Tim Steele: Chief Operating Officer

Tim Steele is not a fiery manager, nor is he steely, he’s “ready.” I think of kung-fu fighters who pay little attention to the flare, but once called upon, they can kick-it where it needs to go. Tim is no fighter, but there’s no getting past him, the problem will be solved, now, if not sooner.

Tim Steele is not a fiery manager, nor is he steely, he’s “ready.” I think of kung-fu fighters who pay little attention to the flare, but once called upon, they can kick-it where it needs to go. Tim is no fighter, but there’s no getting past him, the problem will be solved, now, if not sooner.

Coming from the frenetic worlds of marketing, media and the creative arts, meeting and becoming familiar with Tim is a bit of a salve. It’s hard to do the right thing most of the time. When I’m near someone who appears to have that gist, who plays the notes clearly, who understates their position but you end up convinced by the natural truth of it all, I’m left flat impressed and seeking a good deep breath, a soft drink, and enough quiet time to count my lucky stars.

Wise Elephant (WE): In brief, how did you come to the position you have now?

Tim Steele (TS) : On the one hand, I’ve worked hard over the years and I like to believe a strong work ethic is the main reason I’m where I am in my career. But, to be completely honest, there’s always a measure of being in the right place at the right time and finding great bosses who have supported my career ambitions.

I arrived at the COO level by proving myself as a capable project manager, demonstrating the willingness to take on more responsibility, taking the initiative to learn new skills on my own time and often at my own expense, and by listening constantly reminding myself that my job is really to make sure that every team member under my supervision succeeds in their jobs.

WE: How much control have you had over your career vs. it taking you with it?

TS: While I believe there’s always the possibility of a surprise that’s out of your control, I have a strong sense of responsibility and control over my life and my career.

WE: Was being a COO an early goal, or was it “learned” as you advanced in your career?

TS: It was “learned” as I went along and gained more and more responsibility.

WE: If “feel/gut” is on the left and “intellect/reason” on the right, where in the scope of things (generally) could you put yourself when making your business decisions?

TS: Having completed a number of those types of measurements, I can safely say that I’m right in the middle. Most recently, I completed the Herrmann Brain Dominance Index (HBDI) and found that I’m almost exactly balanced between their four quadrants. While this seemed to surprise the appraiser a great deal, I think it’s almost the perfect profile for a Chief Operating Officer who’s responsible for a great deal of detail and process, but also tasked with grasping and bringing to life the vision of the CEO. The COO needs to be able to see every problem and opportunity from every angle, rally the troops when necessary, help teams of diverse employees work well together, and manage the enthusiasm and ego of driven entrepreneurs.

WE: Was there a job you turned down you wish you didn’t?

Nope. I have few regrets in my career. Are there jobs I could have taken that would have turned out well or differently? I’m sure there probably are. But I’m very happy with every major job pursuit I’ve undertaken.

My most recent job change (accepting the position I’m in now) meant a significant pay cut, an expensive move (largely at my own expense), and the expense and inconvenience of living apart from my partner with each of us traveling back and forth from coast to coast.

I had another job offer that I turned down that would have netted me about the same amount of money (or more) and would have been less stressful on me personally and on my relationship with my partner. But I wouldn’t have experienced all that I have in the last eight months by living in Manhattan and working in Brooklyn. I also have the satisfaction of really making a positive impact on a company that needed my skills and seeing that company moving back to financial health after a very trying period. And every new job provides additional experience and learning that may no longer be possible in a job that you’ve “mastered.”

WE: How much does your environment influence you and your work (your office,staff, available food)?

TS: It’s incredibly important (though I admit I wouldn’t have thought of food in that list). While I was recently whining about the crowds, weather physicality, and cost of living/working in New York I suddenly realized, “that’s MY LIFE” and if I’m not happy with it, I should give those things serious consideration.

Of the things you listed, I’m least worried about my office. I’ve worked in open spaces with no privacy or “prestige” and corner offices with the best views. It’s human nature to have some ego, but I believe it needs to be kept in check.

Staff? That one is incredibly important. These are the people I have to spend time with every day. I read several years ago (in Entrepreneur magazine I think) that every manager should go to work tomorrow morning and fire every person who doesn’t make them smile every day. Sure, that’s ridiculously over-simplified but the longer I work in my position, the more I believe there’s truth to that approach. People make me smile when they’re pleasant to be around, trustworthy, and competent. Take away any one of those and I smile less – and I believe there’s legitimate reason to wonder why I continue to employee them.

