Arkadi Kuhlmann, CEO of ING Direct USA, is one of my favorite business leaders and innovators. Polly LaBarre and I wrote about him extensively in Mavericks at Work, and I’ve stayed in touch with him in the years since. He is the face of business at its best: pro-customer, anti-establishment, willing (even eager) try try new ideas and shake things up.
So it was with great delight that I read this interview with Arkadi in Sunday’s New York Times. This being election season, the Times was fascinated by the fact that, ten years into his tenure at ING Direct, he is putting his leadership up to a secret-ballot vote by his employees. It’s not just yeah or nay on Arkadi. The bigger question, he says, is “Do you have faith in the mission? Do you have faith in the company? Do you have faith in me?”
But the rest of the interview, which I urge all of you to read in its entirety, was even more fascinating than this election idea. The Times asked Arkadi about his philosophy of leadership. “It’s never about you,” he said.” It’s always about the mission. And people will follow you if you’re prepared to get a mission done, something with a goal that is a little beyond the reach of all of us. That’s what leadership is about.”
What does he look for in people who join him on the mission? “The first thing I [ask them] is, ‘Tell me about all your setbacks. Hve you been fired, divorced, or does your dad not think you add up to much?’…You can’t be a rebel if you don’t have something to prove. You can’t be an outlier unless you want to actually turn the tables upside down. And you’ve got to mean it.”
I know Arkadi. He means it. And he’s got my vote! I urge you to read the interview.