Q. What was life like for you as a kid?
A. I grew up in Ireland in a very rural area. We had a small piece of property. It was an impoverished area, especially back in the ’50s and ’60s. Our home had mud walls, a thatch roof, three small rooms and a mud floor.
We had no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms and no heat. There was a big open fireplace where my mother cooked everything. Most of the families around us were farmers, and I thought they were very wealthy when I was a kid. As I grew older, of course, I realized they were not that wealthy.
My father was a laborer. At the age of about 40, he no longer could work because he had rheumatoid arthritis in every part of his body. My mother was deaf. She lost her hearing when she was about 7 years old. She never considered it a disability, though, and learned to lip-read. To get her attention, we would kick the floor. She’d feel the vibrations; it’s amazing how one sense takes over when you lose another.
There were five kids, and I was the oldest, so I started working at a very young age. Both of my parents had little formal education, but my mother was unbelievably interested in reading and learning. We always had books at home, even though we didn’t have much else. I remember reading Shakespeare by candlelight as a kid.
I didn’t think life was that tough at the time, but it was. And I’m not one who likes to complain too much. I dreamed about getting an education, even though I wasn’t really sure what that was.
Nobody ever thought that people like us would ever go to college because it was a very two-class system in Ireland. If you had some money, you were obviously geared to go to school. If you didn’t have money and you were at the lower end of the totem pole, you were not expected to succeed.
But I did well enough in my high school to make the cut to get into college. I had saved enough money to pay for my first semester of college, and I hitchhiked on a truck to get there.
And when I was waiting in line to sign up for my courses, I saw that I was in the line for liberal arts. I didn’t know what liberal arts meant. I was sweating because I have no artistic ability, and that’s what I thought liberal arts meant.
But college was just absolutely fantastic and wonderful. Fortunately for me, I was also very good at athletics. I played sports, and I got on the college teams.
In the summers, I would come to New York to make money and work on the docks. I sent home most of the money I made because my family was in a pretty bad situation. My happiest moments were sending money to my mother.
Any favorite expressions that your parents would repeat often?
You’re not entitled to success. You’ve got to work at it. You have to be trusted. You’ve got to earn the respect of others. Just because of what you are and what you might become, don’t expect that anybody’s going to like you just for that. You’ve got to earn their respect. Trust is the key to success, in many ways. If employees don’t trust you, and you don’t trust them, we aren’t going to get anything done.
And my mother always said, “Don’t ever let your circumstance interfere with your potential or limit your potential. You have unlimited potential to be successful if you work hard enough and if you work with people in a caring way.”
That is why, to this day, I do not like it when people talk to me about how something can’t be done. I don’t want you to tell me you can’t do something. You may not get there 100 percent of the time, but you can get there 80 percent, so don’t start with the presumption that you can’t.
There’s an old saying: “The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg.” It’s what you’re made of; it’s not your circumstance. People like to play victim too much. And obviously circumstances influence you, but they should never hold you back from succeeding.
Tell me an aspect of your leadership style today.
I’m not big into organizational charts because they can put people in silos. People have roles, but they should be porous because if you’re working in a larger organization — just like if you’re on a sports team — you can be the defender, but that doesn’t mean you don’t help the offense. That concept to me is very, very important.
One of the things I always look for in people is whether they’re comfortable with disruption and comfortable with a degree of confusion. If somebody wants total clarity, they’re not the person for me.
And how do you get at that in a job interview?
I ask them about their social situations, their family situations, what motivates them, and how they like to work with other people. Is there a hunger, an intellectual curiosity? I will often take them on a tour of one of our facilities and see how they interact with people.
I look for their relationship skills and a positive attitude. Instead of their I.Q., I want to know their C.Q. — their curiosity quotient. To what extent are you focused on figuring out how to improve whatever it is you’re going to be doing? Nothing is perfect, so you should always be trying to figure out how to make it better.
Sometimes with candidates we’ll give them a schedule for the day they’ll spend with us. And then when the day comes, I switch it all around. I want to see how they react.
And they’ve often asked me, “Well, why’d you do that?” I said, “Because that’s life. When you come in in the morning, you think you’re going to be doing X. By the time you get to the office, you’re doing Y. You’ve got to be flexible.”
You’re going to be thrown curveballs all the time. It’s a question of how you respond. Don’t get frustrated over it. Roll with the punches.