New York Times

Joseph Plumeri of Willis Group on Passion and Serendipity

Joseph J. Plumeri, chairman and chief executive of the insurance broker Willis Group Holdings, says he is learning to stay in charge while easing off on "command and control."

Uli Seit for The New York Times

Joseph J. Plumeri, chairman and chief executive of the insurance broker Willis Group Holdings, says he is learning to stay in charge while easing off on "command and control."

Published: December 06, 2009

This interview with Joseph J. Plumeri, chairman and chief executive of Willis Group Holdings, the insurance brokerage, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

A. I was once a command-and-control guy, but the environment's different today. I think now it's a question of making people feel they're making a contribution, and they're part of the process. In the end, you're still directing the process, but you're allowing for the collaboration and debate to take place, which in a command-and-control environment doesn't happen.

A command-and-control environment is where you have a meeting and you say, "This is what I think; what do you think?" The good news about that was there was no question about where we were going, and what we were going to do. And if it works, that's terrific. The problem is when it doesn't work, and people start to grow and feel like they've got more to contribute, it wears out. I think that's what happened to that whole command-and-control approach.

Q. What made you start out as a command-and-control leader?

A. My key role models were very strong individuals. And then you add your own personality, which in my case is big dreams, anything's possible, zeal and work 24 hours a day. But you get to a point where you realize not everybody wants to work seven days a week, and not everybody has this as their main passion in life. And you find that you can wear people down by being overly zealous, and what you think is motivating is de-motivating.

I thought I was being exciting. I thought I was being motivational. And as it turns out, being too exciting and too motivational is overbearing, and it turns people off. You justify it by saying, if they can capture my zeal and my passion, that's a good thing. But you've got to make sure that you don't turn up the music to the point where it's so loud that they don't want to hear it.

Q. So how did you learn to turn down the music?

A. One of the problems with that kind of style is that there are very few people who want to tell you that there's something wrong. So you pay attention to people. You pay attention to their body language and how they're reacting to you.

I remember a good friend saying to me, you can be much better than you are. And I said, what are you talking about? And they said, you know, if you gave other people a chance to participate in what excites you, and have them get excited along with you, you could really do some great stuff. I don't mean to suggest that I've mastered that, and there's not a period at the end of that sentence. It's still a work in progress.

Q. It's also more time-consuming.

A. I spend 25 percent to 30 percent of my time calling my associates - whether they had a family problem or pulled off a great deal and brought in a new client, or saved a client. Two-minute phone call, or handwritten note. I can't begin to tell you how important that stuff is.

E-mails are easy, but sometimes they get in the way of really feeling how somebody feels about your effort. So you take the time to write a note or pick up the phone and call somebody. I just think that's very important in building a great business.

Q. Have you always done that?

A. I stepped it up more. When you run a global organization, you've got to find a way to keep all this stuff together. And when I first got to Willis, nobody did that. The chairman had his own floor and he had his own elevator. I took off all the doors. There are no doors on any of the offices at Willis, except the conference rooms, and the bathrooms. They thought I was nuts. But I wanted to stimulate conversation. My office doesn't have a door. Nobody has a door.

Q. Anything else unusual about how you run the business?

A. I do videos for pitches to prospects. The client says, 'Gee, the guy takes the time to say hello.' I get the names of everybody in advance, and say, 'Hi, how are you,' and I tell them about Willis. It gives you an edge. There's no downside. What I'm trying to say is that little things are big deals. They are a major ingredient in building a great company.

Is it time-consuming? Do I have to fly a lot? Yes, about 400,000 miles a year. But that's what you've got to do. If you think this is what it takes to accomplish your vision of what a company should be, then you've got to choose.

We all make choices. I talk a lot about the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. You really only have two choices in life. And I'd rather have the pain of discipline than feel the regret, which is much more of a terrible feeling to me. Somebody has to be able to get people to believe and understand what the choices are that become part of that vision.

Jim Valvano at North Carolina State used to have the cutting-down-the-nets ceremony at the beginning of every season so people could feel what it was like to win the N.C.A.A. title. It's the same thing. If you want to feel this way, then this is what we've got to do. This is what we've got to do every day. The same thing applies in business, and somebody has to be the catalyst.

