Deliberate and decisive Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008
Amy Gutmann likes to surround herself with smart people.

As the president of the University of Pennsylvania, she hires sharp employees to join her team and help her lead the organization’s 20,381 employees in a deliberate and decisive manner.

“Before I became president of Penn, I studied decision-making in large, complex institutions and in democracy,” she says. “All the evidence suggests that one person relying on his or her own strengths alone will not be nearly as effective a leader as a person who brings together lots of smart people in a team, deliberates with them and then decides what to do.”

Gutmann says it is another version of, “In unity, there is strength.” Having a wise work force creates commitment to the institution and brings the best ideas to the floor.

Smart Business spoke with Gutmann about her rules for leading an intelligent team.

Hire a smart work force. We are an educational institution, so it would be ironic if we didn’t take advantage of the fact that we attract very smart people. I bring a lot of them on my team, play to their strengths and decide on the basis of what everybody has to offer me in supporting a vision for the institution that already has buy-in.

Before I hire them, I have a good sense of what their strengths are, and then, there is nothing like practice for showing what people’s strengths are: rolling up their sleeves and making decisions. There’s no science to this. It’s really an art, not a science.

I think it’s important for CEOs to be very involved in hiring. One can’t be involved in hiring everybody, but letting search firms do most of the hiring on your senior team is a serious mistake. Search firms can help, but you really have to be involved. I try to determine before I hire people whether they share the values and the goals of this organization.

It’s culture coupled with commitment and expertise. You can’t just have the culture if you don’t have people who are also committed and expert at carrying out the day-to-day important tasks that need to be done.

Communicate in a clear and inspiring way. Speaking directly to large and small groups is very important for the CEO to do, and there are two reasons. The first is there is still no substitute for face-to-face communication for showing that you care about the people who you’re serving, and the second, you get spontaneous feedback; you can see what resonates, what people are concerned about and you can hear from them directly.

It’s not a substitute for all the other things you have to do to move your institution or organization forward, but it sure is essential to getting the pulse of the place.

Communication is one of the rarest skills, and it’s essential for a CEO. If the CEO can’t effectively — and in an inspiring way — communicate the goals of the organization, then who will? If it is somebody else, you have to ask the question: Is the CEO motivating people?

Motivate your employees. If people know that they are valued, not just once a year when they get a pay raise but in day-today ways, they’re going to want to do more. Making a positive difference is an energizing experience, but you have to know that people appreciate what you’re doing.

Very few people are saints and can just continue to do things without any positive feedback. I am not a saint, and I don’t expect my people on my team to be so. I expect them to work hard, work effectively, be very committed, have the right values, and they should expect me and others to appreciate them for doing that.

Get buy-in. For a business to be successful over time, people other than the CEO have to believe it’s a very worthwhile enterprise. If people believe that, the CEO can get the support that he or she needs for making hard decisions and doing the difficult things to make a business better. So it is a virtuous circle.

Only if one has the support of one’s constituencies can an organization move forward over time. You can’t be a leader without followers, and these days, if you’re surrounded by smart people, you can’t have slavish followers. You have to have followers who really believe in the same mission, the same goals, as well as some of the strategies that you develop to accomplish them.

Make sure the lawns get mowed. The best business advice I ever received was tongue-in-cheek from a Penn trustee and alumnus, Jon Huntsman, who is a very successful businessman. Shortly after I became president, he invited me out to his Utah getaway. He sat me down and told me there were two things that presidents had to do to be successful. No. 1, they had to make sure that the lawns got mowed, and (No. 2), they had to raise money.

While it was tongue-in-cheek, it wasn’t entirely without seriousness. What Jon was saying to me is that a leader has to set priorities and stick to them. Be sure you know what you want to do, and don’t get distracted by all of the other things you’re going to be called on to do.

HOW TO REACH: University of Pennsylvania, (215) 898-8721 or