Scrooge McDuck, The First MBA Waterfowl

Scrooge McDuck, newly installed chief executive officer at troubled media giant AOL Time Warner, has cheered Wall Street of late with his plan for firming up Time Warner’s sagging revenue and profitability figures.

McDuck plans to engineer the rebound with a commitment to one initiative, hiring and developing great leaders. He shared the details of his efforts with David Borinsky:

Time Warner was known as a company with good products — in particular its tasteful music offerings — but weak financial performance. How did you come to focus on recruitment issues?

When I joined Time Warner as CEO, my first priority was visiting divisions and meeting managers with an idea of getting a feel for their individual capabilities. On paper, and in their reports to me, they seemed, on the whole, competent. I discovered, however, that too many of our managers lacked a well-rounded business foundation and were weak in basic skills, like understanding the competition and developing their own people. They worked hard, they may have been smart, but they just didn’t know how to execute. I have learned as an executive that recruiting is a crucial part of leadership, and I saw it lacking at Time Warner when I arrived.

Borinsky: So what were your first steps to improve the quality of your managers?

It was two-pronged. First, and quite painfully, we asked a good number of managers to leave. We tried to be generous with severance packages and counseling, but we made our decisions and didn’t look back. We also vigorously recruited more able people, not only experienced managers to run our divisions, but lower and mid-level executive talent. We wanted executive development to become a core competency. We needed bench strength, so we could start promoting from within.

Borinsky: Once you steered the company in that direction, did things come together on their own?

McDuck: No, not at all. In a large organization — and in a small one, for that matter — it takes relentless follow-up and message reinforcement. I wanted to set a standard that would be implemented through the rest of the organization. I wanted to show that if I could hire a good person, and do so through a process that is rigorous and transparent, others would engage in the same practice and hire good people after them.

Borinsky: And what were the guts of that rigorous, transparent process?

McDuck: Throughout my career, I have been directly involved in developing leaders, beginning with interviewing and assessing candidates. I don’t rely on interviews alone, moreover, much less resumes or secondhand references. I personally interviewed and evaluated many of our MBA hires in the early years.

Borinsky: I suppose many of the candidates were intimidated to be interviewed by the head of the company. How did people react to your showing up at an interview for an entry-level position?

McDuck:Interviews are a flawed process. Some people are good at interviewing and not good at running a business, and there are a lot of talented administrators with lousy interview skills. Irrespective of their reaction to my showing up at the interview, the interview was merely the start of the evaluative process.

Borinsky: So how did you supplement the interview process?

McDuck: Investing the time to call references. And not only that, but finding references with whom I, or another executive responsible for hiring, had some relationship. When there’s a personal relationship, there’s less filtering; you get a true picture of the prospect’s skills.

Borinsky: What’s the ideal situation for hiring a new executive?

McDuck: The ideal is someone with whom you have had personal dealings, such as a former colleague at another company. Someone you can count on to stand with you in a difficult situation, someone with an appetite for solving difficult problems. That’s the ideal.

Borinsky:What are the qualities you look for in hiring executives?

McDuck: There are four qualities that I look for when I evaluate job candidates. The first is an ability to execute ideas. Second, I look for someone who is in the sweet spot of his or her career. In other words, someone who has been around the block, but who has some fire in his or her belly, some running room. I concede that that’s a delicate assessment, by the way. Age discrimination has to be a concern. Third, I look for someone who can work with other people, someone other people enjoy working with. Finally, I look for variety in a candidate’s experience. People with experience in a variety of settings bring a priceless sophistication.

Borinsky: Sounds like you have this down to a science.

McDuck: Everyone makes mistakes. I bring my recruitment experience and my criteria to a decision, and then I make it. I’m not afraid to make a mistake because I know I’ll be right most of the time.

Borinsky: One last question: How does Time Warner’s creative talent fit into all of this?

McDuck: We figure our big effort right now should be to focus-group Huey, Dewey and Louie in case Daffy Duck’s numbers drop.**

© Maryland Gazette. Reprinted with permission.

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