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In the elevator with the CEO

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

When you run a $1.3 billion company, it's hard to build trusting relationships with employees at all levels. But Hans Gieskes did.

Gieskes, a Dutch citizen who speaks four languages, served as chairman and chief executive of Houghton Mifflin. Before that, he was CEO of Lexis-Nexis Group. Today he's managing partner with, a social networking and recruitment website in Cambridge, Mass.

Managing People at Work spoke to Gieskes:

MPAW: What do you see as a leader's No. 1 job?

Gieskes: The leader's main role is to inspire the best thinking in employees: to get their best thinking, distill it and set an agenda based on it.

MPAW: How do you inspire their best thinking?

Gieskes: You ask them, "What do you think are the three most important things to do right now?" You make them comfortable by saying, "What you know is more than I could ever know. So I'd like your best ideas."

MPAW: So you set priorities to direct everyone's effort after gathering their input?

Gieskes: Yes. You're enabling people to execute a mission that you've formulated based on their best thinking. And everyone has to know that mission. At Houghton Mifflin, we had 8,000 employees. I'd stop people in the elevator and ask, "Can you tell me the company's agenda?" I'd give $20 if they got it right.

MPAW: Didn't that intimidate them?

Gieskes: It's good to put people on the spot. I challenge, cajole and train people to be direct.

MPAW: If you ask for input, aren't you obliged to act on it?

Gieskes: Saying "I need to know what you think" isn't the same as "I'm going to apply those things." You can't please all people.

MPAW: What trait do you most admire in an employee?

Gieskes: What I love—and ask for if not demand—is a "consider it done" culture. When you ask, "Can you do this?," you don't just want people to say yes. Their words and body language should signal, "Consider it done."

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