“You Can’t Be a Rebel If You Don’t Have Something to Prove”

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.

Fast Company Turns 150!

Well, not really. But the November 2010 issue of Fast Company represents the 150th issue in the history of the magazine. Wow, do I feel old. To commemorate the milestone, the staff has compiled some of the best articles from the old days. Happy 150th, Fast Company!

Why Is It So Hard to Be Kind?

My latest post for Harvard Business Review is a little different. It’s a story of my plan to get my Dad a special gift for his 75th birthday, his disappointing experience with a Cadillac dealer, a surprising gesture from a Buick dealer, and what it means for business and success. One of those little stories that offers some pretty big lessons. You can read it here.

The World’s Most Radical Banker

One of the great things about what I do is that I get to meet and learn from innovators who operate so far out on the edge, who think so differently from everyone else in their field, that they are truly one-of-a-kind characters—radicals in the best sense of the word.

Exhibit A is Vernon Hill, the founder and longtime CEO of Commerce Bank, who Polly LaBarre and I wrote about in Mavericks at Work. At Commerce, Vernon and his colleagues reimagined what the experience of retail banking could be like, and they built a booming bank that sold for $8.5 billion in the process. Now he’s bringing his radical ideas to a new market—London. According to this fabulous profile in Fortune, Vernon’s MetroBank—the first new bank licensed in the UK in the last 138 years!—is shaking up the British market just like Commerce did in the US.

The piece is worth a careful read. It confirms one of the core arguments in Practically Radical: You can’t do big things if you’re content with doing things just a little better than everyone else. The game is not to out-compete your rivals. It is to unleash one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too thinking. Go, Vernon!