9.23.2014

Steven Mollenkopf of Qualcomm: If You Don’t Know, Just Say So

Steven Mollenkopf
This interview with Steven Mollenkopf, the C.E.O. of Qualcomm, the mobile-phone technology company, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant (The New-York Times).
Q. Were you in leadership roles when you were young?
A. I was the youngest kid on our street in Baltimore, and I was always playing sports with kids who were older than me. You learn a lot that way.
Tell me about your parents.
Both parents were teachers. My father became an assistant principal, and he was responsible for discipline at the school. So I didn’t get away with much at home.

My dad was also the coach of my sports teams, including basketball. When we were driving home and he would critique my play, he would always say, “You should make mistakes by throwing the ball away, not by holding the ball.” I say the same thing to people today.
And in the context of work that means ... ?
It means make mistakes by taking action, not by thinking about something or being timid. You want to encourage yourself to take risks. If you make a mistake trying to do something, you can fix it later.
Tell me about your college years.
I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but I didn’t know what type of engineer. I chose electrical engineering primarily because it was the hardest one to get into. It’s ridiculous when I think about it now, but it worked out O.K.
After grad school, I ended up at Qualcomm because my brother sent me a clipping of an ad saying: “I know you’re thinking about getting a job. You might want to look at this company, Qualcomm. You’ve never heard of them.” That’s essentially how I got to Qualcomm. I’ve been there ever since.
How soon did you become a manager?
We were growing so fast, and I got responsibility very early in my career that I probably should not have had. It was a defining moment because I just had to figure out how to do things. You gain confidence being able to do that. I really enjoy the unknown and uncertainty. I like when things are up in the air or changing. That’s where I tend to feel most comfortable.
Early leadership lessons?
When I became a manager, I was taught that life isn’t fair. Some people believe that we will definitely reward the right people at the right time, by the right amount. Quite frankly, you never will. You can’t get everything to work out that way. You need to make sure that you’re moving toward perfection, but you’re never going to get there.
The other one that I took away from early management was that jerks don’t get promoted. You have to be able to get along with people. Companies run on smart people who can also get other smart people to move generally in the same direction. It’s those people who actually run the company and provide the environment for truly phenomenal people to go forward.
Our company purposely doesn’t have a lot of structure. That enables the “A” players to have incredible amounts of freedom. Our structure is not to try to pull a C player up to a B. It’s to try to make sure that the B’s and the A’s have the ability to influence what happens. It works only if you reward people for the right type of conduct and if you don’t tolerate the negative.
What about more recent lessons?
The more senior you get, the less concerned you are with saying, “I don’t know the answer here.” You realize that you’re not supposed to know all the answers. Your job is to surround yourself with people who can help you figure out the answers. You don’t realize that when you’re starting out.
How do you hire?
I really want to know what kind of person they are, and to get a sense of their desire to come here. Why do they want to talk to me? What do they really want to do? Then I give them a bunch of disclosure. I want them to know what kind of culture they’re walking into. I spend a lot of time providing them information about Qualcomm to make sure that we have a two-way street.
I determined in the last decade that sometimes candidates don’t have a full picture of what they just interviewed for. They’re trying to make this major decision and if they don’t have the information, we have a problem. I also want to make sure they can write. We have an email culture.
What if a new hire asked you: “What should I know about working with you day-to-day? What are your pet peeves, and what do you particularly like?”
For me, 100 percent effort is very important. People who don’t work hard are a problem. And you need to quickly figure out what our value system is and make sure it’s reflected in the way you work. It’s important to me that we treat people well.
I also won’t give you immediate feedback all of the time about how you’re doing. As I said earlier, I’m a bit more tolerant of uncertainty than other people. If it looks to be generally O.K. and you’re doing the right things to help the organization be successful five years from now, that’s good.
What advice do you give new college grads?
Don’t have a plan, because you can underestimate what your abilities are, and you might limit yourself in some cases with a plan. I also think luck is very important. Be sure that you allow for luck to occur, and when it happens, run toward the fire, not run away from it. The people who are really good, and the people you want on your team, are the ones who see an opportunity and they get excited about it versus shrinking away.>>>

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