By ADAM BRYANT Published: April 21, 2012 Librado Romero/The New York Times
This interview with Russell Goldsmith, chairman and chief executive of City National Bank in Los Angeles, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Russell Goldsmith is chairman and chief executive of City National Bank in Los Angeles. In its “Story Idol” competition, he says, employees talk about “what they did that promoted teamwork or helped a client by going the extra mile.”
Every Sunday, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing. In his new book, “The Corner Office” (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders.
Q. Tell me about the culture of your company.
A. We talk a lot about stories. They’re a really important part of how we teach and reinforce the culture, and how we reward behavior. Maybe it’s because I came out of the entertainment industry. If you had talked to me about a project when I was at Republic Pictures, I would have said it’s about story. With movies, if you don’t have a great script, forget it.
One of the things I noticed at City National is that we have a lot of great stories to tell. If you look up City National, one of the stories you will see is the story of Frank Sinatra’s son who was kidnapped. The first C.E.O., Al Hart, was a real friend of Frank Sinatra’s and famously opened the vault on a Saturday and got the ransom money. That happened in the early ’60s, but people are still telling that story. It’s a source of pride.
We brought in consultants to teach people how to share stories in a more organized way that underscored the culture. We do something called “Story Idol,” and every quarter there’s a competition among our 79 offices. It’s a way to give colleagues a pat on the back and a moment in the sun for doing the right thing, and it democratizes and decentralizes positive reinforcement. We then have a Story Idol competition for the year in a big meeting with the top 300 people in the company. People tell stories about what they did that promoted teamwork or helped a client by going the extra mile. It’s like telling stories around a campfire, but they’re doing it around conference tables.
Q. How does Story Idol work?
A. It’s all online, on our intranet. People make submissions — about 50 to 100 each quarter. It’s kind of crowdsourced, and people vote on the best one.
Q. And the winner gets what?
A. The people who submit the winning stories all get iPads. The winners themselves — the colleagues who are singled out for going the extra mile to help our clients — they get significant cash awards. But what matters most is the recognition, and the respect from your peers as you stand on the stage in front of 300 people.
Q. Let’s shift to hiring. What questions do you ask?
A. By the time somebody gets to my office, they have been vetted for their skills. So I’m looking for the character of the person — the energy, the enthusiasm, the creativity. But I also want to know how focused they are on how this job would fit into their career. And I always ask people, what are your expectations for this job? I tell them, “If we make a mistake here in hiring, it won’t be good for us, but it’s going to be dreadful for you. So it’s a lot better if you get all your expectations out on the table and we get all our expectations on the table. And if there isn’t a good match, we are both better off, especially you, if you don’t come here.”
That tends to work well. People usually open up and say: “Well, here is what I’m looking for. Here’s what I expect. Here is what I want.” And then I will tell them, “Here’s what I want.” It’s about me making sure we’re clear about what they are trying to do. And people do give off signals that you can pick up.
Q. Like what?
A. Recently, somebody told me about how he wanted to get involved in a lot of community work, and his examples were kind of obscure. They weren’t going to help generate business, and I could just tell that that’s what he really wanted to do. He didn’t really want the job he was applying for.
Q. What else do you look for?
A. I also ask if they have questions for me. That’s important. Not because I want them to kind of butter me up or something. It tells me several things. Sometimes people don’t have a single question. And if you have any curiosity, here is your window. I mean, you are thinking of changing your entire career and you have 40 to 60 minutes with the C.E.O., and you don’t have a single question about the company?
Q. That’s happened?
A. More than once. That’s not somebody who is going to fit in our company. Then the interview is over. It’s impossible. If you have questions but are too intimidated to ask, then you’re in the wrong company. If you have no curiosity, then you are in the wrong company. Then, if you do have a question, I can tell a lot by the kind of question. Is it a fawning question or is it a real question?
I also give candidates a no-politics speech. It’s pretty simple: We don’t put up with politics in this company. If that’s the way you operate, this is the wrong place for you, and we’ll figure it out and you won’t succeed here.
Then I try to draw the person out. Are there politics in the company you are in now? I can tell a lot about somebody by the way they react to that. Do they embrace the no-politics rule? Do they say that’s fantastic, or that’s the way it is where they are now and they really like it? Or do they say their current company is not like that and they’re unhappy about it. We don’t have a perfect batting average on hiring. Nobody does, and that’s O.K. And when I’ve found out that somebody I hired turned out to be political and deceptive, I’ve fired him.
Q. Other approaches to leadership?
A. I love taking a fresh look at the company with people who are new. If we have a big meeting, I will reach out to some of the new people beforehand, and I’ll just say, “When the meeting’s over, shoot me an e-mail and tell me what worked at the meeting, what didn’t work, what did you like, what didn’t you like.”
Q. Do you get honest feedback?
A. I think so. I’m trying to build a culture where people speak up. Or I might ask what do you think we should be doing that we are not doing? I want to know whether they’ve been thinking about the company. Have they done their homework? Are they serious? Are they creative? Are they curious? If someone says, “You guys are doing everything perfect,” then that’s not a person for our group.