Tom Warsop – President and CEO, The Warranty Group, on ‘Competence and Compassion’.

‘I believe having a talented team that’s passionate about products, services and clients will lead to great opportunities for growth. An approach I’ve taken throughout my career, and the key to a successful career, is to establish trust. I think about trust as a grid, with Compassion along the one axis and Competence along the other axis.’ Tom Warsop, President and CEO, The Warranty Group.

Last month I attended one of the programs in the HRMAC leadership series: Perspectives from the New CEO – Setting the Course. Tom was one of the speakers. His personal focus on this grid of competence and compassion resonated heavily with me, especially in light of recent reading I have been doing in which it’s generally recognized that for men competence is assumed, and that when they display compassion in addition to competence they are commended for it, it’s seen as a bonus and them going above and beyond. On the other hand, a common obstacle for female leaders is that they often lack the presumption of competence according to their male peers, whereas the compassion trait is expected in women.

I asked Tom if he would sit down with me for a one-on-one interview for my blog on this topic of competence-compassion. I was delighted when he readily agreed. By the way, for those of you for whom ‘The Warranty Group’ name rings a bell, but you can’t quite place it. In Tom’s words: ‘The coolest company you’ve never heard of. We protect the stuff you buy.’ That warranty you purchased on that new refrigerator you bought last month – could well be one of their warranty products!

Tom Warsop grid

Tom: ‘You connected with the matrix which I talked about which is a really simple thing, but when I am defining competence and compassion it is all about perception. It doesn’t have anything to do with facts. It’s what do people believe. If you’re a new leader coming into a job what do they believe? In terms of compassion it’s about do the people believe that you as a leader care about them and their wellbeing. That’s it. Now how that manifests itself is going to be different and that’s not something that I have ever tried to measure. But you have to create an environment that people believe that you care about them as individuals. That you care about their wellbeing and their careers.

That doesn’t mean that you have to say ‘I want to help you succeed in this company no matter what’. Some people will make that mistake. When I came in, I mentioned the other day that between when I arrived and one hundred twenty days later there were a lot of people that had left the company. The key thing for me was to actually not hide from that, not try to do it quietly, but to do it in a respectful way. So you say ‘There isn’t a place for you, but I am going to help you as much as I can. I am going to give you outplacement services. I am going to treat you very fairly with respect to severance. If you are owed a bonus you are going to get paid a bonus. We’re not going to try to mess around with you. We’re going to treat you even a little extra fairly.’ I want people to understand that.

That actually helped on both axes with me. On the one hand I came in and said these people who it just wasn’t a good fit for needed to go. Yet no-one had the guts to make a change. Yet going ahead and making that change people said ‘Oh, he’s actually not as dumb as he looks. It was a problem and he dealt with it.’ Then because people were being treated fairly as they were walking out the door they actually felt good about it. They may not agree with it but they get it and they feel people were treated fairly and that helps on the compassion side. So the one thing that people thing would actually hurt you, if you do it right on the compassion side it can actually help you. So it’s back to the perception. People actually had no idea what the conversation would be with the people that were leaving – it was personal. It is almost like marketing activity so that people can understand as much as they can without violating personal confidences about the way those decisions were taken and that reinforced it. So compassion here is the perception that you care, you are rational, you are passionate about the job you have taken, and that really comes down to communication. You know the old saying you have to give a message seven times before people understand it. I am a firm believer in that. In fact I think seven is too low a number.

You come in as a new leader and you have to pick a small number of things. I think that human beings cannot really focus on more than three things at any one time and maybe three is a stretch. When I set objectives for the company or myself within a box of time, it is three things, or two things, not ten things. And those three things I try to say here is what we are going to do, and here is what I am going to do as part of that. When I start a new job I set those three things and then I feel it is critical to manage the timeframe so that people see results right away. That’s how you develop a perception of competence. I try to give people enough visibility into specifically what I am doing so they can judge maybe he is going to be ok and those are smart things to do.

You have to get feedback by the way. It has to be a collaborative discussion. I have seen people walk in and say here is what I am going to do. Even if that person is the smartest person in the world it may not generate a perception of competence because people view that person as being a know-it-all. You need to listen and then act and then demonstrate that you have good results. That will generate a perception that you know what you are doing. And then at the same time you have to communicate what you are going to do to ensure that people are treated fairly and that they will have good opportunity to develop their skills and their career.’

Daniella: Great leaders are also known for being great visionaries, for being willing to take smart risks, and also for being willing to fail and to leverage failure as a learning strategy. How do you see those characteristics tying in to your competence-compassion grid?

Tom:In my case the first day on the job I said ‘I have the clear intention of making this one of the best companies to work for in the world’. And that’s a big statement, especially for this company. It took people by surprise that anyone in the senior leadership team would talk about people and this being a great place to work as a key commitment for the whole company. On the compassion side it’s also about revealing that you are someone vulnerable and that you don’t know everything. It is very hard to generate compassion if you stand up there and you say ‘I know everything’. That’s a bad strategy for generating any trust.

When I think about the competence I think it’s far more revealing and generates a lot more confidence when you tell someone how you really messed up. When I interview someone for a job there are two questions I ask people every time. The first question is ‘Tell me the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in any job you’ve ever had, how did you fix it or deal with it and what did you learn from it?’ It’s absolutely astonishing. While it’s not explicitly in the grid, part of what I am getting to with that question is can I trust this person, do I think there is a basis for trust?