WE: How significantly has your career been influenced by the internet?

TS: Quite a lot – and I didn’t expect that to be true. In my last position, one of our biggest clients was Cisco Systems (I was in Silicon Valley prior to New York). One of our clients said, “if your services aren’t available to your end users via the internet, your company will be in serious jeopardy in the next five years.” We didn’t even have a company website at that point!

Being a boutique professional services consulting firm, we were all about high-touch personal one-on-one sort of work. I scoffed at the guy behind his back. But he was right on target – if anything, he was conservative. A few years later half of our work was being delivered online and we all had to educate ourselves about what that meant and how to do it.

WE: What else (if anything) do you want to be doing?

TS: I took all of 2006 off and loved every minute of it. I traveled, recorded music (I’ve played piano for years, but who knew I could play drums and violin and trumpet with the magic of the right software?), tended to the 42 palm trees in my California backyard, took classes, and spent more time with family and friends.

I’d like to be doing more of all those things in 2008 than I did in 2007. Settling into a new job and living a bi-coastal life has prevented me from doing as many of those things as I’d like while at the same time presenting me with other great opportunities.

The one thing that I’ve made as an absolute commitment for 2008 is living in the same state/city/house with my partner. We’ve both agreed that this is the highest priority for us next year – above careers or money or other interests.

From a career perspective, I’m doing what I want to do – I believe I’ve found my niche. I’m a great “second banana” for an entrepreneur who’s a visionary and sales engine. I can free up the owner of the company to pursue new ideas and new clients without worrying with the myriad of details that need attention “behind the scenes” in HR, Finance, Legal, IT, Facilities, etc.

WE: Is there a key lesson(s) for managers to learn in order to have their team succeed?

TS: Hire good people and listen to them. A good leader will set vision/goals, provide resources, and clear obstacles.

I also believe that every single employee comes with their own “price” that’s above and beyond their compensation plan. Whether it’s the need for praise, the desire for a weekly on-on-one with their supervisor, or the need to be left alone, everyone’s got something. The manager needs to figure out what that is for everyone (since it’s different for everyone) and then to determine if they’re willing and able to meet that “price” or if it’s too”expensive.”

WE: Does enthusiasm and ego = ambition?

TS: Hmmm. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Is that really how I see it? In our society we often attach value judgements to words. Enthusiasm seems to be good. Ego is often construed as a negative term (though “confidence” might be practically the same thing at times and that’s usually considered good). Ambition? Is that good or bad these days? Whether accurate or not, “ambition” sounds like the desire to “get ahead” (which I see as the need to look good) instead of the drive to succeed and accomplish things (which I’d say is motivated by the need to feel good). Pretty subtle difference perhaps, but important I think.

I might say that enthusiasm and ego = drive.

I think it’s thrilling to see someone with drive. But it needs to be directed (by them ideally, by their manager if not). Questions like, “how do you measure success” and “what’s your ideal job and how can I help you get there” can help a manager and employee determine whether or not the employee’s drive is directed and in line with the company’s direction.

WE: Is ambition acquired or inherent?

TS: I’ve had this conversation a number of times with successful people (and who coincidentally have usually been parents) – discussing whether or not we believed we could instill things like ambition in our children. I’ve never reached a solid conclusion.

From my perspective, I certainly had great role models – parents who believed and communicated that there was nothing one person couldn’t do (and do well) if they worked hard enough. So, did I “acquire” it from their example or did I “inherit” it in my DNA? Not sure.

Whether it’s nature or nurture, I believe it can be helped along or squelched by role models – whether or not their influence was intentional on their part. A careless word to a child who is role playing about being “silly” might be harmful to that child’s creativity. On the other hand, a manager who supports a person during failure might encourage beneficial risk taking that’s helpful to ambition.

WE: With so many personal hurdles what was it about your current job that made you take the leap? The experience? The challenge? (you touch on this briefly but I’d like to expand if we can).

TS:Several things intrigued me about the job.

1) It gave me a chance to “save the whales” and make money. Okay, so we do fundraising for the performing arts and that has nothing to do with whales actually. But in the past, I always worked for for-profit companies and, most recently, my job was really to help other for-profit companies make more money. I’m certainly a capitalist and see nothing wrong in making a profit. But it didn’t meet other needs I’ve got to contribute to society at large. So, I did volunteer work to strike that balance.

In this position, I can feel that I’m contributing to the arts AND make enough money to further my personal goals at the same time (though, admittedly, not as much as I could make in some other markets).

