, “All
right then, who do you think should supervise you on it?” And I said to
myself, gee, there’s really nobody that I think knows more about this than I
do, or is more capable than I am.
I thought, what a great way
for him to bring me to that realization, instead of saying: “I don’t care.
You have to do it. I’m making you do it. I’m your boss and I’m telling you
to do it.” He helped me to understand that I could do it.
Another thing is, the day
that he left I.S.S. [Institutional Shareholder Services] and left me to be
president, the last thing he said to me was, “Watch how funny your jokes
get.” And I must think about that three or four times a week. Not because
I’m telling a joke and people are laughing, but because I need to remind
myself constantly of the challenge that gets tougher and tougher as you get
higher in the organization to get people to be honest with you. And that was
just outstanding advice.
Was there an insight that, looking back, set your
career on a different trajectory?
I was in a very typical trajectory until I had kids, and then I had to
really jettison all of my assumptions about what I was going to be doing
with my life and think very creatively about my career. In a completely
unexpected way, that opened up opportunities to me that I never would have
If I had not had to think
about my career differently I could have stayed as a lawyer in the
government, or I could have gone to a law firm and I would have had the kind
of career that just about everybody that I knew had. But because I had to
find a part-time job, I went to work for a start-up. I never would have
thought about going to work for something that was not established and
And so I met Bob and we hit
it off. We met when we were in the government and he said, “I’ve got this
idea for a start-up.” I had never heard the words “corporate governance”
before. But he seemed like a good guy, and he said, “We’re just getting
started, so I don’t think we could use you more than three days a week.” And
I said, “Well, that sounds good.” And that opened up a million new
opportunities to me because I would never have known how much I love
creating something if I hadn’t sort of backed into it that way.
From your days as a shareholder activist analyzing
poor-performing companies, what did you learn about how not to lead?
All of them had C.E.O.’s who took an enormous number of steps to make sure
that no one would ever question them or second-guess them. At one of the
companies we were involved in, we talked to a number of employees who all
used the exact same phrase — that if you disagree with the boss, you get
fired on the spot.
Let’s talk about hiring. How do you do it?
I really look for a kind of a passionate curiosity. I think that is
indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just
alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more.
I once hired somebody who
wasn’t looking for a job. A guy called me to ask me some questions about
some corporate governance issue and I just thought he was so bright. I said,
“I’ll put some materials together for you, and put them in the mail.” And he
said, “Can I come over and pick them up right now?” And I said, “Wow, are
you looking for a job?” And he said, “Well, I’m in an internship right now.”
And I said, “If you are
looking for a job when the internship ends I’m going to hire you.” And I
did. I just like that kind of initiative. That’s really important to me.
Another thing that’s
important to me in hiring somebody is the ability to become very fully
engaged with the company, and that is a real challenge when you get past a
certain number of people. The fourth person you hire is just a different
kind of person than the 25th person you hire. The kind of person who comes
into a brand-new, make-it-up-as-you-go-along enterprise is very different
from the 50th person who says, “Is there a credit union?”
And this is where it starts
sounding like I’m looking for someone to date, but I also look for a sense
of humor, because that’s really the best indicator of some kind of
perspective about the world. And ultimately I won’t hire anybody who can’t
Do you glean that from their cover letter or ...?
I ask for a writing sample, the best example of your writing. And they’ll
say, “Well, do you want a paper I wrote in school, or do you want a memo?” I
tell them to give me what they think is the best example of their ability to
communicate. It’s just tremendously important, their precision, their
vocabulary, their sense of appropriateness of communication. If they’re
using texting language in a memo, that’s a bad sign.
Has a writing sample changed your mind about somebody,
to the upside or downside?
When you’ve started in new leadership roles, what did
you say in the first-day speech to the staff?
At I.S.S., I thought very deeply about this issue of, how do I get people to
be honest with me, because I was a popular fellow worker and I was becoming
the boss. That’s a big difference, and I was a little bit in denial for a
while that people would still treat me the same way. But the fact is that
you are in a different position when you’re deciding who gets the corner
office and gets a promotion, and they are going treat you differently.
The thing I remember best
about what I said to them was: “If you have a problem, I have a problem. I
am vitally concerned with anything that concerns you, but I refuse to be
responsible for a problem that is not brought to my attention. So you have
the responsibility to bring the problem to my attention.
“However, there are two
points you have to remember. One is you are not allowed to bring a problem
to me unless you have a proposed solution. So come in with what you think we
should do about it. And the second one is, we’re not making money yet. We’re
still losing money, and so until that changes the definition of a solution
is that it costs less than the problem.”
How do you handle time-management challenges?
Well, it helps that I’m A.D.D. I think there are a lot of qualities that are
not conducive to doing well in school but are conducive to doing well in
management. And so I’m very impatient and that kind of propels me and
prevents me from getting too caught up in one thing or another.
I like to have a lot of
different things happening at once. I like having a life that has a lot of
contrast, and I find that alternating right brain and left brain is
tremendously energizing, and that if I try to do one thing too much that I
start getting bogged down. So that way, what really is important rises to
I also delegate as much as I
can and I jettison as much as I can. I try to ask myself, do I need to do
this? Is this something that is really going to help?
Adam Bryant conducted and
condensed this interview.
A version of
this article appeared in print on April 19, 2009, on page BU2 of the New
IN addition to her corporate
governance work, Nell Minow also reviews movies online as the “Movie Mom”
(moviemom.com). The New York
Times asked her to make a list of the best movies she has seen about
leadership and management and explain why she likes them.
“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”
(2005). Must viewing for an almost operatic rise-and-fall story of greed
“The Solid Gold Cadillac”
(1956). Add a couple of zeros to the numbers and this classic comedy about
a small shareholder who takes on a big conglomerate could have been filmed
this year. Ripe for a remake!
“The Hudsucker Proxy”
(1994). The Coen Brothers’ take on corporations is both spoof and satire,
making some shrewd points about success and corruption.
“Roger & Me”
(1989). Must viewing in the era of the bailout. Watch for the many
indicators of poor business judgment, including a “Me and My Buddy”
exhibit with a mechanized worker singing to the machine that put him out
of a job.
(2001). The go-go madness of the dot-com era amplifies the challenge of
finding that fine line between vision and hubris. Unforgettable
(2000). Set in an illegal pump-and-dump brokerage, this movie perfectly
captures the adrenaline rush of money-making.
(1954). A rare movie
that focuses on the boardroom with a post-World War II C.E.O. succession
struggle between the green-eyeshade C.F.O. Fredric March and the
stakeholder proponent William Holden. See also the terrific animated movie
“Robots” (2005) for a similar struggle.
(2003). This fact-based
Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Canadian bank executive who embezzled
millions of dollars and lost every penny in gambling casinos. What is
fascinating is the way that every single person in the film, from the bank
loan officers to the auditors and investigators and casino managers to the
embezzler himself, are constantly assessing risk.
(2003). A provocative documentary that measures corporate behavior against
the standard diagnostics for human behavior and concludes that it fits the
profile of a sociopath.
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really
(1967). This outrageous musical comedy about a mail clerk’s rise to the
top of a corporation is less of an exaggeration than it appears.
(1999). A cult classic
about a Dilbert-ized world of workers oppressed by an endless series of
“Tucker: The Man and His Dream”
fact-based cautionary tale about corporations subverting the market. See
also the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (2006) for an updated
(1954). This elegant confection of a love triangle, with
Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, also includes one of the most
stirring defenses of the public corporation as a force for opportunity and
creativity that has ever been put on film.