The key to creating a common vision

Brian T. Shea is chief executive of Pershing LLC, which, with $910 billion in assets under custody, is the biggest brokerage and clearing firm that most investors have never heard of. Owned by The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Pershing employs more than 7,000 and provides services to more than 1,500 financial organizations and 100,000 investment professionals.

Mr. Shea, who joined the firm as a management trainee when he was fresh out of college nearly 30 years ago, assumed his current responsibilities in 2010. He also serves on the board of directors for the Insured Retirement Institute.

This interview was conducted Sept. 19.

FG: How do you define leadership?

BS: Leadership is about creating an environment where people can be successful and where you can get people to work together. The most important thing a leader has to do is create a shared vision, or mission, for the team.

FG: How would you describe your own leadership style?

BS: There are some leaders who are truly visionary, and I am probably not one of those guys. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to have the vision yourself if you have a strong group of people around you, and a sense for the clients and the market. It’s really more about getting the team to have a shared vision or a shared mission and a sense of purpose. Then it’s about creating an environment where they can actually be in a position to succeed.

FG: But how do you get 7,000 people to have a shared vision?

BS: We really communicate a lot. We have a variety of ways that we communicate. For example, we have an annual strategic planning meeting with the senior management group. We also have an annual leadership meeting with every officer in the firm, and we literally cascade that information out to every senior person in the firm. Then what we do is videotape it and put it on the desktop of every associate.

FG: Would your colleagues describe you as a hands-on manager?

BS: Over time, I’ve been a pretty hands-on guy. I think people would say I am “stractical” — meaning I have a clear view of the strategy, the market and of what’s changing out there. But we tend to look at leaders who have a pretty good handle on details, because we do measure a lot of things.

FG: What is one quality you look for in a member of your senior management team?

BS: The ability to be both strategic and tactical, and the ability to move pretty smoothly from eye-level strategy to also being able to managing complex projects and initiatives, and assuring that they stay on track.

FG: How has your leadership style evolved over the years?

BS: I’d like to think I’m a little more mature and wiser than I was 10 or 15 years ago. You evolve. Every person has natural strengths and weaknesses. I try to be mindful of what my opportunities for development are.

FG: Tell me about one of your “opportunities for development.”

BS: I’m a pretty type-A personality and I am highly engaged. I tend to ask questions. I have to repress that and allow people to tell their story and get their message across. I think I’ve gotten much better at that as time has gone on. I try to give people more of a comfort zone before I start the interrogation process. It’s important that people don’t feel like they are being interrogated.

FG: How else has your leadership style evolved?

BS: I think I’ve become better at focusing on developing the organization and the team, as opposed to what I can contribute individually. I’ve had a number of roles here, and I’ve tried to learn from every person I worked for.

FG: Tell me about someone who influenced your views on leadership.

BS: The No. 1 person was my father. He was an executive in the insurance industry. My father didn’t care whether his children grew up to be landscapers, policemen, firemen, lawyers or doctors. To him, those were all good professions. He used to say: “It doesn’t matter what you do, but do it like you mean it … do it with passion.” I try to do that every day.

FG: Anything else?

BS: He also instilled a really strong work ethic in all of his children. He used to say: “Look, life has all kinds of twists and turns, and businesses have cycles and you can’t always control the outcome. But you can control the effort and your attitude. So if you maximize your effort and do your best, the outcome will take care of itself.”

FG: Let’s talk about how you like to run a meeting.

BS: I grew up in a family of five children. In fact, my mother had us in five years and two months. So I grew up in the fray, and I am comfortable in the fray to this day. Our kitchen table was more like the “O’Reilly Factor.” There was debate all the time. So I am really comfortable in an environment where people are open and engaged. I find that the more senior you get in an organization, the less likely people are willing to challenge or debate with you. So, it really becomes important that you surround yourself with people who will share their opinion no matter what — even if they know you won’t like it.

FG: Do you have any specific ground rules for running a meeting?