That question is critical to me because probably more than two-thirds of the time people are so taken aback they either never answer it or they make something up about managing a group of people and they tell how someone else messed something up, it’s never about them! So then I tell them that wasn’t what I was getting at. I am looking for something they messed up. I give them an example of my own. Still most people can’t think of anything. Really? That’s a lie if you can’t think of anything, and I can’t trust a person like that. Probably a third of the time people really latch onto the question and they think deeply and they say ‘You know what, let me tell you a story’. That’s when you know you’ve really got them. You can just feel the experience is coming back and it is coming out of their skin.

If you are going to do anything quickly you are going to make mistakes. The faster we do it the more time we have to fix it if we mess something up. That seems counter-intuitive but it’s right. Be a duck! Ducks look so serene on the surface of the water but meanwhile underneath they are paddling frantically!’

Daniella: What’s your advice to women leaders as they navigate through this compassion-competency grid?

Tom: ‘I went to the Paul Simon and Sting concert and a few things hit me from that concert. I think the first one is related to this question. Sting (Gordon Sumner) has a song ‘An Englishman in New York’. There is a line in there, it’s repeated over and over again: ‘Be yourself no matter what they say.’ To me that is key to the whole question.

If you walk in to a new situation and you try to be someone that you are not, that inside yourself you are not, it’s not going to work. So you have to find a way to work within the structure. I passionately believe that somehow compassion and competency are the two ingredients of trust. But if you don’t know anything about the business you are going to, don’t try and convince people you are a genius at their business, because you’re not. Pick what it is you know you are good at and focus on that. Find ways to demonstrate that thing that you are great at and the applicability of it. Figure out first for you how does your expertise apply and what value are you going to add to this job and this organization. Then just go do it. Don’t try to figure out and dissect it unto you are absolutely certain you can demonstrate it. Just do it. It’s what you are great at. You should be able to do it in your sleep.

OK yes it’s a slightly different environment, the data looks different, the forms look different, the people you don’t know. But you’ve gotten where you are because there is something you are really good at, so just do that and don’t worry. And don’t be afraid to ask questions to someone that has really lived and breathed the business. I don’t believe there are any dumb questions. So let it go. Ask your questions, do your own thing, and don’t worry about what they say because it’s about you and displaying the value that you add. That’s on the competency side.

Then on the compassion side same thing really. If you care about the people, tell them, if you are scared, tell them. If you don’t know something, be clear about it. When I arrived here first thing that I did, I had just been through a 360 degree assessment at my prior company. I pulled it out, sat down with the twenty-five key leaders here and went through it with them. I said ‘Here are things people say I am really good at and here are the things people say I am lousy at’. By the way I am not very sensitive. I am very clinical. When there is a decision to be made I make it, and I don’t always think through what the short-term impact is going to be on the people impacted by it. Long term I do. But I recognize that. So what I need to do is have someone stand next to me who can help me figure out that side of it.

Don’t be afraid to show you are vulnerable. But also be very proactive to show what you care about and that you are going to do something about it. Be true to yourself and what you believe in and give it everything you have. Ice hockey is a very interesting sport because you play in very short bursts, it’s so intense, and when you need to come off you come off because that’s the best thing for the team. I used to have an ice-hockey coach who would say ‘When you come off the ice I want you to have left everything you have on the ice. I want you to be absolutely exhausted.’ This is kind of the same thing. When you are starting a new job and you’re trying to make your mark on your team just give it everything you’ve hot on both of those axes and you are going to get to where you need to go, or you are going to find out pretty quickly you’re in the wrong place.’

Daniella: What’s the most powerful example you have seen of a woman hitting the sweet spot on the competency-compassion grid?

Tom: ‘I worked with a woman who is the General Counsel of a Public company. She had been a partner at a law firm and she was coming to an industry she didn’t have any experience in, and to a fairly large public company. So she didn’t have specific experience of the structure or mode of operations. She was also coming into a very disproportionately male leadership team. She was the only woman on the Executive Committee of this company; actually there might have been one other. So of the top twenty-five people in a 25,000 person company – only two women.

What she did was like we were talking about before. She knew that she didn’t know anything about the business and the service being delivered. But what she did understand was how to manage litigation. She was an expert on enterprise risk management. When she had done her research on the company she had realized that was a weakness of this company. So at her first meeting of the Executive Committee she said ‘I am really happy to be here but I have to tell you something. You have forgotten more about this business than I may ever know. But I know more about these three things that are really important to your business and becoming more important. I can really help you so here is what I want. I need to learn from you about the business. And I am ready to teach and coach and help all the rest of you about these things I am really good at.’

Then she walked through some case studies where she had tackled some specific issues this company had and she said ‘Let me compare it back to a situation I have experienced somewhere else, and this is how it went. That may not be the solution for this company, but I think there is a close parallel.’ So she was giving us visibility into how she thinks and she was giving specific examples of how things worked where she had been a driver of that success.

She also said (and by the way this was all within five minutes), ‘I am vulnerable, I don’t know much about your business, I accept that, and I need your help’. So what you got instantly was ‘I can really identify with this person because she is being very honest with me’. And by doing the case studies I understood the problems we had to deal with and my impression immediately was that she could help us with these things. So she had moved on the competency-compassion scale for me all the way to the upper right hand corner right away.

Then she followed up that meeting by coming and sitting down and asked about my family, my experience there, how it went for me coming in to the company. In doing this she tried to establish a less formal business relationship with each committee member. It set things in place almost immediately that I wanted to help her, and I wanted her to help me. She remains to this day one of those people that if I have tough problem and it has anything to do with legal issues I will call her.’

  • Matt Jones

    A great and inspirational interview not just for women leaders but for all leaders and any future leaders.