I grew up in Monroeville, PA, but I’ve spent my entire adult life in New York City. Nothing about growing up in Monroeville prepared me for New York. The great thing about New York is that you can reinvent yourself, or, in my case, discover yourself. Anytime anyone reads my bio, they always ask about the last line that says, “He lives in Greenwich Village, New York City, and he always will.” The point is that it’s nice to have your home be something truly settled in your life. I moved to the Village 32 years ago, and it’s still as lively and intellectually stimulating as it ever was.
My greatest role model in life was my mother. She was the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children, who sued the Pennsylvania Legislature for not providing public education for kids with developmental disabilities. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and her organization won the case; it truly changed the law of the land overnight. I can remember walking into my living room at night and seeing her sitting there with lawyers, parents of the disabled, and advocates. What she was doing was bigger than anything I’ll ever do in my life, and she was a great inspiration to me.
My first job ever was when I was 24, right out of grad school. It was at a consulting firm, and I really thought I knew what I was doing. My naiveté was stunning.
I did learn an important lesson in that job: the most important thing you can have is a good mentor. A good mentor will see something in you not related to where you actually are at that time, and they can invest in you and shape your future. We all know that being a mentor requires skills, but being a mentee requires skills, too. How you ask for help—or just being able to express the need for it—isn’t something that comes easily to a lot of people.
Through my mentors I developed a sense of the single-most-important quality in successful people: gratitude. The very successful often take too much credit. When you reach a certain level, none of us are able to do much of anything totally by ourselves. It’s important to be gracious and to acknowledge the people who help you get where you are.
My role at the consulting firm I was working at evolved into human resources consulting, but human resources still didn’t really exist at the time; it was “personnel,” and mostly required dealing with compensation and benefits. Personnel wasn’t out to change the world or solve problems. I decided to go to Loews because the company offered a variety of opportunities, and I could both live and work in New York City. The work was exciting—and it still is.
The biggest thing that ever happened to my career happened in 1986. My boss at Loews told me that we were moving our offices to New Jersey. I didn’t want to live in New York and work in New Jersey, so I began updating my résumé to look for a new job. It was assumed that everyone would agree to go to New Jersey, but Loews decided to conduct a study assessing employees’ feelings on the move.
When the results came in, my boss came into my office and said, “We’re not moving to New Jersey; we’re moving our offices to a new location in New York, and you’re in charge of the move.” I became responsible for moving 500 people from three different locations into two new locations in just one year. Everyone who coordinates these types of moves always gets fired, but I decided I was going to do everything perfectly. Everyone would know everything: what subway to take to the new office, what bus to take, where they could eat lunch, even where
every file was—there would be no chaos.
What I’ve Learned
Lessons in Leadership
From Alan Momeyer
“Intelligence is the most overrated talent for leaders. Social acumen—emotional intelligence—is the most critical talent for successful executives.”
“When you’re right, nobody remembers; when you’re wrong, nobody forgets. Just get used to that.”
“I’m really big on being direct with people. The most dysfunctional practice in the business world is trying to be ‘nice;’ people who are nice don’t have the courage to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Nobody gets better at anything without understanding what they’re doing wrong.”
I never had any corporate ambition up to that point. I enjoyed where I was, I was making a good living, and, honestly, I didn’t feel the need to move up the ladder. I just never thought of myself as an upward climber. I wanted to do excellent work, but I didn’t measure that by upward mobility. The first day at the new office location, I walked around with my boss and there was no chaos, everyone was smiling. I realized I’d successfully coordinated the move and my boss realized the same. While making our rounds, my boss said, “I’m not going to work forever. You can have my job when I retire someday.” It was like the sky opened up. All of a sudden I developed this burning ambition to have his job, this ambition that I didn’t even have the day before. I took on more and more responsibilities until he retired six years later and I got promoted.
Something that has always stuck with me is that Woody Allen quote, “80 percent of success is just showing up.” I’ve taken “showing up” to mean being fully present. So many people are there physically, but they’re not mentally present. That other 20 percent is harder than I thought it would be. That’s the paradox: when you’re in it, the work, the balancing, the pressure—it all seems really hard, but, in retrospect, it was never that bad and always enjoyable in its own way.
In the HR field, I define success as employees understanding and accepting that what you’re doing is the right, objective thing for the company. There’s no politicizing anything—no one thinks you’re doing someone else a favor, or just meeting the needs of powerful executives. People know that you are fair; that you’re running a humane organization focused on getting results. This success isn’t easy to attain. If you make a decision that is unpopular, people think you’re picking on them, but, if you do something great, you never hear about it. If you’re going to enter this field, that’s something you have to be okay with.
HR still often isn’t in a place in many organizations where it’s viewed as a function just as important to the success of the business as other fields. HR is about getting the right people to work for you in the right positions at the right time. It’s about recruiting and retaining these people, and, if that’s not a crucial business function, I don’t know what is. I don’t know of a single business that could be successful without recruiting and retaining the right people.
When motivating employees, I try to figure out how people like to be spoken to. Some people like more social engagement, while other people need you to be direct and concise with them. Managers usually have rules as to how to deal with this, that, and the other, but I start with people. Some don’t understand this. They say, “Aren’t you just a chameleon, conforming to the expectations of others?” That’s not what I’m saying. You’re not changing what you expect of them, you’re just tailoring your approach.