Published on: July 9, 2013
Content Guy's Note: "The MNB Interview" is designed to engage with business thought leaders who I like and respect, and who have something to say. It will run each workday from July 1-12, while I am on holiday, and has a simple format. I posed to each of the interviewees the same 13 questions and requested that they answer at least 10 of them; I told them that their answers could be as short or long as they wished, and as serious or irreverent as they liked. What I was looking for was a window into how they think and feel.
Today's MNB Interview features Gary Cohen, CEO, Timex Group.
Unlike every other subject of this MNB Interview series, I've never actually met Gary Cohen. In fact, we've only talked once - when he called to respond to a piece about customer service piece that I wrote after a somewhat disappointing experience dealing with Timex's online interface. He wasn't complaining about how I'd treated the company; rather, he just wanted me to know that he was aware of Timex's shortcomings, was working hard to fix them, and that he was going to use my piece to light a fire under the troops. I came away from our conversation with a sense that while Timex may have some legacy issues to deal with, Gary Cohen seems like the right guy to lead the company forward. Which is why, when I conceived the MNB Interview concept, I asked him if he'd join in.
The MNB Interview...
What's the most important thing you've learned in your career?
Gary Cohen: As a leader you’re always selling. Selling your brand, selling your ideas, selling yourself, and selling your team. You need to convince people to embrace your programs and ideas and must never take for granted that people are on-board or aligned with your POV. Counter-balancing this, though, is the need to simultaneously listen – to take in and process information, understand where others are coming from and what’s important to them. In larger organizations or even in a Board context, you need to also manage the art of “Pre-selling.” Identifying potential concerns or obstacles early on and bring people along –one-on-one, if necessary – is important. Never put people on the spot, if you can avoid it.
What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?
Gary Cohen: Years ago, I learned that not treating an issue or an opportunity with a sense of urgency can come back to haunt you. Standard operating procedure for me now is to immediately assess a potentially problematic issue, obtain alignment from the experts on my team, make a decision, and then put that decision into action. Not deciding is always a choice as long as all options have been evaluated but avoidance is never a solution – for anything.
What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?
Gary Cohen: That’s easy. Every Sunday evening, I take two or three hours and plan my week. I map out exactly what I need to do for the next day, the next week and the next month and prioritize my to-do list and my calendar. I then schedule my priorities. Otherwise they’ll never get done. This road map helps me focus and it’s something I’ve always done. I’m a big list maker.
What is the most irreplaceable or essential piece of technology you own, and why?
Gary Cohen: No surprise here. It’s my Blackberry. I love the old-fashioned QWERTY keyboard. I’m one of those managers who loves information AND, I prefer to get it “real-time,” and the BB keyboard lets me get back to people quickly and clearly. It still is the fastest way for me to keep in touch. I do rely on my iPad to keep me in touch with social media and news but my Blackberry is still my trusted friend. The second most essential piece of technology is my TIMEX IRONMAN watch – which I’ve been wearing for years before I joined TIMEX.
What is your favorite movie (and is there a business lesson in it)?
Gary Cohen: The Shawshank Redemption. I especially love Red’s quote: “…get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”
Content Guy's Note: Extra credit to Gary on this one, since his favorite movie is one of the films featured in the book that Michael Sansolo and I wrote. The scene he refers to is indeed a powerful one, because it speaks simultaneously to the power of hope and the sometimes debilitating impact of despair. You can watch it here.
Kirk or Picard? And why do you prefer one's management/leadership style over the other's?
Gary Cohen: Picard. He’s a consensus guy like me.
Who has been the most influential person in your business life, and why?
Gary Cohen: I can’t pick just one. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some great people and I‘ve learned from them all. Three of them have had a huge influence on me:
The Gillette Company’s Jim Kilts taught me valuable lessons about organizational structure, strategy, vision, and he introduced me to the “circle of doom” which helped galvanize a company turnaround that I was involved in. Although, I ultimately found a different application of this concept and turned his message from a negative driver to a positive one. I call it the “virtuous circle of brand building” – reduce costs to invest in consumer growth drivers and invest in margin-accretive new products to keep the cycle going.
Playtex’s Neil DeFeo showed me the value that pure enthusiasm can bring to any part of your life. He’s a real motivator. He could speak to anyone – at any level in the company -- and was just as comfortable in the Board room as he was on the assembly line. I loved when he took out his trombone and played at town halls and sales meetings.
A. G. Lafley from P&G convinced me – and so many others – that the “consumer is boss”
All three were great about setting strategy and reinforcing the need to make choices.
Keenest insight (so far) from your life and/or career?
Gary Cohen: I am a big believer in a collaborative leadership approach. Listening, gathering information pre-selling, gaining alignment and ensuring buy-in are critical. I learned the effectiveness of this approach from having worked in global companies with colleagues and business partners from different countries and cultures. Collaboration and consensus building can sometimes slow down the decision making process, however. So the biggest challenge I face as a leader is knowing when to go forward without the benefit of consensus because the situation requires an immediate decision -- realizing that it may not be the most popular one.
When it comes to food, what is your greatest pleasure and your greatest weakness?
Gary Cohen: I’m a healthy eater – I feel better and can exercise better when I eat well. I do have a weakness for chocolate, though. But, now I only eat really dark chocolate – which I’m told is a “healthier” chocolate.
Most memorable meal? Where & what & why?
Gary Cohen: Swordfish, grape and onions ka-bobs marinated in citrus that I ate in Santorini Greece, overlooking the Mediterranean. Of course, this meal was on my honeymoon so I may be biased about the memory but I swear it was the best meal I ever had. To this day, my wife and I rave about that meal and we often try to recreate it at home.
Favorite place to go to eat/drink, not your home?
Gary Cohen: Because I travel so much, I get exposed to some of the best restaurants in the world and I get to share those meals with fantastic colleagues and business partners. But, really, my favorite is having a BBQ in my backyard on a nice summer day with my wife and daughters. I really cherish my time with them. My second favorite place is at a concession stand at any Boston sporting event at Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, or the Boston Garden.
What is the thing that you haven't yet done that you would most like to do?
Gary Cohen: My bucket list is long and even though I travel a great deal for work, there are many places that I’d love to visit. I’d like to spend more time in Southeast Asia; I’ve never been to Alaska and an African Safari is definitely on my “must-do” list.
If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?
Gary Cohen: Beyond setting a vision, getting buy-in from the team and motivating them, I believe it’s of critical importance that you surround yourself with the brightest talent – the best players. You’re only as good as the team that supports you.
Wednesday: Laurie Demeritt, CEO, The Hartman Group.
- KC's View: