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Success of the nerds

Jerry Kaplan: The ultimate egghead

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,People Management

You might assume Egghead.com CEO Jerry Kaplan, with his background as a technical innovator, is a computer nerd with limited people skills. After all, Kaplan first built his reputation as principal technologist at Lotus Development Corp., where he coauthored Lotus Agenda, the first personal information management software.

But Kaplan knows how to manage teams and translate ideas into profits. Case in point: He built Onsale Inc., the first Web auction site, into a $500 million company in just five years. In 1999, Onsale acquired Egghead. com, an Internet retailer that sells computer software and accessories over the Web. The merged company took the Egghead name.

In all his jobs, Kaplan has excelled at rallying diverse groups to think creatively and execute their plans effectively.

WS: You’re a successful CEO and a bold entrepreneur. Those roles seem to call for different skills. How do you master them both?

Kaplan: The key is to have respect for people—up, down, left and right. Just about everyone at any level tries to do a good job and thinks they’re doing a good job. You must get over the tendency to think they’re dumb or incompetent if they don’t do things your way.

WS: Don’t most managers respect people?

Kaplan: Some do. But the biggest thing I’ve seen in poor managers is that they provide criticism in a way that berates people, as opposed to giving constructive feedback. Or they deliver bad news emotionally.

WS: When you criticize someone, how do you do it?

Kaplan: I try to deliver news or feedback—whether positive or negative— in an emotionally neutral way. To communicate clearly and effectively, you have to work on keeping too many emotions from interfering with your message.

WS: Do you like to surround yourself with executives who share your entrepreneurial spirit?

Kaplan: I don’t want entrepreneurs as senior executives. I want people who can adopt the team’s point of view and have a good balance between the team’s needs and their own self-interest.

WS: How can you tell if someone strikes that balance?

Kaplan: It’s easy. In a job interview, I’ll ask, “What do you think about the people you worked with?” How they answer reveals how they may talk about me. I also look at their résumé. If they’ve changed jobs frequently and bailed out when things got tough, that tells me something.

WS: Do you manage technicians differently from everyone else?

Kaplan: Technicians may have different personalities, but I don’t manage them differently. The key is to give everyone you manage the reasoning behind the directions. That lets them understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

WS: Some technicians advance into people management. Others never get beyond their narrow expertise. What distinguishes the ones who get ahead?

Kaplan: They listen well and persuade through credibility. They get feedback from others on how they’re doing. They also don’t tell people to do things that are hard—they show them. If I’m going to ask people to cut their budget, I better take my share of the pain. A technician who wants to be a leader needs to exhibit the kind of character that others admire.

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