Rick Noble is currently CEO of ATP, a premier provider of information and troubleshooting tools for the aviation industry. He has been a successful CEO on seven occasions in the K-12, healthcare, audiobook, and news industries, with the common theme being digital publishing. We first met 20 years agowhere he was CEO of Thomson Healthcare. The purpose of the interview is to understand his best practices in team building and what key factors have driven his management success.
1. Thinking about how you built your leadership teams over the past 25 years, what best practices has enabled your success as a CEO? What qualities do you look for in a leader? Has that changed over time?
In many of my assignments,I have been the first leader in following the founder, and in almost every one of those cases I have found that the following three problems exist; (1) there is no plan (or there are multiple plans, and I’m not sure which is worse), (2) the wrong people are in some key leadership positions and (3) there is no communication. I believe that most people working in an organization want to see it succeed and they want to know what they can do to help. If there is no plan and no communication, it’s pretty tough to do that! In terms of the leadership team, in founder–run companies, the “friends and family” program is often in play, which doesn’t always result in the most qualified people being in key positions. And it almost certainly hinders the company’s ability to attract talent from the outside.
In developing a plan, I don’t believe that any one person in an organization has all the answers but, collectively, we probably do. If you can assemble the right group from various levels in an organization and develop a roadmap collaboratively, it then becomes much easier to figure out what organizational structure you need to achieve the results you are looking for and what “heads” are best to fill the “hats” you need to fill.And if you are constantly communicating that plan and the organization’s progress against it to everyone, it will be far easier for the team to figure out where they fit in and how they can help. In looking for qualities in those “heads” in addition to the obvious position-specific technical talents (e.g. a CFO needs to have certain skills), integrity and communication skills are always at the top of my list. You can teach someone the K-12 business or the audiobook business. You can’t teach integrity.
2. What has been a key formula for success in attracting talent?
One key attribute that has worked for me over time as a leader is developing a reputation that is respected. Leaders must be transparent, honest, and collaborative. Your personal brand and how you are perceived as a CEO is critical to attracting talent. With LinkedIn and other social media tools these days, it is very easy for a candidate to check you out and verify a reputation, good or bad. It should also be obvious to a prospective candidate that the company has a clear mission, goals and objectives that are aligned, and the organization has a culture where you are setup to succeed.
3. What processes have you used consistently in assessments?
In making an assessment of candidates, I have found that it’s useful to involve several people in your organization and to use a standard interview guide so that you are all marking the same parameters. This way you not only get opinions from various people, but you are all using the same yardstick to measure prospects. And you get internal buy-in before the person comes on board. And, by the way, in the interviewing process, I am a big believer in The Adler method of not making snap judgments. Wait at least 30 minutes into an interview before you start forming opinions. Some people that may not be good hires are great interviewers, and the reverse can be true too.
4. Have you made a Bad Hire, and what are common signs to avoid?
Yes, I have made bad hires. Anyone that says they haven’t isn’t being honest with themselves or anyone else! When you do that, I think it’s important to correct the issue right away. “Slow to hire and quick to fire” is a good rule in my view. As a leader, you, have to admit to yourself and the rest of the team that you have made a mistake and then correct it as soon as possible. Your team will recognize competency issues (maybe before you do!) and will be looking for you to take charge. Keeping someone in the organization that isn’t effective will at best damage morale, and at worst cause bigger problems.
5. What CEO management traits can you share that have been effective in transforming businesses to an exit? How important is building the right team and creating a performance-driven culture?
I have had the privilege of being in a position a few times to build, grow and later sell companies, often for private equity owners or debt holders. While they vary in how they operate, you certainly need to be prepared to work independently. If you are the type of person that needs a boss in your office every day helping you with strategy or decisions, you’ll struggle in this environment. As mentioned earlier, you’ll need a plan and you need to make sure that your owners are on board with that plan. If they want out in 2 years and don’t want to invest much in the interim, for example, knowing that up front will greatly assist your planning process. It also helps to look around your industry and study the attributes of companies that are selling. Is high growth more important than profits, for example? Are SaaS businesses fetching higher multiples? If the goal is to sell, figuring out what has worked for others then formulating a plan for your company to emulate that is a solid approach. Also, if your owners will allow some equity to be distributed to key staff, you’ll see everyone get behind your strategy in a meaningful way because you are then all sharing in the same goal and outcome.