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Wise questions get answers

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management,Profiles in Leadership

With a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Joel Trammell brings an analytical acuity to his role as CEO. But he’s learned that leadership requires a more caring side as well.

Based in Austin, Texas, Trammell, 49, has been CEO of many software firms. As CEO of NetQoS, he delivered 31 straight quarters of double-digit revenue growth before CA Technologies acquired the company in 2009. He’s author of The CEO Tightrope.

EL: What’s the most important skill a CEO needs?

Trammell: Self-awareness. It’s hard to get authentic information from your employees. CEOs are constantly worried that they’re not hearing the full story.    

EL: So how can you gain self-awareness?

Trammell: I often tell other CEOs that there’s a difference between people who are honest and people who are trustworthy. You want to be aware of the difference. People who are honest will level with you when you ask them a question. People who are trustworthy will tell you the truth even when you don’t ask a question. They’ll volunteer the truth.

EL: Given your background as an engineer, how did you develop people skills?  

Trammell: Early in my career when I was managing in the Navy, I was very analytical. One of the people on my team tended to express himself in a very emotional way. One day, I started yelling back and he calmed down.

EL: What did you learn from that?

Trammell: I learned that you have to care about people. They have to know you’ll be the last guy on the lifeboat. When I yelled back that time, it showed that I cared as much as he cared. You have to treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you’d like to be treated. So I learned how to express that caring.

EL: In your book, you write about employees coming to you asking for big expenditures for their unit. How do you handle such requests?

Trammell: As CEO, you get used to people coming to you asking for things. But in most cases, you’re not the expert. You can’t know everything. So you have to figure out the right questions to ask them. When employees asked me to authorize a big expense, I’d ask, “What would you be willing to take out of your budget to offset that new expense?” If they said nothing, it showed me it wasn’t a top priority for them.

EL: Speaking of questions, you also write that two of your favorite questions for employees are, “What would you do if you had significantly more money to spend?” and “What would you do if you had significantly less money to spend?” What answer impresses you the most?

Trammell: Those questions are meant to get them to think about priorities. What impresses me is when people come back to me with a well-thought-out analysis of return-on-investment. They give me a good “here are the reasons why” answer.

EL: To get good answers, you need to make people comfortable opening up to you. As CEO, how do you avoid intimidating underlings?

Trammell: In personality assessments, I always score high as a “learner.” You have to be curious and get the context of what they’re talking about. I’m interested in learning about things instead of jumping to conclusions.

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