Pete Robinson is president and CEO of the United States Council for International Business.
Describe your leadership philosophy.
Effective leadership consists of empowering and supporting those you are leading. Leaders need to be able to put top-notch teams in place who can, with some overall guidance, go out and get the job done. Earlier in my career I was sometimes accused of micromanaging. As CEO, however, I can’t afford to do so. I need to develop (with the help of the team) and articulate a vision. I then depend on people who can take initiative in a collaborative way, spreading that leadership philosophy throughout the organization.
Tell us about the first time you were someone’s boss.
My first major career change came in my early 30s, I left an executive position in which I directly supervised just one and a half people to join a company where I supervised three division heads (each with multiple staff) and several field staff—around 25 people in all. Even though a former boss had provided a reference saying I was known for getting people who didn’t even report to me to get what I needed done, this new position was still a bit intimidating. Each of the directors who reported to me were experts who knew a heck of a lot more about their business than I did. I realized then that as a boss I needed to be a cheerleader of an empowered team that was working together on a common vision.
When you’re looking to hire, how do you decide if someone is right for your team?
Aside from the basic qualifications of education, experience, knowledge of the subject, it really comes down to how I feel a candidate is going to function as a proactive member of a team. Do they show professional creativity and self-confidence, but also a certain humility in interpersonal relationships and ability to work with others? I have come to appreciate that an effective team needs a good balance of people and perspectives. An organization will fail if its management team consists of people with the same personality type. I really value a vigorous debate and discussion of issues that, once concluded, allows me to feel that the team has responsibly considered the options and can now move forward, with buy-in and unity of purpose. It’s also the best way to respond to those periodic crises that come your way.
What is the biggest challenge your industry is facing this year?
Multinationals were hit hard by the 2008-2009 recession, and with the recent setbacks in the economy and financial markets, we’re not out of the woods yet. The biggest challenge is getting our government and foreign governments on the same page, to right the ship and get back to fostering economic growth and job creation. We need to work together to avoid turning inward, keeping markets open for trade and investment in an increasingly interdependent world. We are not going to be able to get there without some short-term sacrifices. But we all need to recognize the importance of longer-term goals if we’re going to pass along a better world to our children. Both business and government need to keep their eyes on that longer-term prize.
What is the biggest challenge your association is facing?
With more restricted financial and human resources throughout industry these days, our challenge is to continue giving our member companies the confidence that their investment in our association is indeed providing added value to them, and that their continued membership is important. This involves staying focused on the key issues for which our members expect strong performance, and ensuring that the results of our work are communicated in an effective manner. Our main mission is to promote and maintain open markets and to ensure that the voice of American business is conveyed to governments and policy-makers around the world.
Looking outside of Washington, whose work do you admire most?
I admire the approach of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in being able to bridge political divides, to tell it like it is, and to take a longer-term view, which is quite unusual in a politician. I respect the careful balancing act that heads of intergovernmental organizations, like UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, have to employ to achieve consensus among different nations, cultures and interest groups to address our common global challenges.
If a recent college graduate came to you and said they one day wanted your job, what advice would you give them?
I’d have to be honest with them: I did not get where I am solely through my own planning. You certainly need to have broad goals in life. But being in the right place at the right time, talking to and working with the right people, are essential ingredients in career advancement. That being said, the challenge is to engage and follow up with people, in order to put yourself in the right position for positive connections. It’s also important to get some operational management experience, and better yet some experience in crisis management. In the latter area, I learned some lessons early in my career that gave me more confidence in taking on new challenges. More recently, my experience dealing with adversity, along with essential contributions from my team, helped to bring our organization through the financial crisis with a positive can-do attitude, no matter what was thrown at us.