Fast Talk

Once again, we turn the tables–this time asking top execs to answer questions from their own companies’ standard job interviews. Do they measure up?


Caterpillar Chief Rates Well in Job Interview. Other Executives Fail to Impress.

In an interactive feature tied in with this article, we invited readers to vote whether these leaders’ answers to their own companies’ job interview questions would get them hired – or their resume deposited into the circular file.

The polls are now closed, and the most employable executive, according to Fast Company readers, is Caterpillar Inc.’s chief Glen A. Barton. The chairman and CEO’s answer to the question “How do you define good performance?” led to a 74 percent acceptance rate. Now, that’s not a bad performance.

Other job candidates didn’t fare as well. While New York Life Insurance’s Sy Sternberg rated almost 60 percent approval, Digital River’s Joel Ronning was a distant third at 48 percent. Ronning went from turbo to torpor.

Continental’s Gordon Bethune came close to Ronning’s ranking with a 47 percent approval rating, but Edward Jones’ John Bachmann didn’t even get called back for a second interview: Almost 60 percent of respondents voted to recycle his resume. File under: Customer dissatisfied.

Click here to see the results.

John Bachmann

Managing partner, Edward Jones


Q. Describe something you have done that shows your commitment to ensuring customer satisfaction.

A. Earlier in my career, a client came into my office. He was a nice fellow, but he had a very gruff exterior. He said, “I just need to sit down a minute. I can’t think.” Soon after, he went to the doctor and discovered he had a brain tumor.

About two months later, I went out to his home. It was a snowy, icy night. When I got out there, he could no longer speak, and he was very frustrated. Then he turned to his wife–you could see he was struggling so hard to communicate–and he blurted out, “Do what John says.”

Then the telephone went down, and I stayed with his wife for a while, because at that point, they had no way to get help if he collapsed or something. He died shortly thereafter. And I remember going up to Wisconsin, where his wife had moved, to sit down and help her sort out all their affairs.

Back in 1972, we made a conscious decision to organize ourselves around serving one customer: the individual investor. That was unusual because most companies organize themselves around selling a product. In defining our customer, we said there are products we’re not going to sell, even though we can sell them and even though they’d be very profitable. They’re inconsistent with what we believe our customers need.


Most recently, we came under pressure to offer online trading. If we add value by helping the customer solve financial problems, then creating a channel that circumvents all of that undermines our basic philosophy. We decided not to offer online trading. Three years ago, that looked pretty dumb. Today, it looks brilliant.

Joel Ronning

CEO, Digital River Inc.

Q. Digital River looks to employees for fresh revenue and efficiency-generating ideas. If you were hired, how would you turbo-charge this process?

A. First off, I’d set up an entrepreneurial council. We have one here that meets every Friday. Essentially, it’s a team of 45 to 50 of our directors and middle managers. We generate ideas; it’s very free-flowing. But it has to be limited to one hour.

We started this on a really casual basis, where we would get together every once in a while and just kind of have a bull session. But then there were these tremendously good ideas coming out, so we decided as a group that we should do the same thing on a weekly basis.


We go into these sessions with the motto “There are no bad ideas.” We’re really strict on that. No one can dis someone else’s idea in a session; it’s just incredibly destructive. If you let the peer process live on its own, people just figure it out. They see how their idea or initiative compares to others. We’ve been doing this for almost three years, and the process just manages itself.

We get a lot of ideas that are just rotten and don’t go anywhere. But that’s okay. You have to have probably a 3 to 1 ratio of bad ideas to decent ones. And you need a 20 to 1 ratio of decent ideas to really good ideas. And those knock-the-cover-off-the-ball ideas, we see them about once a year.

Sy Sternberg

Chairman and CEO, New York Life Insurance Co.

Q. Name one of your role models, and tell us why you chose that person.

A. My most important role model is my mom. She set an ethical standard for me, whether it was in terms of excelling in school or in making sure that I dealt honestly with people.


There was an honesty in the way she conducted her business with others. She was a stay-at-home mom, so she wasn’t in the business world. But you could see it in the way she dealt with me, the way she dealt with my dad, and the way she dealt with our neighbors. Honesty and integrity were just vitally important.

And when it came to academic excellence, she was right there watching how I did in school, how I did on every exam. Clearly, nothing satisfied her more than doing a perfect job. That was the standard of excellence that she set for me.

With honesty, you don’t think about the rules set down for you by a role model on a day-to-day basis. Right now, I’m learning how to play golf, so there’s a whole bunch of rules in my head. I’m sure 5 or 10 years from today, all those rules won’t be in my head anymore, and I’ll just do them a bit more naturally. When it comes to issues such as telling the truth, frankly, it already comes naturally. I have to believe that it’s because that’s how I was brought up. Now it’s like riding a bike.

Gordon Bethune

Chairman and CEO, Continental Airlines

Q. What does it take to be a survivor in today’s airline industry?


A. Well, a shit lot of money would work. Okay, that’s my smart-ass answer. But you can go through a lot of money pretty quickly in the airline industry these days. And if you don’t have it, you’re not going to make it.

To survive in this industry, number one, you need to understand your product. You have to understand people, your employees. And you have to be nimble. The market’s moving so fast, and you have be able to move with it. If not, you’re going to be a dinosaur and gone like so many others.

What differentiates our company from other airlines is that our people actually like coming to work. And let me just tell you, when I was an airplane mechanic, do you know how much faster I could fix an airplane when I wanted to fix it than when I didn’t want to?

We had a big hurricane come through Texas several weeks ago; it passed 90 miles beyond Houston, where we have a hub with 500 flights a day. We didn’t cancel a single flight. That’s because our people wanted to get the job done. During the big blackout on the East Coast, all three New York-area airports shut down. We only canceled 11 flights. That’s because we wanted to. Yes, we have professional men and women, and that’s great. And yes, we have the right systems, and that’s great. But mostly, we have people who want to get the job done. If you don’t have that edge, you’re going to be an also-ran.

The economy can’t sustain everybody in the industry. We’re focused on being a survivor. I tell our guys, “Look in the mirror–that’s who’s going to save you.” It’s not going to be the economy coming back. It’s not going to be the government bailing us out. We have to do it ourselves.


Glen A. Barton

Chairman and CEO, Caterpillar Inc.

Q. How do you define good performance?

A. I’ve learned that good performance and true job satisfaction come from exceeding what I expect of myself, not just what others expect of me.

The key to job performance is first to realize that as an employee, I have many customers who expect me to deliver a quality service. And just as every great company works day and night to serve its customers, I must do the same for mine. On the most basic level, I want to satisfy our board of directors, our customers, and shareholders. Good performance shouldn’t be judged simply in the results you achieve. It’s also determined by how you achieve those results. You have to take what exists and build on it.

The best performances come when we take the time to ask questions, to learn from customers and from the past. My job as a leader is to encourage innovation and unleash the natural creativity in myself and those around me as we drive toward solutions we never thought were possible.


Last year, the Caterpillar team faced tough new EPA standards for the diesel engines we build. Our competition chose a known technology that could only meet the standards by sacrificing reliability and fuel efficiency. Caterpillar, on the other hand, developed its own technology that not only meets the EPA standards but also maintains performance and fuel efficiency. We didn’t choose the easy or the safe route; we chose the right route.

Great performances come from asking ourselves some basic questions. Why are we doing it this way? How can we do it better? Or faster? Or more reliably? What haven’t we thought of yet? What’s best for our customers? Ultimately, the final judgment on performance comes down to one simple question: Is this the best we can do?