Selective service Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

If you are a management-level employee at Advanced Bionics LLC, it’s probably not because Jeff Greiner made you that way.

Whether he’s hunting for management talent internally or externally, the first thing Greiner acknowledges is that there is only so much he, the president and CEO of the 650-employee cochlear implant development company, can do to mold the next generation of leaders. Ultimately, you need to be a judge of competency and character, not a creator of it.

“What I’ve learned in the last 20 years is that the selection of the people is the most important thing. If I’m selecting people who have 20, 30 and 40 years of experience, I’m selecting people whose values and personalities are already shaped, so there is little I can do other than select the right people,” Greiner says.

Smart Business spoke with Greiner about how you can learn to identify the best leaders in your organization and why you should look to hire leaders, not create them.

Know your limits. The notion of a leader shaping the team is overblown. The notion of a team’s performance being determined principally by who they are as people, in terms of their character, expertise and energy, is probably not stated enough.

You see the tremendous number of leadership books out there. Most of them are pure crap in terms of the leader’s ability to shape people. What is not crap, and I’ve never read the book, I’ve just learned it as I’ve gone, as a matter of principle and a matter of my own life experience, is the notion of going out and trying to shape the team into a greater team. The notion is you take C players and you make them B’s, or they’re not on your team anymore. That is a correct idea. If I do that with my leadership team, as such that people have the kind of character, expertise and commitment that is necessary for us to be successful or I get them off the bus, that is a correct notion. But the idea that you shape them, that you influence them tremendously on a daily basis and change how they operate, is way overblown. It’s basically not true.

Twenty years ago, I thought I was really good at the selection process. But I guarantee I haven’t been any better than a 50 percent success rate. I’m talking about building a company from scratch. When you’re building a company from scratch, you have to go outside, you have to go through the interview process. You can ask all the questions you want, but until someone is out there doing the work, you’re not going to be sure if they can do it with the kind of expertise that you need. You’re not going to see that until someone is in a place where they have something to win or lose. That’s when you really see their character, so gaining that kind of picture of a person is really a tremendous challenge.

As for people on the inside, that is all about identifying the characteristics that you want in a leader and observing them over time. Internally, your record should be 80 to 90 percent success when it comes to internal leaders, because you’re observing them constantly, you’re seeing them over time.

In our organization, we have vice presidents, directors and then managers. Whether someone at the director level can become a vice president, you ought to be able to make a choice in that regard. That is a much easier task to identify people within the organization who are going to do what you think needs to be done, than trying to build something from scratch and hiring the right people.

Be willing to correct. You have to know what you’re looking for in a leader, and you have to have the courage to admit hiring and promotion mistakes early on. If you make a mistake hiring for a leadership role, you have to be willing to turn around in the first three months, or at least the first six months, of the leader’s tenure. That’s a hard thing, but it’s something that you get better at over time. It does depend on the personality of the leader. I don’t want leaders in here who are quick on the trigger. I want people to appreciate that we’re all human, we’re all flawed, but there are certain fundamentals that a leader has to have.

Fundamentally, a leader has to have integrity, and not everybody does. Fundamentally, a leader has to have the expertise to drive a particular function, and sometimes it’s difficult to figure that out. As a CEO, you’re not necessarily knowledgeable about every function that reports into you. Fundamentally, you have to have a work ethic that makes this more than just an 8-to-5 job, because nobody succeeds with that mentality. Those are some of the fundamentals of what you’re looking for, but it takes time to get better at identifying those things.

Develop a support system. You have to have the discipline to critique your own hires. But you also have to have support on top of you, too. If you have any kind of dysfunctionality on top of you, it makes your job that much more difficult. If you’re a CEO, you have to have a board that you have developed and with which you have developed a sense of trust. They trust that you are going to make the right decisions, they trust that you are going to communicate with them as to why you’re making these decisions, and if the business is going in the right direction and they perceive it, that strengthens the trust.

All along the way of building a company, there are going to be ups and downs, so that trust might be stronger or weaker depending on where you are in the building of the company. That affects your ability to move forward with some of the tough change decisions that you make.

How to reach: Advanced Bionics LLC, (877) 829-0026 or