New York Times

At HSN, Mindy Grossman Would Hire Tigger, but Not Eeyore

Mindy Grossman is chief executive of HSN Inc., whose businesses include the Home Shopping Network. She says she likes to hire "energy givers" who can inspire others at the company.

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Mindy Grossman is chief executive of HSN Inc., whose businesses include the Home Shopping Network. She says she likes to hire "energy givers" who can inspire others at the company.

Published: November 15, 2009

This interview with Mindy Grossman, chief executive of HSN Inc., was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Tell me about your leadership style.

A. I believe in accessibility. I believe in honesty and a culture that supports that. And you can't have that if you're not open to receiving feedback. I find out as much from the guy in backstage TV as I do from my C.F.O. Anybody can e-mail me. I do town halls with employees at least once every eight weeks. I'm out there and it makes a huge difference.

Q. How do you make sure you're getting honest feedback?

A. I think the way you start sets the tone for your leadership style. For example, my first day, I went through orientation just like everyone else, because I wanted to see what everybody else feels when they come into this company for the first time. There were 15 people - a guy who is in backstage TV, somebody in production, somebody in planning, and I just came in and sat down.

Everybody had to go around the room and say what their job was, including me. There were a couple of abrupt reactions, with people saying, "Really?" But the impact that had, and how viral it was throughout the organization, made a huge difference, because it was a signal of a new management philosophy. When I came into the company, honestly, it was an unhealthy environment. I had worked in unhealthy environments, so I know what it feels like.

Q. Why was it unhealthy?

A. Fear is not a motivating factor. You might be able to get a little bit more out of someone in the short term, but you will completely erode your business and your culture in the long term. You're going to lose all your good people. You're not going to have people tell you the truth, and it becomes the tradition.

The company had had about seven C.E.O.'s in the previous 10 years. What happens in that kind of situation - where you have a lot of leadership changes, changes in strategy and perhaps not the best leadership style - is that everybody freezes. It's like Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations." And when someone new comes in, most people think, "O.K., we'll wait this one out." So there's an impact when someone says: "I want to be here. Here's why I'm here. I'm here to listen and understand what we need to do."

To create change, I knew I was going to have to change the culture down to every single person in the company. You can't do that if you're not accessible to every person.

Q. So what ever happened to command-and-control leadership?

A. It's not culturally relevant anymore. Even if you look at generations who are coming up, the idea that you need somebody to tell you what to do and not think for yourself - that's not our culture. With that sort of manager or C.E.O., you're not going to keep intelligent, inspired talent, because they want some form of entrepreneurial environment to be able to exercise their talent. I want to challenge them to be able to do that, not tell them to do something my way, especially when they might be able to do it better than me.

Also, all organizations are significantly diverse today. Command-and-control isn't the kind of corporate culture people want to be in anymore.

Q. You had a clear idea of how you wanted to run HSN when you came in.

A. I've worked for some amazing leaders and I've worked for the opposite, and that gave me the perspective of what I knew I never wanted to be, and the perspective of what had lasting, sustainable impact. But this was truly the first time where, at the end of the day, I had to own it.

I knew coming in that I had a window of time to create change and inspire the organization to all go in the same direction. You know that you need evangelists to be able to do that, who share your passion and your vision for where you want to go.

So I had to do a very quick assessment of how many of those existed, and who I had to recruit, and then I had to decide who were the "blockers," as I call them, or the toxic personalities who needed to go.

Q. How long did it take you to size people up?

A. I would say pretty quickly. After an initial conversation, you can get a real sense of a person's quantitative and qualitative skills. One of the first questions I would ask is, "What's HSN?" Anyone who said, "Oh, it's just a television shopping network," was not going to get where we were going. I asked what they thought of our customers, and anybody who talked down was never going to get it. I asked what drove them, what they were passionate about.

You wanted to hear, from someone inside, why they were here, why they came and why they stayed. I still ask that question. I have lunch every month with people who have celebrated 5-, 10-, 15- and 25-year anniversaries. It's one of my favorite things to do. I ask the same questions: "Why are you here, and why are you staying?"

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

A. I'll give you two sides of it. One side is that it's an incredible feeling every day to come into an organization that you love, you care about, and you're helping to not just drive the business, but people's lives. If they love what they're doing and they're excited and they're engaged in the culture, then you're contributing to their growth, their development and their talent. It is an incredible feeling. On the flip side, it's a very big responsibility.

Q. Let's talk about hiring.

A. There are a number of things that are really important to me. One - and people laugh that I have this philosophy - is that you only hire Tiggers. You don't hire Eeyores. It doesn't mean they have to be loud, but I need energy-givers and I have to get a feeling that this person is going to be able to inspire people. Are they going to be optimistic about where they're going? Are they going to attract people who are like that?

No. 2 is, will they be able to stand up to me when they believe in something? I'm very passionate. I need people who are going to be able to make me look at things in a different way. So, I have to ask those questions, like, "Give me an instance where you really believed in something and you were able to change the course and it was successful, whatever that was." That's really important, because you don't want people telling you what you already know, or not telling you what you need to know.

Q. What else?

A. Quality of values is really important to me - what people believe. I ask people what they abhor most in companies or people. On the flip side, what are they most passionate about outside of work? What lessons have they learned about right and wrong in cultures? I look for successes that people have had.

The other thing that's really important to me is people who have taken risks. They've had to put themselves in a situation, whether they took a lateral move to get to the next step or they went to a company that wasn't performing, and it was their first opportunity to manage a team that had to do a turnaround.

Specifically, in this culture, I have to have people who not only can manage change, but have an appetite for it. I love asking people how they made their career decisions, why they made those decisions.

What I find is that a lot of people I relate to or even work with have taken segues like that. They tend to be more intellectually curious, that they don't just have vertical climbs. I ask for those stories. I love hearing them and it gives me a real sense of the person.

Q. What career advice do you give people just starting out?

A. One, take the time to absolutely find what makes you excited to wake up in the morning. Take the time. You don't have to decide in five minutes. Two, don't be afraid to take risks, but know when there's a difference between risk and suicide. Know what that line is for you, because everybody is different. Three, be very, very watchful, careful and cognizant of who you want to work with and for, and make sure that that is aligned with your values, because that's going to make you feel whole.

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

A. I definitely think they need to teach more around those core qualities of leadership, outside of the business strategy, and what it means to motivate people, and more on the psychology of what makes someone successful than the quantitative part of it.

I've hired incredible, top-school M.B.A.'s and I've had to fire some, too. It was never because of intelligence. It was never because of business acumen. It was because of their inability to motivate, relate to and inspire people.

When I hire people, I love to see practical work experience, even prior to an M.B.A., so people who have lived in the real world don't see the job as a hypothetical case study. Business is a case study every single day, but you have to be able to get the nuances.

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