Saturday, February 01, 2014

How Does This Make You Feel?

Dawn Zier of Nutrisystem on When Your Company Is Adrift - JAN. 30, 2014

Corner Office
By ADAM BRYANT

This interview with Dawn M. Zier, chief executive of Nutrisystem, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. (Twice a week, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing.)

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Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Q. When you were a child, were you in leadership roles?

A. My parents always said, “Be the best you can be,” so I tried to do that. I was the kid in Girl Scouts who sold the most cookies and earned the most badges. I was valedictorian in my class, and I was editor in chief of my high school newspaper. But I wouldn’t say I was a born leader. It was really more about personal achievement, and the leadership was cultivated over time. When I think about the leader I am today, a lot of it is based on those fundamentals that were instilled in me about always doing your personal best.

Q. And your college years?

A. I studied electrical engineering and computer science in undergrad. That taught me how to think, and provided a lot of fundamentals about how I lead. I can break down a complex issue, simplify it and then build it back up.

Q. Any speed bumps in your early management roles?

A. I’m a 24/7 sort of person, so I’m always on. I don’t need to sleep a lot. I had my first child when I was 30, and it was very important for me to have balance. So my idea of balance was that I would go to work during the day, come home, spend time with my child, and then after everybody went to sleep, I would do work. So it was very common for people to get emails from me at 2 or 3 in the morning.

It was just my way of managing my life, but what I didn’t realize is that it freaked everybody out. Somebody said, “Do you really expect us to get back to you at 3:30 in the morning?” I said: “No, I assume that you’re sleeping. I don’t have that expectation at all.” But the feedback I got was that it was disturbing the people that I was managing.

I ended up having a meeting with my team. I’m pretty direct and big on candor, and I had to explain to them that we all need to find our balance. I expect a lot out of you, and you expect a lot out of me. This is just my way of doing my job, and I’m not going to prescribe how you do your job. I don’t expect you to be up all night. After we had a direct conversation about it, everybody was cool with it. So one of my early lessons was really trying to be attuned to things and making sure that you have an open dialogue so things don’t become issues.

Q. Lessons from mentors over the years?

A. An early one was to really embrace change. Uncertainty makes people uncomfortable. When I was with Reader’s Digest, we went from a public company to a private company to being in bankruptcy and then emerging with new ownership. I ran U.S. divisions. I ran international divisions. I had to learn to become really comfortable with change, which I wasn’t initially. As I’m trying to change a company now, I really try to define what the end game is so people are comfortable with the path to change.

Q. You were brought in to turn Nutrisystem around. Tell me about the culture you encountered.

A. One issue that I found when I got there is that when I would ask people questions, they would answer a little too quickly, without even having to think about it. But when I dug in, the facts weren’t always the facts being presented.

So I said: “Time out. Our culture has to be fact-based. I’m willing to have any conversation with you, and I like dialogue, but at the same time, it has to be based in fact. It can’t be based in fantasy or wishing that something happened that didn’t happen.”

We really tried to encapsulate our culture in a very clear way, so I said we have FACTS-based culture, which stands for the word itself, but each letter stands for something, too. It’s about being “focused,” because the company wasn’t focused on priorities. It’s about a culture of “accountability,” “customer-centric,” “team” and “success.” So our motto is, “Just the Facts.”

Q. You had to assess and put together a new management team. Tell me about that.

February 2, 2014 at 12:08 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

A. On a good day, I’m strong-willed and determined. On a bad day, that might flip over to stubborn and dogged. One of the things I knew I needed — because in a stressful situation I can really dig in — was to have a team around me that wasn’t afraid of challenging me. I don’t want people to “yes” me because, quite honestly, when I was young I thought I wanted to be a lawyer at one point. I like debate, and I think it leads to more well-rounded decisions. I try to empower everybody on my management team to challenge one another, but it’s all within a culture of respect and trust.

Q. What were you looking for in the existing management team to decide who stayed on?

A. Commitment. There were months of transition before I came in as C.E.O., so I was really looking for people who stepped up during that time, because you have two choices during a transition period like that. Either you step up and lead or you go on vacation. I really looked for people who rose to the occasion, rather than taking a wait-and-see approach.

It was also about being candid. I’m not really good with passive-aggressive types. I’m pretty candid and direct, and I want to have an honest conversation with you. If somebody is saying something to me and I hear that they said something different to someone else, well, that’s not really the culture we’re trying to put forward.

The other thing is respect. Sometimes in organizations you get people coming to you and sort of throwing other people under the bus. You won’t stay on my team if you do that.

Q. How do you hire?

A. I often will say, “Tell me about a situation where things changed around you and how you dealt with that and adapted.” I’m looking for whether they’re a self-made person. Have they coasted in life? Where have they had to persevere? What challenges have they had to overcome? I’m really trying to understand what has shaped them over the years.

February 2, 2014 at 12:08 AM  

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