Top executives often take up hobbies such as golf and sailing. But Mark Hellerstein is probably the only CEO who is also a professional ventriloquist.
Hellerstein, 60, served as chief executive of St. Mary Land & Exploration Co. from 1995 to 2007. During that time, the oil and gas firm—now known as SM Energy Co.—grew from an $80 million private company to a $2.5 billion public company.
EL: Did you always want to be a CEO?
Hellerstein: My goal was to be a CFO. I started as a CPA and worked my way up. When I was brought to St. Mary with one other person, the idea was that one of us might become CEO.
EL: Given your accounting background, how did you develop thethat a CEO needs?
Hellerstein: I grew from a control kind of person to someone who didn’t need to control as much. Rather than continue to be a control person, being a CEO forced me to empower others.
EL: By “empower,” do you meanmore?
Hellerstein: No, because when you delegate you’re still in control. I empowered others to take control and responsibility. What I did was define what we had to do to achieve our rate of return that our shareholders and board expected, and develop incentive programs for our employees.
EL: What kind of incentives?
Hellerstein: Often, incentive programs have too many details. You have to tailor your incentive strategy to what works for you, not follow what other organizations are doing. We focused on two things: quality and quantity.
EL: What’s yourstyle?
Hellerstein: Communication and leadership are dependent on your internal belief structure. It starts by understanding your organization’s strategy and how it creates value. That’s not always easy to understand.
EL: For 40+ years, you’ve been an accomplished, award-winning ventriloquist. Did your employees know about your unusual hobby?
Hellerstein: They knew. I’d perform at the company picnic. But I tried to keep it separate.
EL: Are there any skills that carry over from CEO to ventriloquist?
Hellerstein: Discipline, attention to detail, creativity. As CEO, you have to make presentations and think on your feet. That also applies to my performances.
EL: You perform for both children and adults?
Hellerstein: Yes, but 90% of what I do is for children and their families.
EL: Did you ever think of your employees the same way you think of your audience?
Hellerstein: No. But for me, there are two kinds of employees that I’d call “adult” and “child.” The adult has a strong value system and isn’t looking to others to find out the right thing to do. Before making a decision, the child looks to parents—or peers—and wonders what they will think. A child can still be an “A” employee; you just need to give that kind of employee more structure.