BS: More and more, I try to keep meetings to a half an hour. I just don’t have as much time as I used to. Also, I am not drilling down into the specifics. I am focusing much more on the process that will happen to assure that we achieve the objective.

FG: Tell me about your hiring process.

BS: We have a culture here where every senior executive that we hire is interviewed by me or Ronald DeCicco, our chief operating officer. So by the time I get to them they are pretty well vetted.

FG: So what do you look for in those interviews?

BS: I tend to look for career success or failure, and how they define that. I also try to get a sense for work ethic and commitment level. I also try to get a sense for teamwork.

FG: Can you really assess a person’s propensity for teamwork in a 60-minute interview?

BS: I think you can feel it. You can ask them about successes that they’ve had and what drove it. The more “I’s” I get in an interview, as opposed to “we’s,” is a tell-tale signal. I like “we’s.”

FG: What is a real turnoff for you in a job candidate?

BS: Constant job hopping.

FG: Is there a question you ask of every job candidate?

BS: I ask them why they want to work here. I think that is an important thing. “I need a job” is probably not the right answer.

FG: Tell me about a time when you faced real adversity?

BS: I’ve been pretty lucky. That said, the business has challenges all the time. I’ve was here through the 1987 stock market crash; I was here when the technology bubble burst in 2000 and I was here during the invasion of Kuwait, which created a big blip in the market. I was also here through 9/11 and through this most recent market and financial crisis, which is the biggest single period of market turmoil and regulatory change since the 1930s. Each of those challenges had their own different set of implications. Fundamentally, I try to stay focused on what I can control. That’s really important, particularly now.

FG: Why now?

BS: We’re three years into this post-financial crisis [period], and we are still in a very low economic-growth environment. There are still risks in the system and there’s still a tremendous amount of regulatory change. Having said all that, there are still tremendous opportunities in our business. You have to find the opportunities.

FG: What advice do you give your children about their own careers?

BS: The No. 1 thing I try to tell them is this: Business is not a perfect meritocracy, but it’s the closest thing you are going to get to a meritocracy. So absolutely work hard and do your best. I also tell them that their education isn’t the end of their learning. Education is a ticket to entry. But it’s the beginning of a lifelong learning process. It’s not the end.

FG: How are you at balancing the demands of work and life?

BS: I don’t know anyone [who] has the perfect work-life balance. I try to do a few things that help a little bit. On a personal level, I’m a pretty engaged person. I work pretty hard and I’m away from home periodically. But wherever I am, I try to be present to those I’m with. I think it’s important to do that. I think people have to know that you are really there — whether you are at home having dinner or in a meeting at work. Sometimes, you really have to put aside all these devices — the BlackBerries, the iPhones, the iPads, the Kindles, whatever.

FG: So, are you able to put your BlackBerry down for an entire weekend?

BS: I tend to check it in the morning and I will check it at night. I try not to check it all day long. When I’m at home, I’m home. I like to spend my discretionary time with my family. I don’t spend a lot of weekends playing golf with the boys or taking trips to Vegas with the boys. I enjoy spending time with my family.

FG: What is something you learned after becoming a CEO?

BS: I learned that people will be overly careful in what they will say in front of you and they won’t be as forthcoming as they otherwise would be.

FG: Is that because you can fire them if you want?

BS: People buy into this concept that the CEO knows everything or is this visionary star.

FG: Obviously, you don’t buy into that.

BS: I don’t buy into that at all. This is a team sport. It’s a complex business and no single person can know everything. There is a star culture in American society and that star culture is often applied to CEOs. I think that is really unhealthy. I don’t think that any company of any size or complexity should rely on one person to know it all.

FG: What advice would you give to a COO who wants to become CEO?

BS: First, I would suggest that that person really ask whether he or she really wants the job. It’s not easy being the COO of a really complex company and, in many cases, their individual skill set may be more suited to that job. That kind of self-knowledge is really important. The other thing I would say is that if you really want to be the CEO, get somebody really good to be the next COO and have them ready. That is what is going to make you promotable.

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