Selim Bassoul of Middleby Corp. tries to focus on the big picture
SELIM BASSOUL | ‘I do very little emailing, no Facebook, no LinkedIn.’
Leading a company without using email, reading memos or going to endless meetings sounds like a pipe dream. But it’s a reality for Selim Bassoul, chief executive and chairman of Middleby Corp., the kitchen-supply maker with such popular brands as Viking and Aga Rangemaster.
Mr. Bassoul, 60, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslaxia, conditions that weren’t diagnosed during his childhood in Lebanon, when he initially struggled in school. Years later, when he was a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, a professor suggested he get tested, he says.
Eschewing distractions such as email, Mr. Bassoul says, helps him avoid bogging down in the details of running a company with 7,500 employees and a market cap of $7.8 billion. It also buys him hours every week, which he uses to visit with staff and customers and to help lead the Bassoul Dignity Foundation, which funds vocational training programs and efforts to help refugees.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Bassoul, who started at Middleby in 1996 as a division president, explains how having dyslexia and ADHD has affected the way he runs the company. “I want to be able to give hope to children or parents of children with dyslexia and ADHD that they can be successful,” he says. Edited excerpts follow.
WSJ: What are some ways that having dyslexia and ADHD affects your leadership style?
MR. BASSOUL: Dyslexia has forced me to be quite conceptual, because I’m not good with detail. I think in general rather than in specific [terms]. That allows me to step back and take in the big picture rather than get bogged down in details. Because of my weaknesses and handicaps, I’ve learned other ways to accomplish the same goal at faster speed.
As a dyslexic you have no choice but to rely on others for help with detail and tactical tasks. You become a great judge of character. You have to select the best team around you.
Then you have ADHD, which makes you restless but it can also be a huge motivator for action. It prompts you to go out of the office and into the field. You find yourself constantly on the front line. I don’t like to be confined to the office. I hate meetings. I am constantly visiting customers, our field offices, our manufacturing plants. I know the operations of my customers better than them, which helps create solutions for them prior to them knowing what they need.
WSJ: How has it impacted your communication style?
MR. BASSOUL: I do very little emailing, no Facebook, no LinkedIn. I’ve seen that some CEOs expect to spend 50% to 60% of their days sunk into meetings, email, memos, reading reports. I can’t imagine the number of requests that they get from all kinds of people to which they have to reply. Over half of their hours are completely wasted.
WSJ: How do you manage teams?
MR. BASSOUL: We are highly decentralized. If it were all centralized on me, I would die. It would fail. I don’t manage groups in the traditional way. I focus on individual players on the team, working on individual skills, one on one. I empower them to do a lot of things, and they get it done. The data show that 98% of our employees have stayed with us. There must be something working.
WSJ: How do you get key information, if you aren’t reading emails or memos?
MR. BASSOUL: I’m always going out in the factory, or with our sales people, or in the customer’s backyard and I see a lot of things that they don’t see. If people know that you’re not an email guy, people don’t send you email anymore. It’s that simple. From time to time I use the phone. The phone is a good thing. But it is almost always one-on-one. I do a conference call on our earnings release, but that’s it.
We are very performance driven. We have a goal. I say, we need to meet that goal and then go do it. It’s one goal—Ebitda growth [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization, a measure of a company’s operating performance.] That’s it.
WSJ: Does a trusted deputy funnel information to you?
MR. BASSOUL: The one thing I get on a weekly basis is [a report on] cash from our treasurer and CFO. I don’t see the orders, I don’t see the income. I see cash. Cash doesn’t lie.
WSJ: How do you handle board meetings?
MR. BASSOUL: Our board meetings are usually four hours or less. Our CFO does the presentation and sends them a lot of data in advance. The meeting is mostly focused on strategy, on acquisitions, on the big picture of where we are going, and corporate governance. It is very clear.
The board has been able to work with me, given my ADHD and my dyslexia. It puts things in perspective that you don’t get bogged down in the details. We have checks and balances throughout, but I am very focused on the big picture.
WSJ: What prompted you to avoid most meetings?
MR. BASSOUL: I haven’t always been the leader. I was at one point a staff member who had to go to meetings, and I saw that in the majority of meetings, the agendas weren’t set correctly. And people take days and days to prepare for the meeting and then they prepare for another meeting. There is no conclusion. I didn’t see that as productive. So I swore to myself, the day I became a leader, I wouldn’t let the company be like this.
WSJ: Have you ever faced any problems in the workplace because of your disabilities?
MR. BASSOUL: I am restless and tend to be impatient. That could sometimes create friction with some of my subordinates, colleagues or peers when I was rising as a manager. I always attracted specific people who liked the speed I was working at, and the fact that it basically had no paperwork. Just “let’s go get it done.”
When I came to Middleby, early on there were people who left and couldn’t stand to work with this guy. Today, the people who have stayed with me have been with me a long time. It is transparent. It is known that I am high-speed and impatient.
WSJ: Have you heard from employees with dyslexia or ADHD?
MR. BASSOUL: Some people have come to me and [we work on] how to restructure the work. It is hard to say no to things. It is sometimes better not to jump into action. Email forces people to respond to an email sent. People sometimes feel overwhelmed. You don’t need to respond to everything. I want to give people hope that there is an alternative way of managing. That someone like me can be successful and accepted.
Ms. Silverman is a writer in Austin, Texas. Email her at email@example.com.