Corner Office: To MasterCard’s Retiring Chief, the X Factor is Presence

As I thought about the places I’d been on that trip, I realized this was probably the best branch manager I’d seen, but it would have been very easy for me to think he wasn’t, because he couldn’t communicate as well as some of the others who were fluent in English.

I think that was an important lesson. It is too easy to let the person with great presentation or language skills buffalo you into thinking that they are better or more knowledgeable than someone else who might not necessarily have that particular set of skills.

So that was something that sounds obvious in hindsight, but as I was sitting there, boy, for me this was a thunderbolt. I think that’s another thing that sort of served me well, not letting the veneer distract you from the substance.

Q. Let’s say you’re interviewing me for a job reporting directly to you. How does that conversation go?

A. Beyond the discussion of what you’re going to do for us, I want to know two or three of your strengths and weaknesses. And then I’m going to ask you about those two or three things that you’ve acknowledged are flat sides, and how you think we should work on those, how you think we should ensure those don’t become barriers to success.

I think probably the final thing is that I’m going to try to ensure — and I’m going to ask you if you feel good in your gut about it — that there is going to be some chemistry here, that you’re not out in left field and I’m out in right field from our respective positions, that we’re in fact sort of more or less in the center of the infield together.

Q. What qualities are you looking for in hires?

A. What I’m looking for is always the same. The more senior a person, the richer I expect them to be in these attributes.

The top two are leadership and results. From a leadership standpoint, I would expect you, as a more senior executive, to be able to talk about where you’ve provided strategic leadership. It doesn’t mean you’re a brilliant strategist, but you’ve been able to get a team together to agree on who the target customer is, what products and services you’re going to offer them, and the value and competitive advantage you’re going to create.


Robert W. Selander, who is retiring this week as C.E.O. of MasterCard, a job he held for 14 years, says it’s important to relate to all of a company’s stakeholders.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Tell me about what you’ve done in bringing along talent. Tell me about difficult things you had to do in terms of reconfiguring a team, or whatever. Talk to me about successes and all the net talent you provided to other parts of the companies you worked in.

The second would be results. At the end of the day, I want to have people who have been able to, and will continue to be able to, deliver results. That can mean starting with a clean sheet of paper and having a very credible business three or four years later. It can mean going in and taking over something that’s already very big and making it better, whether that’s revenues, expense management, bottom-line profitability.

Underpinning those would be multifunctional, multinational and presence. I’m looking for multifunctional people who have been in different activities — marketing, sales, operations, finance, human resources — who bring a richer perspective and texture to problems and opportunities than someone who’s just had a straight shot in one function.

I’m looking for somebody who’s had multinational experience. We do business everywhere in the world. I’m looking for people who have lived and worked in different markets and recognize that there are nuances that have to be considered.

And the final one is presence. You deal with different folks at different levels of the company. It depends on the exact role, but you should ensure that there is an ability to interact with and effectively represent the company.

Q. Can you elaborate more on what you mean by presence?

A. At varying levels in the company, you interact with different stakeholders. Having somebody spend time with a member of Congress is very different than having somebody go downstairs and see that they were appropriately replacing a torn carpet. You need a different capability to deal with those circumstances, not only from a knowledge standpoint but from a presence standpoint.

As I’ve gone through my career, I’ve been challenged to deal with different stakeholders. Internally, when I was younger and more junior, I probably did pretty well with peers. But then how do you credibly communicate with more senior people, who are not as concerned about some things perhaps in the details, but they want a bigger picture?

So it’s a combination of not only how you convey things, but what you convey to these various stakeholders. Presence is learning to deal with different audiences in a way that allows them to get what they need out of this interaction and ensures that the well-being of the company is looked after.

Q. Isn’t that what some people describe as just good communication skills?

A. I think you can be a good communicator and you still may not have presence. There may be someone who is very articulate on a subject and they know levels of detail. When you get with a particular audience, it may not be appropriate to go into those levels of detail, or you may create doubt by even going into the subject matter. There’s inside information in a company, for example. You never cross that bright line, but you can get varying degrees of proximity to that line, depending on your audience.

Some people are not very good communicators, but boy, when you get them into their subject matter they know exactly where to go and how far to go. Others are brilliant communicators, but because of the connection between their thoughts and the synapses firing and the words coming out, there isn’t enough time and introspection. Therefore they will brilliantly communicate something that they shouldn’t be talking about. Presence is knowing what to communicate, and how.

Q. If you were interviewing somebody and could ask them only one or two questions, what would they be?

A. More important probably than the questions is the texture of the answers, but I think that I would probably try to set the stage in terms of a double-barrel question, and it would be, “Share with me two situations, work-related, that you’re proud of — one where there was something achieved as a result of your personal initiative, and the other where the achievement was a result of the team getting something done, which you don’t think they would otherwise have gotten done without your leadership.” So I’m looking for the feedback on the personal initiative and the leadership.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

A. I’ve been working hard on listening skills for a few years. I can still get excited about things, so I have to be careful about not conveying where I’m coming from too early on in the process, because I’m looking to get feedback from others.

Q. What’s your best career advice for new college grads?

A. I think when you come out of undergraduate school, going out and getting some work experience is really very helpful. I found that I learned more about what I didn’t want to do in some of my early jobs. Getting experience in bigger, broader companies where there are more things that you can learn and do is a good idea, because the likelihood of exactly picking out your career from the get-go is very low. So I would encourage, for a first job, that you try to find generally a larger company where there are more things that you can get involved with, where there may be more comprehensive planned training activities to help you with certain skills that you’re going to need.

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