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How to lead 110,000 people

Alan Shugart shares secrets from mom and IBM

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers

Alan Shugart, 70, founded Seagate Technology in 1979, building the company into the world’s largest independent manufacturer of disk drives and related components. When he left the firm in 1998 as its chairman and CEO, it had grown to 110,000 employees.

Before launching Seagate, Shugart climbed the corporate ladder for 18 years at IBM and four years at Memorex.

WS: How did you exert leadership over 110,000 employees?

Shugart: Part of being a leader is making sure everyone knows you’re a leader. Some managers forget that. They just hide in their offices and don’t get out in front of their employees. You have to take charge and set an example of what you want done and how you want people to act.

WS: Is it hard not to let all that power go to your head?

Shugart: The best leaders are proud but humble. I learned that lesson when I was 12 years old. I came home from a softball game and told my mother all the great things I did for the team. I went on and on. Finally she said, “That’s great. I just wish someone else had told me.” Here we are, 58 years later, and I’ve never forgotten that.

WS: But in the cutthroat business world, it seems too much humility can work against you. Can’t the showboats overshadow you?

Shugart: Not if you use common sense, respect differences in opinion and you’re strong on social values—like being honest and fair to everyone. If you develop these three traits and show them consistently, no one’s going to overshadow you in the long run. You’ll do just fine.

WS: Can you elaborate on how to use common sense?

Shugart: Sure. Don’t make dumb decisions. Be able to explain with reason how you arrive at a decision. Before you announce a decision, talk it through and make sure you’re using sound logic.

WS: How about being honest and fair? Most people think they have good values, but how can you know for sure?

Shugart: Pay attention to your actions. Ask yourself, “Is that fair?” when you’re acting a certain way. That’s how you’ll know when you’re really being fair or if you’re trying to fool yourself.

WS: What kind of employees impress you the most?

Shugart: The ones who get things done. I look for someone to whom I can say, “Here’s what I’d like done.” And they’ll go do it right. If I have to tell them how to do it, that’s a problem. I don’t want people like that around.

WS: How do you decide whom to promote among many good employees?

Shugart: I learned this exercise at IBM. You list all your employees. Then you say to yourself, “I’m going to quit and start a new company. Who’s the first of my employees that I’m going to take with me?” It doesn’t matter what kind of company you start. The key is to base your decision on character, not technical ability. You can always teach someone who’s smart to master a new skill or understand a new business. Certain names will jump out at you. They’re the ones you promote.

WS: How about deciding whom to hire when you have plenty of strong candidates?

Shugart: Seagate’s HR people would get upset at me when I said this. But I’d tell them, “Hiring is easy. Just ask yourself two questions: Are they smart and do you like them?”

WS: How about the question of work ethic?

Shugart: That’s important, but you also want to hire people who have balance. Remember, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. My mother added to that. She said, “All play and no work makes Jack unemployed.”

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