Ivar Kroghrud, QuestBack's Lead Strategist
This interview with Ivar Kroghrud, the lead strategist at QuestBack, which specializes in feedback management, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. Mr. Kroghrud, a co-founder of the firm, was its C.E.O. for 13 years.
Q. Tell me about your approach to leadership.
A. Part of my role is to be “chief ironing officer.” It’s very easy in a fast-growing company and fast-changing industry to get hung up on all the things that aren’t working and that we should be fixing. If you want to get extraordinary results, you have to play to people’s strengths and you have to help them work as close to plan as possible. If you allow them to get bogged down in all the problems that are out there -- and there are always problems -- they’ll be unproductive.
You can get a lot of speed by thinking of yourself as a chief ironing officer. Once you have a successful system in place, you can spend some of your time just walking around talking to people and asking: “What’s preventing you from doing an even better job? What are you spending time on that you don’t feel you should be spending time on?” Those kinds of questions are easy to ask, and people relate to them.
Q. What else about your leadership style?
A. I developed a one-page “user manual” so people can understand how to work with me.
Q. Can you give some examples of what it says?
A. I am patient, even-tempered and easygoing. I appreciate straight, direct communication. Say what you are thinking, and say it without wrapping your message.
I am goal-oriented but have a high tolerance for diversity and openness to different viewpoints. So, again, say what you are thinking and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.
I welcome ideas at any time, but I appreciate that you have real ownership of your idea and that you have thought it through in terms of total business impact.
I also added at the end: The points are not an exhaustive list, but should save you some time figuring out how I work and behave. Please make me aware of additional points you think I should put on a revised version of this “user’s manual.”
Q. Can you elaborate on why you developed the user’s manual?
A. It made sense to me because I’ve always been struck by this sort of strange approach that people take, where they try the same approach with everybody they work with. But if you lead people for a while, you realize that it’s striking how different people are -- if you use the exact same approach with two different people, you can get very different outcomes.
So I tried to think of a way to shorten the learning curve when you build new teams and bring new people on board. The worst way of doing it -- which is, regrettably, the normal way -- is that people just go into a new team and start working on the task at hand, and then spend so much time battling different personalities without really being aware of it. Instead, you should stop and get to know people before you move forward.
Some of this comes from the experience I had in the Norwegian Navy. Part of the leadership training was about getting to know yourself and how you react under different circumstances and learning how different people really are. So if you understand yourself, you can start learning more about your team. So my question was: “How can I shorten this cycle? What simple things can I do to make these people work more effectively with me?”
If you give them this “how to work with me” page on the first day, they get a different perspective on who you are and how you relate to people and how open you are. It’s much easier when they understand that these are the things I like and don’t like, and this is how I am.
Q. How have people reacted to you doing this?
A. It’s been 100 percent positive. I think it just makes them open up. And there’s no point in not opening up, since you get to know people over time anyway. That’s a given, so why not try to be up front and avoid a lot of the conflict? The typical way of working with people is that you don’t share this kind of information and you run into confrontations over time to understand their personalities.
Q. What other leadership lessons did you learn in the navy?
A. It’s where I really learned about the importance of getting to know one another. In the navy, you worked such long hours, under sometimes extreme conditions, so people didn’t have the energy to keep up any kind of facade or play a role. People just got tired and you saw them for who they were. That helped as a leader because you really got to know people so you could lead them in an effective way.
Q. I heard an interesting job-interview question from another C.E.O., and I’d like to pose it to you: What skill do you have that other people might struggle with but comes so effortlessly to you that it’s as natural as breathing?
A. I think I’m much better than most at making people feel comfortable and at ease, so they open up and share. I can establish in a relatively short time a sense of trust and a robust foundation for a relationship. I think I’m not intimidating, and I’m quite open. A key for me in terms of leadership is that there is much more to be gained by allowing people to focus on their strengths than to keep pushing them to get better at what they’re not good at. If people can do what they’re best at most of the time, that’s a powerful way of working. That starts with knowing people.
Q. What else is a bit different about your culture?
A. I draw our organizational map upside down, because it’s not the leader and manager who do the work. The manager is there to give direction and make it possible for the others to do their job. That’s clearly illustrated if you turn it on its head. Imagine showing a front-line employee the chart, and saying, “Let’s find your box somewhere very, very far down here.” Just the psychology of that is depressing, because those are the people who deal with customers in a lot of cases. And that’s a very important role.