New Jersey-based Applegate Farms has grown by double digits every year since it began. Founder Stephen McDonnell believes an open management culture is crucial to the company’s success—and, indeed, to any company’s success in the 21st century. Here he talks about hiring and motivating executives:
Lee Lusardi Connor: What kind of person do you look for when you’re hiring for this company?
Stephen McDonnell: People who are not afraid to be open, who have the confidence and courage to speak their mind, and speak what they think is true. We’re a very passion- based organization. We’re a little company, trying to change the way society thinks about and eats meat, which is the center of the plate. So, we have a core message that we have to get out in a big world where the shopper is confused and busy and doesn’t have the time. We have to somehow carve a little window where we can make our presence known.
Well, if you don’t speak up that’s not going to happen. And so what I look for is the ability of a person to not just have core values, but to demonstrate their conviction by not being afraid to speak out, if they think something is wrong.
LLC: Do you have questions that you use to weed people out?
SM: No set questions, but I’m definitely an out-of-the box interviewer, like most entrepreneurs. I don’t do the traditional interviews well. I’m more interested in what their parents did and where their values came from. Sometimes it’s from their grandmother, sometimes it’s from a teacher. I’m interested in their life experiences that really, in their minds, help define them. I’m interested in the conviction level of how they speak about it and how easily they can access it.
So, I try to ask the unexpected question. To kind of knock them off their expectations of you know, “This is a normal job interview and I have to act a certain way, because I want to get a job,” to, “Who are you and why are you here?” And I look to see the chemistry of how easily that conversation can go.
LLC: A job candidate could be either be terrified or very intrigued by this direction.
SM: Yes. It’s pretty obvious they’re going to go one way or the other. I was interviewing a candidate for a top job who had flown in from the West Coast, and I said, “I want you to, go back and say, after this interview ‘I can’t believe I asked the founder the question that I really wanted to ask him.’ And I want you to go back and tell everybody that you were shocked by the interview.”
He was a seasoned guy, he’d been around for a while, but he said, “I’ve never had that happen to me.” And he told me that he had been in jobs where he was promised things from the boss, and the boss didn’t deliver. I mean, he was really taken advantage of.
So, obviously, if you’ve been taken advantage of, the question you want to know is, “Are you going to take advantage of me? Because that happened before, and I don’t want that to happen again.” So I knew his question was, “Are you going to let me down, in some fashion?”
But he couldn’t say it. And I was like, “Well, then, what are you going to do when you’re sitting at a senior management level and there’s stuff that needs to get talked about? Your job is to make sure that gets on the table.” I think he realized that that was not a fit.
But other times, you’re just absolutely amazed at how awake and alive and interested certain interviewees are. Sometimes experience hurts, because they know too much. Whereas somebody younger is kind of freer, and in a world that’s changing fast, you really need to be free and dynamic.
LLC: Sounds like you’re describing the Gen Y worker.
SM: The problem with them is they haven’t had enough experience, so they think way too much of themselves. They really haven’t been in the ditch working hard long enough. So, yes, they’re free and open; but they might not be disciplined enough stick with something and commit to something. I mean, I’ve been doing it non-stop for 22 years. It’s like, you know, [laugh] talk to me after a couple of years and I’ll be interested, but don’t tell me you’ve got answers after six months. It just doesn’t happen that way.
LLC: How do you give praise and feedback?
SM: Very directly. Positive or negative. When I’m inspired by somebody, I’ll drag them in front of the whole group and make sure everybody understands how great that I feel that person was in their ability to accomplish a challenging assignment.
And, if it’s not good, I take them, you know, to the side, and make it very clear what didn’t work. Entrepreneurs are not generally too shy about what they like and what they don’t like.
I think the thing people say about me is they always know where they stand. Sometimes you make a mistake, and you could always say it better and more creatively, but in the end, it’s very important to me that I’m not ambiguous, or they don’t have to read my mind.
Lee Lusardi Connor is a business writer and editor. She can be reached at LeeLusardi@gmail.com.