2) New York. I had just hired a recruiter before finding out about this job through my network of friends and associates. I’d told the recruiter that I wanted to stay in Northern California or move to Europe for the adventure. When I heard New York, I immediately said, “no thanks.” I obviously reconsidered (heck, New York is as “foreign” to me as Paris and I don’t have to learn French).

3) But most important to me – I felt that my experience and skills could really contribute to this company. Feeling I’m making a difference is a real driving force for me.

WE: It feels like, in this very competitive business market/culture that on a scale, with corruption and greed/money on the left and sacrifice and altruism on the right, it takes some corruption to bring in the big bucks. What advice can you give managers who fear they need to steer a bit towards corruption to keep pace?

TS: Are there greedy rich people? Of course there are. But I’d say there are greedy poor people too. And altruistic examples of each too.

Putting sacrifice/altruism on one side against corruption/greed makes sense to me – so that’s the question I’ll answer.

I believe that people often believe they can circumvent hard work with shortcuts to profit. But I’m old fashioned and believe that shortcuts almost always come back to haunt you. Despite this, I certainly look for ways to work smart instead of hard when possible. And, yes, I’m frequently tempted to do something unethical – c’mon, admit it, you are too. But temptation isn’t the same as doing of course.

So, why don’t I yield to the temptation? Well, there’s the answer I’d give to my employees to inspire, and I’ve often told this story. Before he was killed in a back-country skiing helicopter crash at the age of 62, Frank Wells was the President and COO of the Walt Disney Company. He once wrote in Disney’s annual report that he wanted to be remembered for his character and not his accomplishments. And yes, I admit I’ve paused to think about that during a moment of temptation and realized that I wasn’t willing to risk my reputation for the specific concern at hand. So, yes, I’m sincere when I say I want the same thing that Frank Wells wanted.

But if I’m 100% honest, I guess I’d say that the real thing that keeps me on the straight and narrow is that I believe it works better for the long term than all the other options. During their heyday, executives at Enron would certainly have disagreed. But they might be inclined to agree now. Of course the cynic in me suspects that they’re sitting in their various prison cells right now (the very few who actually went to prison vs. the many who should have) and they’re simply thinking of how to cheat the system (and their employees) better next time so they won’t get caught. So, can I say that I stay honest for good reasons? Or could you argue that I’m actually motivated by greed?

And I’d respond, “does it matter?”

WE: Do you feel/think that your business culture is leaning towards a holistic approach, where the outside life is an important balance?

TS: Yes, I do believe that. I believe it probably always has. And, while this won’t make me popular with my co-workers, I believe perhaps a little too much. I’m surrounded by artists of various sorts. Some of them took jobs with us for flexibility – so they could go on auditions and such. And I want to support that.

But, just as I fought against a culture of 80+ hour work weeks in Silicon Valley, I think it’s my obligation to fight against 35 hour work weeks here. I don’t have any problem with people working “flexible” hours – but that seems to evolved into “fewer” hours for many here right now. I want to be careful not to appear that I’m measuring productivity strictly by hours worked. But I think it’s a valid measure sometimes and I don’t always feel like the company gets its money’s worth.

I don’t believe people need to work their minimum 40 hours all at the office

– I’ve been pushing for us to consider not only flexible work hours but flexible work places – and I believe that can go a long way toward providing work/life balance.

WE: Internet, good or bad?

TS: Well, I’m not sure that a medium qualifies for that sort of question in general. The IMPACT of the medium can be judged so, I’m going to answer that question instead.

This is an age-old question. People have complained for years about the quality of television programming. Some complain there’s too much violence or sex. There is some evidence that television has a played a role in childhood obesity. And I think there’s no denying that Paris Hilton and her peers owe a lot of their “fame” to television (though certainly to the internet and the National Enquirer too).

On the other hand, television showed the first steps on the moon, the ugly truth about war, the resignation of a disgraced American president, Germans tearing down the wall that had separated them from their friends and family for decades, and numerous other significant moments in world history.

I think we could create a similar list of pros and cons and attempt to determine the overall impact of the internet on the world.

Shopping is easier. Credit card fraud has grown. Information is more readily available to all of us. Including lots of inaccurate information that people believe (and porn that 13 year olds would have had to work harder to get in the past)

The list goes on and on and on.

Chainsaws can be used to cut people out of the rubble of a fallen building or can be used to destroy old-growth forests or, according to a certain genre of movies, provide the gruesome end of life for unsuspecting camp counselors.

The variety of uses for every tool are limited only by the creativity of people. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that.



Tim Steele is COO of DCM