Hugh Martin: The Importance of Commitments
This interview with Hugh Martin, chief executive of Sensity Systems, an LED lighting company, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. Were you in leadership roles when you were younger?
A. I started working at Hamilton College in upstate New York while I was in high school, and I was running a lot of the weekend kitchen operations by the time I left to go to Union College, which is in Schenectady, N.Y.
Q. And what about your college experience?
A. I decided I wanted to be a doctor, and studied pre-med. But I was also running a restaurant on campus, and I was also a member of the rowdiest fraternity on campus. I was getting solid C’s, and a D in organic chemistry. I just wasn’t hacking it, so my dad called me and said: “We’re spending $3,000 a year to send you to this school and I’m looking at your report card. If you want to come home, just come home.” I drove home the next day.
My first job after that was working at Whitehall Labs. I worked on the Preparation H line, and my job was to use a putty knife to scrape off the suppositories that had fallen off the machine line. I did a few more jobs, but eventually went back to school, at Rutgers. I decided that I was going to be an engineer. What a difference it makes when you settle down. Going to school was my job, and I got straight A’s.
Hugh Martin, chief executive of Sensity Systems, an LED lighting company, says his team knows to avoid starting sentences with "My goal is. ..." It's far better, he says, to demonstrate total commitment to getting something done.CreditEarl Wilson/The New York Times
Q. You’ve had a broad range of experience — working at big-name companies like Apple and 3DO, as well as in venture capital and in start-ups. What are some things you’ve learned about fostering a corporate culture?
Conversations with Adam Bryant about leadership and management.
A. At every company where I’ve been C.E.O., communication is critical. For instance, I’ve always had a Friday meeting with the entire staff. I get up there for an hour and it’s no-holds-barred. We talk about anything that’s important and it’s a great opportunity to model behavior to every single person in the company.
Another is accountability. One of the things that seeps into almost every Silicon Valley company is that people say they’re going to do something and they don’t do it, and there’s no consequence. If you roll all of those missed expectations up to me, how can I commit to anything?
At 3DO, Trip Hawkins used a system called A’s and O’s, which stands for accomplishments and objectives. Everybody sits down at the beginning of the quarter and says, “Here are the 10 things I want to get done in the quarter.” Then, at the end of the quarter, you review those and say, “Here’s how I did and here’s 10 things I want to do next.”
I read every one of them. It’s super-important, because sometimes people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs. How do you get them calibrated? How do you create a culture so that if you say you’re going to do something, you’d better do it? I’ll have conversations where people say, “Well, the goal is. ...” I’ll say: “I don’t care about what the goal is. I want a commitment.” People know to never use the words, “My goal is ...” with me.
Q. But it’s pretty commonplace to set goals. And there is uncertainty, so it’s hard to guarantee outcomes, right?
A. The reason I don’t like talking about goals is because I am not going to tell the board or Wall Street, “My goal is earn 23 cents per share in profits.” I have to commit. The reason the shareholders invest in me is because they believe that I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do. If I have a sales executive who’s saying, “I think I can do this,” then I need data and we need to go through it because I need him to commit to something. Because I know that when he’s committed, he’s going to do everything he can to make that happen. It’s like a handshake. It’s an agreement that this is what we’re going to do.
Q. What else is important for you, in terms of culture?
A. There’s this issue of confrontation avoidance at many companies. But the best decisions are made when you really hash something out. You have to get people to engage. It’s something that I constantly have to work on with my staff. I’m a fairly opinionated guy, but the way I express that opinion is that until somebody else has a better idea, then we’re good. A lot of these confrontation-avoidance behaviors relate to people’s sense of self and ego. If you’ve got really good people, they’ll tend to be a little more in your face.
Q. Other things about culture?
A. As a C.E.O., my role in modeling what the behavior should look like is super-important. At one of my companies, ONI Systems, I hired a production team and did a monthly radio show for employees. We would make a CD for the employees, and I would talk about my thoughts on culture and discuss important business. I would interview customers and vendors.
Q. Other aspects of your leadership style?
A. One way that I model behavior is that I have a good nose for problems. I think it’s important that the C.E.O. understand the business at its very core. I cannot run a company where I don’t understand in my gut what’s going on or what’s important, whether it’s about manufacturing, R.& D., marketing or sales.
When I have my staff meeting, we’ll talk about stuff and if I smell smoke anywhere, we are going to get to the bottom of it. I’m not going to give up until I understand, in my mind, everything that’s going on with that issue. What I’m really doing is making sure that I’ve got my finger on the pulse of all the important aspects of the business, and I want people to see that having that breadth of understanding is important. When I’m interviewing people, breadth is one of the things I look for.
Q. What else do you look for when you hire?
A. I’m not interested in having a conversation about technical proficiency. Somebody else is doing that. I’m more interested in how you think, your sense of self. How driven are you? What do you do with adversity? I don’t want to know about the worst day of your life, but let’s talk about something where you really felt uncomfortable. I also want to talk about the people you’ve hired. That tells me, indirectly, about leadership, and it also tells me about judgment and what kind of team that person could build.
A version of this article appears in print on August 11, 2013, on page BU2 of the New York edition with the headline: Forget Goals. Let’s Talk About Commitments. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe