Best Boss Series: Marc J. Halsema
Interview with Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia, Leadership Succession Coach and CEO of Talent Investors
Marc J. Halsema lived and worked abroad for more than 20 years, in addition to his career as a corporate lawyer in Chicago and New York. Earlier in his career, Marc devoted close to two decades with Ernst & Young in Moscow and New York in various family business and family office roles as well as several years as managing director and general counsel of a boutique merchant bank based in the Middle East. Marc received his J.D. degree from Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Illinois and his B.A. degree in International Relations, Soviet Studies and Russian language from the University of Notre Dame.
What do you believe are the prerequisite qualities of a successful leader?
Stephen Covey may have best captured what is most critical to being an impactful leader in his iconic book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. In my humble opinion, Covey’s time-tested principals have created the roadmap for effective and successful leadership. My personal leadership coda includes character, honesty, integrity, rigour and discipline. However, I also believe that well-rounded and successful leaders must develop a passion for something enduring and meaningful beyond business.
When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?
I suppose that my first and most enduring moment in the spotlight came when I inaugurated the legal practice at Ernst & Young in Moscow in 1997. For some time I had considered that a multi-disciplinary legal practice could serve as a necessary and sought after complement to the firm’s core tax, audit and advisory practices. I wrote a business plan making this argument, received the green light from management rather quickly and we were in business. Within six months we had engaged a group of twenty Russian lawyers and we were on our way. It was really a magical time in my career with the lesson that true leadership is centred in part on seizing unique opportunities.
Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.
Success is neither especially facile nor particularly glamorous. Any success that I have been fortunate to achieve in life has been the result of grinding hard work, an ability to envision the end result and an absolute refusal to give up. In the interest of complete candour, I have enjoyed both astonishing success and abject failure in my career. I would be less than honest if I did not point out that defeat and setback have been as instrumental in shaping my life and career as has success.
With that as the backdrop, I consider my time in the late 1990’s when I curated, launched and managed the legal practice at Ernst & Young in Moscow alongside a caring and delightful partner – Natalie Iwanow – as my greatest leadership success. Of course, this success did not come by our merits alone. Natalie and I received indispensable guidance and support from one of my best bosses in life – Jay Nibbe – and others at Ernst & Young in Moscow. The legal practice was so successful at an early stage that Natalie and I received an award in 1998 for the best new legal practice within the Ernst & Young global network. From a professional standpoint, that award is my proudest achievement.
Building the Ernst & Young legal practice in Moscow set the table for work later in my career to expand the firm’s family office practice in the United States. Highly rewarding and satisfying work alongside tremendous teams at Ernst & Young.
Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?
Just as building the legal practice at Ernst & Young in Moscow in the late 1990’s was a signature leadership experience for me, so too it became my most significant managerial challenge. The Russian financial crisis that erupted in August 1998, unfortunately, led to a need to downsize just as we were catching the wind in our sails. Letting people go not for performance issues but because of external exigencies was the toughest and most humbling managerial challenge I have ever faced.
I came to learn that this episode had a significant and far-reaching human dimension as some of the fine people I had to let go in 1999 as the Russian financial crisis deepened had families that depended on these young lawyers. This contributed to making the experience of making certain young people redundant nothing less than miserable as I took it all very personally.
Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice/kind person?
Everyone agrees that to be successful in business, one needs to work smart and be strategic. Those are amongst many byzantine rules of the game of business. I get it. However, ruthless people manage to contort the rules of the game to their advantage exclusively. The hard truth is that ruthless people are unhappy at their core and, while ruthless unhappy people may often succeed in business and make plenty of money along the way, they will not be successful in the game of life.
The concluding charge delivered by Father Theodore M. Hesburgh at my college graduation exercises from the University of Notre Dame echoed the clarion call of Albert Schweitzer to devote some small corner of our lives to the service of others.
I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.
Schweitzer’s words will obviously find no traction with ruthless people, which is a pity. Indeed, devotion to service and developing meaningful passion and purpose beyond oneself exclusively have no room whatsoever for ruthlessness. None.
Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out at those around you is a skill – what are your tips?
I am blessed – or cursed, depending on one’s perspective – to have Irish ancestry on my mother’s side of the family and Italian ancestry on my father’s side of the family. Needless to say, a fiery temper is in my genetic firmament. While I have actively worked to control my temper over time by having a Plan B in my pocket, fate always has a way of throwing me a left hook. In my darker moments, I find it instructive to view setback as an opportunity in disguise. I have also learned to pace myself. Success in life is a marathon, not a sprint.
At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?
When I was a young lawyer in Chicago, I would occasionally wander down the street to the Art Institute of Chicago to spend time with great art to lift my spirits when I felt low. Somehow Edward Hopper’s “The Night Hawks” always resonated with me, as it still does today. An evening with Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory during my ten years in Russia invariably nourished the soul.
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on Canvas. 33.1 x 60 In. Photo courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago.
Nowadays I focus on the truly important people in my life as my inspiration when I hit a low point. The enduring lesson is to focus on what grounds me and lifts my spirits. Remembering why I do what I do every day and the vital role that my two children Jacob and Elise play in my life serves to ground me on the dark days when I am feeling forlorn or somehow out of sorts.
Why is personal development of the people you manage important to you?
If we are not constantly striving to teach, mentor and lead the people around us, what is the point of the exercise?
David Ogilvy penned a thoughtful and timeless quote in his work “Confessions of an Advertising Man” that not only abrades the ruthless spirits that we inevitably encounter along the way but also captures so eloquently what we as leaders must embrace in developing people in our respective organizations.
We admire people who work hard, who are objective and thorough. We detest office politicians, toadies, bullies, and pompous asses. We abhor ruthlessness. The way up our ladder is open to everybody. In promoting people to top jobs, we are influenced as much by their character as anything else.
What are your top three book titles that you were most impactful for your leadership development?
Why stop at three? While there are many titles that have informed my leadership style over the years, five that stand out and briefly why are the following.
Work Hard, Study and Keep out of Politics by James A. Baker III
One of the best personal accounts about how one extremely talented leader navigated the toxic cauldron of American politics.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
The best primer on effective leadership that I have ever read. Period.
21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader by John C. Maxwell
The nuts and bolts of what it takes to be not only a great leader but also – and more importantly – an impactful human being.
Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy
A timeless classic by one of the truly iconic leaders in world business.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
In addition to Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln embodied what indefatigable leadership looks like when faced with insurmountable odds.
Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?
My finest example of creating an inclusive environment that welcomed new talent was the legal practice that Natalie Ivanow and I built at Ernst & Young in Moscow in the late 1990’s. Because Natalie and I were young, dynamic and hungry to build a great team, people were naturally attracted to join our group. Resumes flew over the transom and people showed up unexpectedly at our offices asking to join. I found that I needed to be careful not to be perceived as attempting to poach talent from other departments within the firm. What I learned profoundly from this experience is that offering people an opportunity to excel in an exciting but rigorous entrepreneurial venture is a proven way to attract talented and motivated people.
Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this?
I have found that many large and complex organizations can also sometimes find a way to cut through bureaucracy and red tape on behalf of those people who truly deserve recognition or reward even when the rules may argue to the contrary. However, without a strong advocate or champion who is committed to taking up the cause, even the most deserving people may fall victim to stifling bureaucracy. I have found that documenting the staff person’s accomplishments in her/his periodic performance review – especially when the applicable evaluation metrics have not been met for reasons not involving performance issues – helps to bolster the case for a special review of the staff person’s unique contributions.
Companies often refer to themselves as “family”, yet only a few support their employees like a family supports its members – unconditionally. Aside from professional training, what support do you offer your employees?
I have always maintained an open door policy with anyone with whom I work, which is not meant to convey that I am always a friend. In fact, I find it important not to become friends or regular drinking buddies with the people that work for me. Boundaries are called for and it is important not to blur the lines between friendship and mentorship.
Beyond an open door policy, I am sensitive to an employee’s personal needs involving family or religious obligations that may require time away from the office or working from home as the case may be.
Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?
While I believe strongly that leaders provide direction and an example of how something gets done, I do not believe for a moment that I have all the answers. I actively seek the advice and counsel of those with whom I work and collaborate. Given that leaders learn every day from those faster and smarter than themselves, the opportunity to seek input from direct reports is vital as well.
Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.
I will confess that I find delegation to be one of the most challenging opportunities for me. For the longest time, I believed that I should do everything myself, which has frequently led to my being a bottleneck. Not a good result. I delegate where I believe people will learn and frequently come up short, wherein lies the mentoring lesson. I believe in stretching people, but not pushing them to a breaking point. Measured calm helps to define my work and my relations with my colleagues.
On the subject of delegation, Ronald Reagan famously summed it up best.
Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out.
However, delegation must never become an excuse to abdicate responsibility.
Team building has become a buzzword in the corporate world, yet many still do not see the value in applying it to their group or organization. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?
While building strategic alliances and coordinated teams is critically important, I have also discovered that the teaming process can become overly cumbersome and stiflingly unproductive in larger organizations if it is not streamlined and managed properly. Smaller, more elite organizations can often time better manage team building in a more authentic and effective manner provided that those looking to build teams leverage the experience gained after having worked in larger and more complex environments.
How important is leadership training?
I have alluded to Stephen Covey in a couple of instances elsewhere in this interview. The seventh habit that Covey teaches is entitled “Sharpen the Saw”, which is designed to provide physical, social, mental and spiritual renewal. Alongside these key areas on which Covey coaches us to focus, I would perhaps add another: professional. Engaging regular training for myself and those with whom I work is unquestionably important and plays an essential role in sharpening our leadership acuity. To be effective and impactful, however, leadership training must stretch us outside of our comfort zone.
When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo?
Regular briefings that set out what we are looking to accomplish as a team over the next week, month, quarter are best in person or over the phone and memorialized in an actions and responsibilities list. It is best to summarize what is ahead for each team member and then to capture where there are opportunities to assist one another to achieve the larger mission. No memos, please.
How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/Email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?
I make my calendar available to those that are in most need to contact me, so they can see when I have time available to meet or speak. When I am not travelling and given over to an overarching client requirement, I try to use the early morning and some part of the afternoon to block out time to concentrate on larger tasks, especially where I must really concentrate on something.
I frequently find myself on planes and trains, which I use to devote to necessary follow up and planning for deadlines. Longer trips overseas may give way to studied concentration. I am happily not tethered to my phone, which I will switch off when I really do not wish to be interrupted. I have also been known to crawl off into the bowels of a library when I really need to be left alone to complete a project at hand, as I am now as I write these words.
A law partner once shared with me early in my career, “We are not doctors; we are not saving lives.” That wisdom helps to put into context what is truly urgent versus what someone simply perceives to be urgent. There is a huge difference.
How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?
Transparency and honesty at work and in work is everything. I do not believe that personal agenda and turf matter much anymore in any organization, but particularly in a smaller more entrepreneurial environment where I reside these days. In a start-up context, for instance, sharing information and keeping the relevant parties in the loop is mission critical.
How do you best separate work life from personal life - for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally?
Although work-life balance is increasingly challenging in today’s hyper-connected world, I do believe it is critical to have downtime and the opportunity to focus on other aspects of life. I have often found that my best ideas and energy come when I am engaged in an activity completely removed from my work life. Running on the treadmill at the gym or getting really dirty in the garden, for instance.
While the life cycle of a family office advisor is frequently 24/7 – particularly given that certain families with whom I have the privilege to work are located in distant parts of the world and do not necessarily adhere to a Monday-Friday schedule – I find that I can carve out time to refresh and regroup, but it takes concentrated effort.
Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing. What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates?
Working closely with HR and the people directly involved in the hiring decision is obviously important. However, beyond the boxes that need to be checked throughout the process, I am especially interested in making the process genuinely personal as well as honestly professional. I really want to know what makes the candidate tick.
How do you respond to employees/colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?
Learning to cope in an extremely fast-paced and gruelling world these days can take its toll and people will inevitably burn out, run low or fall into depression. Depression and anxiety are no longer looked upon as abnormal or a condition that needs to be kept behind closed doors. For instance, I encountered a situation a few years back where a direct report clearly suffered from a substance abuse problem. HR and I handled the situation matter-of-factly and worked with the employee to obtain the necessary professional help. No judgment, no stigma but with the recognition that a valuable and trusted member of our team had fallen into trouble and an intervention was required.
While I would not say that this type of situation has been a common occurrence on my watch, I do know that to ignore the dilemma or hope that it goes away is to enable the problem. Enablement never ends well for anyone concerned.
Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?
I have always felt that an employee should be counselled and given the opportunity to turn the ship around. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. What matters most is to engage in an honest and specific discussion concerning the areas that need to improve quickly and an agreed timetable when a follow-on conversation will occur to discuss progress, or the lack thereof.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, employing dignity and respect throughout the process is critical to a satisfactory conclusion. On more than one occasion, I have offered to assist in finding my direct report a new position that is better suited to her/his skills and desires.
What vision or goal are you working towards in your career? What accomplishment would you like to retire with?
I have a tremendous fortune right now to work alongside a truly gifted group of individuals at Jaclise International in service to entrepreneurial families and family offices around the world. The work brings to bear all of the tax, legal and business advisory skills that I have managed to cobble together throughout my career. Retirement is still many years from now, however, I would like to continue working alongside my colleagues in service to so many remarkable families around the world.