Nooruddin ‘Rudy’ Karsan Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007
Although his official title is chairman and CEO of Kenexa Corp., Nooruddin “Rudy” Karsan likes to give himself another title: chief complaint officer. It’s a way to make himself available to customers and employees so they feel comfortable bringing problems to his attention, he says. Karsan has led Kenexa, a provider of software, services and content that enables organizations to recruit and retain employees, through a period of tremendous growth. Kenexa posted 2005 revenue of $66 million and 2006 revenue of $112 million, and the company is expecting to hit $195 million in 2007. Smart Business spoke with Karsan about how sometimes, the smartest move is to hang on for dear life.

Let it ride. Our growth has been a combination of building an infrastructure in combination with letting people run. Kenexa has grown by 70 percent last year. It’s growing by about 80 percent this year.

At 70 to 80 percent, a lot of times, you’re just hanging on for dear life. You’ve just got to know when to let go.

An example might be if I were the captain of a ship, and we were in gale-force winds heading east, and I really want to head southeast. Now, I have to make a decision. I have to put up the sails, let me go as fast as I can east, and then tack back south because I know the seas are calm there.

But the last thing in the world I want to do is tack now because I would rip my sails. I only have two choices: Pull them up at full and head east, or take them all down and ride out the gale. Tacking is not a choice here because it’s going to rip the sails.

Similarly, when you’re in a high-growth situation, you can put the processes — which are like the boats — in place, but in hyper-growth mode, your choice is only, do I put up the sails or take them down? Do I let the organization run in this direction as hard as it can, even though it may not be exactly the direction that makes sense, and then we’ll tack back at the appropriate time?

Don’t damage your character. There is one commonality for all leaders: character. If your character gets affected, you lose the moral right to be a leader. That’s the biggest single trap for any leader — whether you’ve got two people following you or 200 million. Once you’ve damaged that, it’s almost impossible to recover.

A good example is someone like [former President] Clinton. If you measure his eight years on social development, economic development, global leadership — you can go through the 50 most important metrics for the president of the United States. He was probably in the top five in any one of those metrics of all the presidents of the U.S., but in the end, he’s going to be remembered that he lied to the American people.

Not that he had the affair, but that he lied.

You see it in the business community, too. Doesn’t matter what segment of society you look at, the single biggest downfall of the leader is character.

Preach what you practice. Set the values up the way you’d like to see them. To use an old cliché, you walk the talk. If you say, ‘Work-life balance is very important in my organization,’ and you’re a workaholic, people will emulate your work style, and your words become empty.

Or if you say, ‘This is a learning organization, and I am a learning leader,’ and you don’t read at all, you don’t talk about advances of science, people are going to find out you’re not a learning type.

You’ve got to understand where your strengths are and make those your values.

So if you’re not a learning-type individual, don’t make learning into a value. If you’re a workaholic, don’t make work-life balance into a value.

Learn the art of leadership. Leadership is more of an art than a science. When you’re providing leadership, the inputs are data, from which you get outcomes, but if you play by the book all the time, you’re bound to fail. You need intuition and gut feel.

If you try to unpack the words ‘art’ and ‘science,’ when we think about it in the way we’ve studied from childhood, science is hard and art is soft.

From a leadership perspective, there is the notion that we grew up with: Leadership is a science, you tell people what to do, they follow you, etc. When you really step away from it, and if you really want to expand on leadership as being an art, there’s a tremendous amount of softness associated with it in terms of understanding what the people you are leading are looking for. Remember, they are always tuned to their favorite radio station, WIIFM [What’s in it for me?].

Keep the ego in check. My ego gets me into a lot of trouble. It stops me from hearing and listening to what’s happening. Sometimes, I’m defending my position, even though it’s wrong. It becomes an obstacle to the growth of the company.

There are some leaders out there who have great egos, as well, but they’re so smart that they’re right a lot of times. For them, it’s safer to have an ego. I’m not as smart, so I have a tendency toward more mistakes. Then, the ego really gets in the way.

It’s a constant battle, the same battle I have in life, as well. Bring the ego in check so you can hear what life is trying to tell you. There are three ways. Probably the main way is, I’ve been fortunate in the lady I started dating at age 17 or 18 — she’s my wife today — we’re the best of friends. She’s become an absolutely awesome gauge in letting me know the ego is getting in the way.

The second is surrounding myself with people I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Whether it’s our CFO or our president or our CMO, my innate respect and the tremendous amount of faith in what they have to say overwhelms the desire to be right all the time.

The third is constantly talking about it. The more I talk about it, the easier it gets, the less shameful it is, the more I can be aware of it.

HOW TO REACH: Kenexa Corp., (610) 971-9171 or www.kenexa.com