Interview with Justin Menkes, author of Better under Pressure

Development and Learning in Organizations

ISSN: 1477-7282

Article publication date: 4 October 2011



by Juliet Harrison, I. (2011), "Interview with Justin Menkes, author of Better under Pressure", Development and Learning in Organizations, Vol. 25 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Interview with Justin Menkes, author of Better under Pressure

Article Type: Leading edge From: Development and Learning in Organizations, Volume 25, Issue 6

Interview by Juliet HarrisonJustin Menkes

Leaders today are faced with a vastly different atmosphere than what was once considered the norm. Continuously faced with multiple, ill-defined, and ongoing threats to their company’s survival – leaders can fail to perform under this pressure and their performance slides. But according to a new book – a new breed of leader is surfacing – one that delivers the greatest success when times are the toughest.

In Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring out the Best in Themselves and Others, Justin Menkes reveals the secrets of these executives and presents the important lessons about what sets the best leaders apart under extreme conditions. Drawing on in depth interview with 150 CEOs from an array of industries, Menkes shows that great leaders strive relentlessly to maximize their own as well as their people’s potential.

Justin Menkes is an acclaimed author and leading expert in executive assessment. A consultant for the influential executive search firm Spencer Stuart, he and his colleagues advise the boards of the world’s leading companies on their choice of CEO. He authored The Wall Street Journal bestseller Executive Intelligence: What All Great Leaders Have and has written articles for Chief Executive and Harvard Business Review.

What led you to write Better under Pressure?

I was sitting in the boardroom of a company that had just broken a record for annual profits by a public company. On the whiteboard were the threats to the business that the next CEO would likely have to overcome, each would mean a complete disruption to the company’s ability to make money, and all were entirely plausible. That’s when I realized that no company, no matter how successful, was safe from ongoing, potentially fatal threats to their business.

How did you identify which CEOs you were going to interview?

The attributes of top performers were drawn from the data in our board advisory practice- my analysis of individuals included cognitive ability tests, personality tests, past behavioral interviews, peer references, and performance ratings for just over 200 candidates for the CEO role. These led me to my baseline conclusions, but the results were a bit clinical and dry. So I then interviewed about 60 CEO’s (average tenure in the CEO role nine years) about why the attributes of the top performing candidates in our database made such a difference. These CEO’s had all led their companies through significant crises during their tenures, and they helped give practical guidance about how to implement these practices in real life.

Could you take us through the three essential attributes for successful leadership that you identify in Better under Pressure?

Realistic optimism – the ability to see the very real threats that exist to the business yet remain sincerely confident that these challenges could be overcome.

Subservience to purpose: that our business does something important, makes a positive contribution to the world. Its more than about just making money.

Finding order in chaos – finding joy in continuously solving the never-ending puzzle that is the global business environment of today.

In Better under Pressure, you state that: “leadership means realizing potential – in yourself and in the people you lead”. Would you say this is something that is ingrained, or something that can be learned?

Its absolutely learned. Human beings are born with an innate need to learn and a thrill to triumph. But as we grow we are confronted by counter voices that are a result of experiencing pain of loss or failure. It is up to our mentors to help ensure that the voice telling us to keep trying is the one that dominates our behavior.

Would you say that leaders are now under more pressure than their predecessors? Why do you think this is?

Its not just a theory, its a reality. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, the list of the top 100 companies largely stayed the same. From 1992-2002, more than half of those companies no longer existed. Pressure, the result of more competitors emerging from more parts of the world, and every business becoming more an more global, means an inevitable increase in the number of variables that influence your business, and the sheer speed of change. The resulting psychological experience of these of leaders is universal – increased pressure.

How can leaders work do get the best out of their employees?

The three principles are all about how to maximize the discretionary effort of a twenty-first century workforce. They are not the universal antidote to all leadership problems – there are none. But these attributes are about motivation – where it comes from, and how to make it happen in today’s world.

What do you mean by “relentless leaders”?

Relentless is a term inspired by the psychology required to get up and try despite an external reality that ensures that new challenges, and more frequent frustrations have become our new normal.

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders?

Preparation. The new world of ever increasing complexity and intensified pressure is indifferent to our opinion of it, whether or not it is a good thing, or whether we wish it would go back to the way it was. It just is. Those that have learned how to thrive in it are the ones that will win.

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