Today, he incubates start-up technology firms as a “virtual CEO,” meaning he helps run four or five companies at a time, taking equity instead of pay. In his new book, The Monk and the Riddle (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), he discusses his principles of .
WS: How do you swoop into companies and manage employees effectively? Is it tougher because you’re an outsider?
Komisar: I rely on relationship power, not traditional position power that comes from my title or a big office or other CEO trappings. I find that building relationships with people and inspiring them is the key to my leadership. That’s how I think any manager becomes a leader.
WS: In your job, you must judge employees quickly and accurately. Any secrets?
Komisar: When I’m meeting with them, I’m watching them. If they accept everything I say wholesale, I can’t work with them. I’ll start suggesting things and see how they respond. If they brainstorm well, ask good questions and bounce off what I’ve said with their own ideas, I know they’re sharp.
WS: What do you see as the most important character trait for fast-rising managers?
Komisar: They need to be a little deaf and a little blind. To persevere in the face of skepticism, they must discount detractors without tuning them out entirely. Rather than hear or see everyone who says “this can’t be done” and take it to heart, they need to stay motivated to make a difference. True leaders can’t be stopped once they believe in something.
WS: Any other key traits?
Komisar: They need to relate to others empathetically. Empathy doesn’t mean coddling employees or being soft. It means connecting with people and understanding them.
WS: Are you good at that?
Komisar: I’m always working on being good at that.
WS: What career advice would you give a manager who wants to get ahead?
Komisar: Be bold and build relationships. When I was CEO of LucasArts, my executive staff resisted change. I wanted to set up direct distribution of our video games, but they wanted to stick with their distributor. One day, I visited our [video game] manufacturer with an employee three tiers down from me. I asked her, “What do you think of our distribution model?” She told me exactly what I was telling my executive staff—that things had to change. And she had no idea what I thought or if I would even agree! I wound up promoting her twice and hiring a mentor to grow her further.
WS: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about leadership?
Komisar: Early on, I treated business as a bottom-line application of resources to the production of products and services. Then I worked with a mentor who taught me that business isn’t a mechanization of processes, it’s all about people and the ability to inspire them.
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