Librado Romero/The New York Times
Cathy Choi is president of Bulbrite, a lighting maker and supply company in Moonachie, N.J. After accepting her father’s offer to join it, she says, she “made a concerted effort to make the company the leader, not me or my dad.”
Every Sunday, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing. In his new book, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders.
Q. From reading your bio, it seems that you’ve had an interesting career path.
A. I started as a math major at Cornell. In my sophomore year, I came across an English and theater class. I fell in love with it, so I switched my major to theater. Then I got my M.B.A. from N.Y.U. and went to work for a big accounting firm.
But I then had an opportunity to work for a Hollywood producer. He told me I would start as his assistant. “In Hollywood, the more degrees you have, the lower you start,” he told me. I did everything — picking up his dry cleaning, getting his Starbucks, taking his calls and reading scripts. I learned how to run a small business.
But as my producer’s financing was ending, we were coming up on the 30th anniversary of the company that my father started. “I have to make plans,” my father said, “to either sell or, if you’re going to come in, then I would pass the reins to you.”
Q. Was that a tough decision for you?
A. It was. You always wonder: “What is it going to be like working with my dad?” There were 15 employees, and my father had built up a really strong core team. But would they accept me? What would my role be? I have two parents and an uncle there. The hardest thing was walking into a set culture and trying to adapt to that culture, while still making an impression.
Q. What has your father taught you about leadership?
A. How to exercise patience. When you’re young, you’re ready to change the whole world. I would walk down the hallway, excited about something, and say to him: “I have a great idea. We’re doing this.”
Before I even got to the next word, he’d say: “Take a deep breath. O.K. Now we’re going to talk.”
And just by having that moment, it resets you, in good times and bad.
Q. So what did you do when you took over?
A. One of the first things I did when I became president was to build an intentional culture. We were small, and the allegiance was to my dad. But when we were transitioning over, I made a concerted effort to make the company the leader, not me or my dad. We brought in an outside consultant to do a workshop for the whole company to talk about our value system.
Q. How did that work?
A. It started with the idea that values really are personal. We asked the question, “What is it that you love to do when you’re not working?” If somebody said “cooking,” then we asked why. Maybe they liked the creativity of it, or the excellent result. We put all the different values on the whiteboard and started to see patterns.
Integrity was important to a lot of people. Team spirit was, too — they really like being committed to each other and investing in other people. So we got 10 words or values out of that exercise, then tried to whittle them down. We narrowed it down to an acronym — – “BE BRITE.” Each letter stands for the value that’s important to us. When we hire people, we look for people who are aligned with that value system. People who didn’t align with us ended up not being able to stay.
Q. What does BE BRITE stand for?
A. The “B” is for Bulbrite. The “E” is for excellence in everything we do. The second “B” is a better way of doing things — or be innovative. The “R” is for relationship-building, and the “I” is for integrity. The “T” is for team spirit. And the “E” is about educating yourself and others. I look for people who want to learn and grow.
Then we came up with a list of accepted behaviors that support the value system, written by each team member.
It’s really interesting. The culture thing takes on a life of its own when it starts from the ground up, as opposed to the leadership team going to an off-site retreat and returning with a credo that says, “This is what we’re doing now.”
The consultant also told me to bring a ball to the workshop. I dug one out of my toy chest from home. He made us all sign the ball, and we each had to pass the ball around and say one thing that we took away from the experience, and how this would change how we work. This ball became our “B-Ball” that signified our values-based culture.
Q. Any subtleties you’ve learned about dealing with your employees, either as a group or one-on-one?
A. I have a coach and we have a two-hour, one-on-one meeting each month. As I’m learning this skill of coaching, I’m passing that on to my direct reports, so once a month I meet with my direct reports for one-on-one sessions. But they’re not allowed to bring paper. They’re not allowed to talk about any projects they’re working on. It’s about their development, and where they want to go, and how I can help. It can be specific. It can be personal. It’s the one hour when there’s no agenda. It’s their time just to talk about what they want to accomplish. And it evolves into many different things.
Q. What are some other things you do in terms of culture?
A. We do a light-bulb decorating contest every Christmas. People pair off in teams of two, and they get half an hour to decorate them, and we hang them up on the tree. We give out awards, like “Most Likely to Be Recycled,” which basically means the ugliest. It’s become very competitive.
Another thing we do, once a month, is to recognize a person for being the most value-driven. They’re nominated by the employees. At the end of the month, we look at all the nominations. The person who wins gets the B-Ball and keeps it on their desk.
At the end of the year, out of all the 12 winners, we vote on the recipient of the year. Everybody writes something about why they think the person deserves it. At the holiday party, they have to stand there and listen to all the things that were said about them by their colleagues.
You can’t force people to say things about other people. That just comes from them living the values.