Some great stuff to take away from this interview.
“If you really care about somebody, you give them constructive feedback. And if you don’t care about somebody, you only say positive things.”
“I want to get better at taking more risk. My goal is to do one thing every day that kind of scares me or that’s kind of hard.”
The C.E.O. Must Decide Who Swims
This interview of Maigread Eichten, president and chief executive of FRS, a maker of energy drinks, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. When did you first learn how to lead people?
A. You’re really taking me back. I was a lifeguard and a swim coach at a pool in the Walnut Creek area outside of San Francisco. The hardest thing about being a swim coach in a somewhat affluent area is that all the parents want their kids to swim on the team, of course, and to swim every event. And while you want to win, you also want to make sure all the kids get to swim. So there’s this balance.
I was 17 and you’ve got these parents screaming at you every weekend — “How come Johnny didn’t get to swim?” and “He’s better than Sally.” — and you’re going back and forth on this every week: Do I want to win or do I want to swim all the kids, and the kids are looking at you and the parents are screaming at you.
That experience is very similar to many days how I feel here. I feel like I’m a judge, and I use that mental image a lot, which is that my job is not to make everybody happy. My job is to chart the right course and, at the end of the day, I leave this building and if I feel like I’ve done the right thing and people respect me, I’m happy. But on any day someone is probably unhappy with a decision that I made in the day, and that’s the best I can do.
It’s the same thing with the swim team. Mr. Smith is probably mad that I didn’t swim his daughter, and sometimes I have to look at little Jane and say, “You know what, you’re not going to swim the 100 fly today, sorry.” It’s a team sport.
Q. It sounds like good training for dealing with all the stakeholders in a company.
A. It’s a balance. You’ve got the board, you’ve got investors, you’ve got employees, you’ve got the press, you’ve got consumers, you’ve got retailers. It’s the hardest thing, which I didn’t expect, about being C.E.O. You’re a judge, and you cannot make everyone happy. It is impossible. It’s the same thing with parenting.
Q. Talk about how you give feedback to employees.
A. One of the most memorable things one of my bosses at Pepsi told me was that if you really care about somebody, you give them constructive feedback. And if you don’t care about somebody, you only say positive things. That’s stuck with me all this time. So I really try to make sure that I give people good, constructive feedback — positive first, of course, then constructive, and I give it in real time. It’s got to be in the moment. It’s got to be private.
Q. Tell me about your goals as a leader and manager.
A. I want to get better at taking more risk. My goal is to do one thing every day that kind of scares me or that’s kind of hard. Today, it’s being interviewed by you. I think that, to get better, you have to challenge yourself. You have to put some things out there that are hard for you personally.
Q. When did you develop this rule to do something risky every day?
A. Probably about 10 years ago, when I left PepsiCo. I moved out here to San Francisco, which is where I grew up. I made a lifestyle decision then that I was going to change some things up. I went to work at VeriSign, and then the downturn hit in 2000. Everyone needs to manage through a downturn. You learn a ton. It’s much harder than managing in good times.
I also decided to start taking some calculated risks and pushing the envelope as a way to run both my business and my personal life. I believe this leads to success and a really fun life adventure.
Your learning curve is so much steeper doing it that way, because calculated risk is really how we learn. And I think it’s a better leadership style because you’re growing, both as a person and, I think, as an executive.
Q. You mentioned all the things you learned in the downturn. Any other broad take-aways?
A. I reflected a lot on this when it came around this time, and I’ve talked a lot about this with fellow C.E.O.’s. So the first thing you learn is that it’s going to end. The sky is not falling. The sense of panic that starts to overtake people is overplayed.
So you chart a course, and you plot out kind of a worst-case, middle-case, best-case plan. You’re probably going to have to do some cost-cutting, and get that plan laid out, and then stay on strategy. This is your reality, and that’s how it is. The sky isn’t falling, and you have to show calm confidence every day. Your employees are watching your behavior.
Q. How do you manage your time?
A. I work out really early in the morning, and I use that time to kind of set my key priorities for the day — the two or three work things, the two or three personal things, and what are the key personal relationships that I want to make sure are set. That’s usually one of my top priorities — making sure that the team works well together. If I sense something’s off a little bit with the team, that’s usually one of the first things I zero in on.
When I come in, my first priority is to go through the to-do list before anybody’s here, and make sure that I’ve got a list on my desk of no more than 10 key things that I want to get done. I find if you have a to-do list of more than 10, it’s just not going to happen, and I pretty much stick to that list. I walk around a lot and if I see in people’s eyes that they need help, or if I get a sense that something’s up, I drop things because sometimes people just need help.
Q. And you’ll sense that just by the look in their eyes?
A. Absolutely, or I can hear it in their voice. I can hear it in their voice, and I think that’s really important that you have sense for your people. I call it my Spidey-sense. My 13-year-old daughter does not like this, by the way. It’s the same Spidey-sense I have with my kids. If something’s off, something’s off, and if I get a sense something’s off, I drop everything and I will not let go until I know what it is because it’s a sign there’s a problem.
Q. So how do you broach it?
A. Well, my people know me well enough. They know I’ll come in, I’ll close the door, and I’ll just say, “O.K., spill it.” There’s no warm-up for me. They know I will not leave. I want to help. I always say to them: “Look, guys we’re in this together. We’re a team.”
Q. Are you a gadget person? BlackBerry, iPhone?
A. Both. The iPhone I love for the apps. Then the BlackBerry I use for my work stuff.
Q. How do you deal with the constant pull of the BlackBerry?
A. One thing I love about having three kids is, it’s all about them. So when you’re with them, they only want to talk about them. They’re very sports-oriented, so we spend a lot of time on sports. They keep me from being too overly focused on the BlackBerry because they will take it away.
Q. What career advice will you give your kids?
A. I interview a ton of people and I get really frustrated with interviews, to be honest, because I find that people come in a lot of times and they don’t even know that much about the company, which I find just really odd.
I went to business school, and I decided I wanted a PepsiCo internship. They were only taking one intern, so my shot at getting this Pepsi internship was slim to none, because I had no experience.
But I decided I wanted this internship and what I did was — I think about this all the time when I interview people, sort of, why don’t they do this to me? — I researched all the people coming to campus to interview. I knew everything about them. I knew everything about Pepsi-Cola and the PepsiCo company. I knew everybody in the U.C.L.A. recruiting office and I wrote the story of myself as a brand and I came up with a whole talk about why Pepsi should hire me, and the assets I could bring.
I had called up the two or three people who had been Pepsi interns from other campuses, and I found out every single thing that they had done as interns. So I had done all that work before I took this interview. I was one of the four people they took back to New York for an interview, and I got this internship. I was probably also incredibly annoying, but I certainly was superqualified.
And what I would say to my kids is, to get the job you need two things. You need the functional skills, but then you also have to be superprepared, and you have to have incredible passion. You have to make that person want to hire you. They have to have a reason to hire you. There’s no excuse why you can’t have that.
I’m just really surprised by some of the people I interview. A few people, when I say “FRS,” they say, “I haven’t tried the product.” If they say that, the interview is over.