Q. When you came into Willis I assume you had to do a pretty quick assessment of the talent here, and decide who was going to stay and who wasn't?

A. There's a presumption that the new C.E.O. comes into a bad company and gets rid of everybody. I don't necessarily believe that, because I believe that you could actually get people to do things that they never believed they could do. I believe you can do that with the right motivation.

For the first five years I didn't replace a person. I kept all the same people at the executive level, about 10 to 15 people. And it worked. Once I got them over the hill, I really had some converts. When you see them go over the hill, they're maniacal. And so you start to build on the theme that underlines everything, which is that there's nothing we can't do. And it starts to feed on itself.

Q. What questions do you ask job candidates?

A. What I really want to know is what kind of person I'm dealing with. So I ask only one question. I say, "Tell me what you're passionate about." That's it. Tell me what you're passionate about.

Q. Do they ask if you mean at work or outside of work?

A. Whatever you want to talk about. Tell me what you're passionate about. Digging holes. Riding bikes. I'm looking to see if they've got a passion. I'm looking to see if there's anything inside, other than what they do. And how passionate could they be, therefore, about being here? And how excited and involved could they be?

I'm not looking for a mirror image of me. I'm just looking for somebody who gets turned on about something. If you find that kind of person, then these are the people you want to climb hills with and climb mountains with.

Q. What surprised you the most about getting the top job, running your own show?

A. You can't do it yourself. You have to build up a group of people around you. In a lot of ways the C.E.O. of a company as large as this one is more like a baseball manager. I have a lot to do with what happens before they go on the field. I have a lot to do with where I put them on the field. I have a lot to do with the preparation for what they're supposed to do when they're on the field. But once the game starts, I have nothing whatsoever to do with what they do when something happens.

So I'm different from a football manager who calls every play. I can't call every play. I can't be a basketball coach, because I can't slow down or increase the flow of the game. So I have to be putting the right people in the right spots and make sure that they know what we want to achieve. And you've got to make them feel that their own stats are important, but the company doing well because of their contribution is really what's important.

Q. What else surprised you?

A. I never fully appreciated that there are people who choose certain things in life where they can't have a bad day. I can't have a bad day. If I walk into a meeting, and I'm grumpy - not good. I don't think you fully appreciate that until you're actually in a position like this, that you can't have a bad day. My doctor can't have a bad day. And I think anybody in a leadership position, where people depend upon you, you simply can't have that one off day that's bad, because you're going to affect a lot of people.

Q. What's your best career advice?

A. Everything that I have done I've done because I went out and I played in traffic and something happened.

Q. What do you mean?

A. It means that if you go push yourself out there and you see people and do things and participate and get involved, something happens. I got involved with my first job at Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt. It had four names, so I thought it was a law firm. I was going to law school. My last class was over at noon, and so I thought I'd go over on Wall Street and find a job in the afternoon with a law firm.

So I go knock on doors and I see Cogan and I figure it's a law firm. So I go up to see the receptionist, and ask, who could I see about a job? And she says go down the hall, make a left, and see Mr. Weill. I didn't know who Sandy Weill was. This was 1968. And he said, what can I do for you? So I gave him the spiel about law school in the morning, learning the practical part in the afternoon. A really good pitch.

And he says that's a great idea, but what makes you think you'll be learning law here? I said, this is a law firm. He said no, this is a brokerage firm. I tried to find the hole to climb into. I'm not easily embarrassed, and he laughed. He gave me a job working part time. That firm turned into Citigroup.

And when I left Citigroup after all those years, I was walking down a street in Paris, and I ran into Henry Kravis by accident. He said, what are you doing? I said I'm looking for my next adventure, because I'd just left Citigroup. And he said, I've got this company we just bought: Willis. I said what is it? He says it's an insurance broker. Two weeks later, he calls me. You know the rest of the story.

So both of my great occasions in life happened by accident simply because I showed up. And I tell people, just show up, get in the game, go play in traffic. Something good will come of it, but you've got to show up.

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