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September 11, 2010 Before Making a Big Splash, Learn to Swim This interview with Richard R. Buery Jr., president and chief executive of the Children’s Aid Society, based in New York, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss? A. When I was in college, I started a summer camp for kids in a housing project in Roxbury, Boston. I was a boss in the sense that I was in charge, but these weren’t folks whose careers were riding on this. That was really my first experience being in charge of something. Q. Were the people working for you volunteers? A. The college students and high school students were working for modest wages for the summer. But I had to hold them accountable. I had to create a plan. I was responsible for what happened. It was a great experience. Q. Talk more about that. A. It was a good practice environment, but it felt very natural. I love the idea of getting people excited about an idea, and that’s really what that was about. Like any other start-up, there was no track record, and I had to convince people to let me take care of their kids for the summer and had to convince potential employees that this would be a great way to spend a few months — and many of them were Type A Harvard kids, so they wanted to make sure they were doing good things with their summer. Q. What were some other lessons from that experience? A. One great lesson was that there is nothing that’s not possible. I was a college student who recruited friends. We had to go raise money. People understood that we were serious and that we had confidence. You have to show that you have that confidence. Not false bravado — if you have challenges, you let people know what the challenges are — but you need to show people that you’re serious, you had thought it through and had contingencies in place. Another big part of it also was just the importance of developing mentors and supporters, which I’ve always done throughout my career. I never really felt like I was doing anything alone. I always had partners who were just as invested as I was. I always had mentors who were committed to my success and wanted to see my work follow through. Q. Can you elaborate? A. I have been very intentional about recruiting mentors in my careers, and I think a lot of it has to do with the work that I’ve been doing. I’ve started two other nonprofits; now I’m leading a new one. There are lots of great things about being the boss. But because I’ve been in charge for most of my career, I’ve always been envious of friends and colleagues who would talk about the great bosses they had and what they were learning. I never had that, and people were looking to me, and I’m looking behind myself, but there’s no one there. So I have had to, out of necessity, find people I could ask for advice. Some mentors have been with me for a long time. Others sort of come in and come out. But my approach to mentoring is that I come with specific questions. “How should I do this? I’m experiencing this challenge,” and it’s been tremendously important to me. Q. What’s your strategy for finding mentors? A. I’ve gone to people for various reasons — because they had an interesting job or because I admired their work or I heard them speak — and said: “You don’t know me, but this is who I am. This is what I’m doing. I’d love it if every few months I could come and have lunch with you, ask you some questions, and give me your feedback until you get bored or until I stop calling.” And what’s been amazing to me is that no one’s ever said no to that. I don’t think anyone’s ever said no. It’s made an incredible difference in my career. Q. What lessons have you picked up from your mentors? A. Some are just around the importance of how you communicate messages. At Children’s Aid, one of the new challenges for me is that it’s much larger than other things I’ve done, both in terms of the number of people, but also our geographic reach. I’m used to roles where if I wanted to talk to everybody, I could actually talk to everybody, and that’s no longer possible. So just the importance of being clear and concise in your communication — not 10 messages, but two or three messages repeated over and over and over again in every way you can and every opportunity you have. Q. You’ve almost always been involved in philanthropic organizations. Where did that come from? A. It came from my parents, but it also came from my life. I think it’s difficult to grow up in a community where most of your friends and peers aren’t doing well, and to have the opportunity to do well yourself, and not have that affect you somehow. One of the ways it affected me is in a sense of anger and outrage, and I wanted to do something about that, because the kids I grew up with weren’t any less smart or any less talented or ambitious than the kids I was going to school with or the people who I’ve met along the way. But things didn’t happen for them, and it’s not an accident it didn’t happen for them. It’s about channeling that sense of unfairness into action. Q. What were the most important leadership lessons over the course of your life? A. I think there is an inevitable desire when you’re in a new position to want to make a big splash to prove your worth. And