Josef Mandelbaum Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007
As the ping-pong ball bounces back and forth across the table, Josef Mandelbaum focuses not only on the game he’s playing but also on the mental challenge he’s putting a job candidate through during the game. Through ping-pong, Mandelbaum sees how potential employees adapt to and react in a situation requiring mental and physical focus. It helps ensure that he gets great people to help lead AG Interactive, a $90 million division of American Greetings’ AG Intellectual Properties. Smart Business spoke with the president and CEO of AG Intellectual Properties about why employees have his trust from Day One and why he empowers people and gets out of their way.

Involve your people in decisions. That probably gets annoying to people because decisions are slower than giving finite answers, but I like to look at strategy and operational decisions from a 360-degree angle.

I’ll often argue both sides of the argument to make sure that we are doing ourselves justice in making the right decisions and challenging the people to do that and try to get consensus from my team before we make decisions.

It’s pushing down to empower people to do their jobs. We do consensus and setting the strategy. Once we do that, we try as best as possible to empower the next one to two levels down to make their own decisions and tell them mistakes will happen, and that’s OK. If mistakes didn’t happen, we’re probably not learning.

I always tell everybody they’ll never lose as much money for the company as I have, so they shouldn’t worry that much about making a mistake.

Communicate employees’ roles to them. The biggest impediment to empowerment is people just don’t feel they’re empowered.

A lot of that is due to lack of clarity — is this my role? Your role? Who has the decision? Who is the influencer, and who has to be informed?

Some, you want to inform them because your decision will impact them, but they don’t have to be part of the decision, they just have to be informed. There are people that influence decisions, so you want their input, but they don’t make the final decision.

Then there are people actually responsible for the final decision. Make sure the people understand what their role is — are they an influencer, someone who has to be informed, or are they a decision-maker?

If you’re a decision-maker, make sure they know that, and make sure other people know that, so when a decision is made, it can actually be executed. A big risk is someone thinks they made a decision, [only] to find out it was never executed upon because other people didn’t think they had the right to make that decision.

Trust people. If you don’t trust the individuals to make decisions, either they’ll act like robots and they lose all ability to think, which means your company isn’t doing a good job because they’re not going to have any ideas.

Or you just drive them out because they get so demotivated because they try new things and nobody listens to them — you don’t respect their opinion and you don’t trust them to make decisions.

You have my trust from Day 1. You [could] lose it, but you don’t have to earn it. To trust people to make decisions, you hire the right people. Raise the bar and make sure the people you hire are talented, smart, and they come in and learn.

Nobody comes in and knows everything at once. Over time, through working with other people or mentors or learning through experience, ultimately you trust their instincts and talents. If you can’t trust the people working for you, then you don’t have a solid company.

Hire good people. We want the person to be smart, bright and [have] the ability to operate and think independently. Things move and change quickly, so we need people that can hit the ground running — if we put them in the deep water with a life jacket, that they can make sure they don’t sink.

No. 2 is adaptability. We change a lot. Strategies change a lot. You have to be someone who can roll with the punches and be flexible. No. 3 is innovation and risk tolerance. If you’re not willing to make mistakes and try stuff new, you’re not someone who’s going to help us raise the bar on ourselves and grow the business. We need people who aren’t afraid of taking calculated risks.

I don’t want people who are just going off without thinking and saying, ‘Hey let’s do this, and we’ll see what happens,’ and all of a sudden, $10 million later, you say, ‘What the hell happened?’

We want people who aren’t afraid of trying new things and doing it smartly, so we want people who are creative and analytical.

Ask tough questions when interviewing. I ask a lot of black and white questions that people don’t like to answer. For example, would you rather get up on a desk and inspire 25 people, or sit down in a room and have a meaningful impact on one person’s career. Obviously we’d like both, but I don’t give you that choice. You have to pick one or the other and explain why. Those are the types of questions that you never know what I want to hear, so the interviewee is confused.

Answer what you want to do, and it gives us an indication of the type of person or manager you would be. It’s a lot of black and white questions to the extreme that, in reality, almost never happen, but it helps give you a sense of what the person’s taste and predilections would be.

Have a personal touch with employees. I know everybody by name, and I know something about them, and I encourage my senior team to do the same — just personal connections so they know we’re trying our best, and we’re not perfect. We never pretend to be, and people see that.

They may not always like our decisions, but they respect us and understand that we’re trying to do what’s best. People relate to that, and there’s a tolerance for making mistakes. We just learn from them and move forward.

It’s engraining that in people whenever we have the opportunity. Whether it’s at quarterly reviews, annual events or just a one-on-one basis, saying, ‘Hey, glad you tried this out. It didn’t work out — what’d you learn from it? What’s the next thing you’re going to try?’ HOW

TO REACH: AG Interactive, (216) 889-5000 or