I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to avoid the tendency to want to come in and make big decisions before you really know what you’re talking about. So take the time to learn and to listen. And if that means that you’re taking more time to make changes, that’s great because you’re more likely to make good decisions. A related challenge is to avoid micromanaging things. You come into a big, complex organization, and maybe your experience is more narrow, so you inevitably go to the thing that is familiar to you because it’s a chance to feel secure and comfortable. So you have to pay attention to everything that matters, not just the thing where you feel that you could maybe have the biggest impact. Another leadership lesson — and again, this goes in the bucket of obvious — is the critical importance of being a good person and treating people well. I remember one of my two brief jobs as a lawyer, and having a boss who upbraided me in front of a group of my colleagues. And I think substantively she was wrong, but that wasn’t the point. As a colleague, you should have enough respect to come and talk to me, even as a boss, to say: “Look, I want to pull you aside. This is what I think you should have done. This is what you didn’t do.” And that always just stayed with me. One of the reasons why I wanted to be an entrepreneur, frankly, is that I didn’t want to have any more bad bosses. I wanted to create an environment where it wouldn’t be O.K. to treat people like that. This is true in every sector, but I think it’s particularly true in my sector. People work really hard for not a lot of money, not a lot of glory. You should be honored for the work that you do, and that’s something that I feel very, very strongly about. I love that I get to sort of play a role in making sure that people who treat each other well are the people who are valued. Q. How do you hire? What are you looking for? What are the questions you ask? A. I think hiring is the most treacherous part of this work. And a big part of my job, I think, is really to be the chief hirer or the chief recruiter. I’m always on the hunt for people. What I find is that interviews are just a miserable way to screen people. It’s an hour of unnatural conversation, and some people are just really good at giving job interviews, and some people are awful at giving job interviews. I’ve learned that those things don’t necessarily coincide with performance. The most important thing to me, really, at the end of a day, is passion. Why are you doing this work? I can tell you why I do this work. I believe this country does not live up to the standard it sets toward children. What we say we do and what we actually do are completely different. And it angers me, and I couldn’t be happy unless I was doing something about it, and that makes me very ambitious. I need people who are equally ambitious and driven and angry, and don’t like the way the world works, and want to make a fundamental change about it. The skills are important, too, obviously. You’ve got to be able to do your job. But skills, at least, can be taught. I’ve found that you can’t teach passion. So what I really try to do in an interview, knowing its limitations, is just try to tease out where somebody’s passion comes from. So I want to know: “Why do you do this work? There’s a million things you could be doing. You could be an accountant, a lawyer. Why this? Why this field?” We’re also trying to build a culture where it’s not enough to work hard, but where the key is, “Are we achieving impact?” You want to be clear about defining what that impact is. So I need people who are extremely comfortable with that kind of environment, where they’re going to be judged on results, where they’re confident and comfortable in a results-driven environment. I also look for people who have taken adventures in their personal and professional lives, who’ve tried different things. Maybe they failed at some, maybe they succeeded at some, but they’ve tried different things. And I think the experience you get from that makes you a good employee, makes you a good leader, and, for me, probably makes you a good colleague. Q. What’s your career advice to new grads? A. Well, part of my advice is that advice is a dangerous thing, so listen to it at your own risk just because everyone’s life is so different. But I think young people often are planning too much and thinking too much. If I’m coming out of college, I want new experiences. I want to take risks. Before you have a family and a mortgage and a set of expectations based on the things that you’ve done already, try different things, do crazy things, explore what you love, and find your passion that way. Don’t worry so much about how things are going to fit into some career plan that you have down the road, because if I had done that, there is no way I’d be where I am right now. I went to Yale Law School. I clerked for a year. I spent 10 months after clerking working as a lawyer, and then I left to start a nonprofit that connected kids and volunteers via the Internet for mentoring relationships, which is about the most bizarre, crazy thing I think one could do coming out of law school. It’s worked so far for me.
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